Jerusalem — In a move seen to have far-reaching implications, Israeli authorities Tuesday appointed an Arab mayor for Nablus, the largest city on the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Zafer Masri, a member of one of the largest and most powerful Nablus families, is a businessman and chairman of the local Chamber of Commerce. He will be replacing an Israeli military colonel who has acted as mayor since the Israelis dismissed elected Mayor Bassam Shaka in 1982.
The Israelis intend it at least as a gesture of goodwill to both the West Bank Palestinians and Jordan's King Hussein. Some analysts believe the appointment of mayors may be the first step toward Israel implementing unilateral autonomy in the territories occupied in the 1967 Mideast war.
Rumors had been rampant on both the east and west banks of the Jordan River for months that Mr. Masri was to be appointed -- with the approval of the Jordanian government and at least the grudging acquiescence of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
It is expected that Arab mayors may, in the coming months, also be appointed to the other big West Bank cities -- Hebron, Ramallah, and Bireh.
Arab mayors were elected for each of these towns in 1976 and later dismissed by the Israelis, who accused them of incitement. Two mayors, Fahd Kawasmeh and Mohammed Milhem, were deported to Jordan. Both later became members of the Palestine Liberation Organization Executive Committee. Last year, Mr. Kawasmeh was assassinated.
The PLO and Jordan accused Syria of being behind the assassination.
The appointment of Masri had been opposed by Mr. Shaka, a leftist who himself survived an assassination attempt by Jewish terrorists in 1980.
Shaka and other Nablus leftists had circulated pamphlets in recent weeks opposing the appointment of Masri. They argue that the appointment is aimed at undermining the PLO and strengthening Jordan's influence in the West Bank.
Those two goals are not denied by Israel, which has been trying to persuade King Hussein that he can enter peace talks without the PLO at his side. Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres has claimed repeatedly that there are viable West Bank leaders who could represent the Palestinians in peace talks who are not members of the PLO.
Masri, a respected businessman, comes from a family that is known for its pro-Jordanian leanings. One of his nephews, Taher Masri, is the Jordanian foreign minister. An uncle, Hikmat Masri, is the former speaker of the Jordanian parliament.
Masri had argued before his appointment was announced that it would be better for Nablus, with a population of 100,000, to have the municipality run by Arab residents than by Israeli officers.
In addition to naming Masri mayor, the Israelis also appointed members of the Chamber of Commerce to serve as a city council.