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Palestinian leader picks reformers for new Cabinet

Monday, April 14, 2003

JERUSALEM -- The new Palestinian prime minister named a Cabinet on Sunday in line with a leadership overhaul the United States sought, keeping a key security job for himself and appointing several professionals and reformers.

But obstacles arose late Sunday as Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah group postponed a meeting to approve the panel, indicating Arafat's displeasure, and three demoted ministers were reportedly refusing to join the new team.

Once the Cabinet of Mahmoud Abbas is approved, possibly later this week, President Bush is expected to unveil a "road map" to Palestinian statehood, starting the clock ticking on the three-year plan.

Israel's willingness to go along with the plan remains unclear, although Prime Minister Ariel Sharon did stake out a relatively moderate position in an interview published Sunday.

Sharon reiterated that he has many reservations about the plan, but also believes the Iraq war has created a chance for reaching a peace deal more quickly than anticipated. In the past, Sharon advocated an interim deal, saying a final treaty must be delayed for years because of the gaps in positions.

Sharon also told the Israeli daily Haaretz that Palestinian statehood is inevitable and suggested he is ready to dismantle some Jewish settlements.

"I do not think we have to rule over another people and run their lives. I do not think that we have the strength for that," Sharon said, adding that Israel's recent reoccupation of Palestinian towns and cities in the West Bank is temporary.

Sharon's top aide, Dov Weisglass, is presenting Israel's concerns about the three-stage "road map" to U.S. officials in Washington this week. The main issue appears to be Israel's demand that the obligations of each stage should be fulfilled before the sides move on to the next one.

The Palestinians want the sides to adhere to a strict timetable and accuse Sharon of trying to scuttle the plan by raising new demands.

Israeli critics have also long accused him of misleading the world by hinting at moderate intentions while cracking down on the Palestinians and expanding Jewish settlements.

With the fighting in Iraq winding down, the United States is expected to resume efforts to end the 30 months of Israeli-Palestinian violence. A senior Israeli official said after the weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday that he expects the United States to press for Israeli gestures that will help Abbas' reform efforts.

Abbas was to have presented his Cabinet list later Sunday to the ruling party, Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, whose backing he needs. However, the meeting was called off at short notice.

The Cabinet list was provided to The Associated Press by three senior Palestinian officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Abbas named several top Fatah officials to his Cabinet to ensure support, but was expected to encounter some resistance because of his refusal to keep Interior Minister Hani al-Hassan, another senior Fatah member.

Abbas, who has had personal differences with al-Hassan, kept the interior ministry for himself, meaning he will oversee the security forces and an expected crackdown on Palestinian militants, a prerequisite for moving forward in peace talks with Israel.

Abbas also named Mohammed Dahlan, a former Gaza security chief, as state minister for interior affairs, suggesting Dahlan will play a key role in security matters. Both men have criticized attacks on Israelis and enjoy the support of the international community. Dahlan, pegged as a possible Arafat successor, has said he is confident he can restore order in the Palestinian areas.

Two senior officials in the outgoing Cabinet, Local Affairs Minister Saeb Erekat and Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, were given the lesser posts of ministers of state.

However, Palestinian officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Erekat, Abed Rabbo and outgoing trade minister Maher el-Masri told Abbas they would not join his Cabinet. Masri was slated for energy minister.

Only two ministers from the outgoing Cabinet, Finance Minister Salam Fayad and Education Minister Naim Abul Hummus, remained in the same posts, according to the list.

Fayad, a former senior International Monetary Fund official, is widely seen as having done a credible job of putting the murky Palestinian money transactions, including some of Arafat's reputed slush funds, in order.

Abbas also created the new posts of external affairs and deputy prime minister.

Nabil Shaath, the outgoing planning minister, was given the external affairs portfolio. Shaath has extensive contacts with foreign leaders and for years acted as de facto foreign minister. Interim peace agreements had prevented the Palestinians from formally creating a foreign ministry. Shaath and Nasser Yousef, a former senior security official, will also serve as deputy prime ministers.

Several outspoken reformers were also chosen for Cabinet posts, including Nabil Amr, who resigned from a previous Cabinet because of disagreements with Arafat and will now serve as information minister. Independent legislator Ziad Abu Amr was given the culture portfolio.

Abbas also appointed several professionals: Abdel Karim Abu Salah, a lawyer, was given the justice portfolio, businessman Azzam Shawa was appointed trade and industry minister and physician Kamal Shrafi was given the health ministry.

Two senior officials in the outgoing Cabinet, Local Affairs Minister Saeb Erekat and Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, were given the lesser posts of ministers of state.


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