Proposed Cabinet Leaves Arafat in Charge of Security

Associated Press
November 9, 2003

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia announced the formation of a Cabinet today, backing down from a bitter confrontation with Yasser Arafat and leaving the veteran Palestinian leader in firm control of the security forces. Qureia's defeat in his power struggle with Arafat left him severely weakened and threatened to complicate efforts to restart talks with Israel and begin implementing the US-backed "road map" peace plan.

Israel and the United States, who have worked to sideline Arafat, were disappointed at the outcome. They had pushed for the disparate Palestinian security forces to be consolidated under the prime minister, in preparation for a crackdown on Palestinian militant groups. Still, Israeli officials – who face public pressure to resume some sort of peace process – stopped short of saying they would boycott Qureia because Arafat remains effectively in control of government.

"This is a sad day for reform, because we see that the control of the security services remains in the hands of Arafat's cartel of terror," said Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. The United States was also critical, saying Palestinian leaders must quickly move to end the continuing violence. "The prime minister must have control of all of the security forces and insist that terrorists and military organisations not under the control of the Palestinian Authority be disarmed and dismantled," US State Department spokeswoman Amanda Batt said.

Saeb Erekat, a returning Cabinet minister, called Israel's reaction to the new government "unacceptable," saying it should stay out of Palestinian internal affairs. "The focus should be on reviving the peace process and implementing the road map," he said. It was not clear whether Israel would resume high-level contacts with the new Cabinet, as initially expected.

Palestinian politics have been in disarray since the first Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, resigned on September 6 after failing to wrest the security forces from Arafat's control. Qureia was appointed his successor, but wrangling over the same issue had prevented him from forming a permanent government.

The new Cabinet, comprising 24 ministers including Qureia, will be presented to parliament for approval on Wednesday. The Cabinet brings back many veteran politicians who have served in previous administrations, despite Qureia's promise to bring new blood into the government. In the new lineup, finance minister Salam Fayad and foreign minister Nabil Shaath keep their jobs.

The political fight with Arafat centred on Qureia's efforts to consolidate the various security forces under a single interior minister, Gen. Nasser Yousef, in line with US expectations. After weeks of bitter arguing, Arafat succeeded in putting a hand-picked confidant, Hakam Balawi, into the post, while keeping the security forces under different commands. Balawi will control the civil police and the Preventive Security Service, which would have a key role in possible action against militant groups. The other six branches will report to the 12-member National Security Council, headed by Arafat. Arafat even rejected a last face-saving gesture to Qureia, who sought to keep Yousef in the government as a deputy prime minister. Qureia said today that a decision on the matter had been delayed. Israel and the United States had hoped to marginalise Arafat, claiming he had links to terror and was an obstacle to peace.

But Arafat's resilience appeared to show the futility of efforts to replace him with a prime minister, Israeli political analyst Yossi Alpher said. "The test was: can (Qureia) grasp control over the security forces?' Alpher said. "And he lost." With Arafat firmly in control of security, the idea of a crackdown on militants – which the "road map" requires, but both Abbas and Qureia had rejected – is almost certainly dead in the water, Alpher said. Qureia has said he was confident he could persuade the militants to halt violence voluntarily.

The approval of the Cabinet would bring some stability to Palestinian politics. Since last month, Qureia has led an emergency Cabinet appointed by Arafat without parliamentary approval. In other developments, the backers of a symbolic peace plan known as the Geneva Accord were printing 1.9 million copies – one for every mailbox in Israel – of the 50-page agreement, complete with maps of a proposed border between Palestine and Israel. The packets are to be mailed out next week, said Daniel Levy, one of the agreement's negotiators. In Palestinian towns, with no real functioning postal system, pamphlets detailing the agreement will be distributed by hand, he said. The agreement will also be published in newspapers. Over the weekend, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed support for the agreement, an apparent rebuke to Sharon, who has denounced it as subversive.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Palestinians in towns across the West Bank protested against a security barrier being erected by Israel around much of the territory. Israel says the barrier is needed to prevent Palestinian attacks that have killed hundreds of Israelis in the past three years of fighting. Palestinians see the barrier's route, which will dip deep into the West Bank, as a unilateral effort to define the boundaries of a future Palestinian state on only a fraction of the land they claim.

Israeli troops fired tear gas at several dozen Palestinian protesters, including boys waving Palestinian flags and carrying cans of spray paint, who had marched to the barrier near Qalqiliya. Some threw rocks. Also today, eight-year-old Ahmed Marai from the Palestinian town of Jenin died after being shot by Israeli soldiers yesterday.

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