Fatah leaders endorse Abbas' new Cabinet

Tuesday, April 29, 2003

JERUSALEM -- Mahmoud Abbas won the endorsement of his Fatah party and took another step Monday toward becoming the Palestinian prime minister and forcing Yasser Arafat to share some of his power.

The endorsement boosts the chances of Abbas and his proposed Cabinet winning approval in parliament on Tuesday, since Fatah controls a solid majority in the legislature. Approval would set the stage for new Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations.

President Bush has said he will unveil the so-called "road map" to Palestinian statehood once Abbas has been installed. Bush refuses to deal with Arafat, whom he considers tainted by terrorism, and has been holding out for an alternate Palestinian leadership.

However, Arafat has been trying to retain as much as he can of that once near-absolute power.

In an interview with the Israeli daily Maariv published Monday, he suggested he has no plans to step aside, noting he is the elected president of the Palestinian people and "the whole world knows this."

Also Monday, the designated Palestinian foreign minister, Nabil Shaath, demanded Israel grant Arafat freedom of movement. Israeli restrictions have in effect confined him to his Ramallah office building for more than a year.

"It would really be totally inappropriate for this government to start its actions and its movements while its elected president and the leader of the Palestinian people, Yasser Arafat, is still in ... detention," Shaath said.

"This government has made it clear to all our friends, including the United States, that the freedom of Yasser Arafat, his dignity and his authority are a matter of priority ... and therefore we will take all possible action to ensure this freedom." Abbas formed his Cabinet after several weeks of wrangling with Arafat, who last week withdrew some of his challenges, including to the appointment of former Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan as a junior minister for security -- an appointment Israel and the United States saw as important.

However, there has been widespread criticism regarding some of Abbas' choices, with some legislators saying he missed an opportunity for a sweeping overhaul. Critics also said several appointees, including Dahlan, are tainted by corruption, despite Abbas' promise to carry out far-reaching government reform.

Legislator Hanan Ashrawi, an independent, said Abbas appears to have chosen Cabinet ministers based largely on personal loyalties. She said she told Abbas in a recent meeting that "if you play the game by the old rules, the president (Arafat) will beat you because he is a master of this game."

Abbas needs the support of 43 legislators in the 85-member parliament in Tuesday's vote. The legislature, elected in 1996, initially had 88 members, but two have died, one has resigned and another, Marwan Barghouti, is in Israeli custody. Fatah controls 62 seats.

The Fatah Central Committee, the movement's ruling body, met Monday and decided to instruct its legislators to vote in favor of Abbas' Cabinet.

However, it was unclear whether all Fatah legislators would heed the instructions.

With parliament approval for the Cabinet, the Palestinians would have cleared the final hurdle toward unveiling the road map, expected in coming days. The three-stage plan envisions full Palestinian statehood within three years, with a provisional state in temporary borders as early as this year.

On Monday, the so-called Quartet of international mediators -- the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia -- agreed on a plan for monitoring Israeli and Palestinian compliance with the road map.

The United States would referee the two most important issues -- security and a future Israeli settlement freeze. Humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians and government reform would be overseen by the Europeans.

Israeli and Palestinian officials said Monday they were pleased to have the United States be the chief security monitor. Israel had insisted the other three members of the Quartet have no say on the issue, and the Palestinians said they wanted to be certain Israel is not allowed to judge their performance.

However, Israeli Industry Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel would walk away from the peace plan if Palestinian attacks continue. In 31 months of fighting, 760 people have been killed on the Israeli side, most in such attacks, and 2,281 on the Palestinian side, most by Israeli troops.

"If there will be terror, there will be nothing in the process," said Olmert, who is vice prime minister. "If it will not end, don't expect anything. It's as simple as that."

Olmert also said Israel "is not going to do anything dramatic" regarding concessions to the Palestinians unless they unequivocally drop a demand that Israel recognize the "right of return" of some 4 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants to its territory.

The fate of the refugees is to be resolved in a final peace deal. Olmert was evasive when asked whether Israel insists the Palestinians drop their demand as a condition for even entering the "road map" process -- which could scuttle it immediately.

In other developments Monday:

  • An armed 17-year-old Palestinian was killed during an Israeli raid in the Jenin refugee camp. Four wanted men from the militant Islamic Jihad group surrendered after their hideout was surrounded and soldiers threatened to bulldoze it.

  • In the West Bank city of Nablus, troops arrested two Palestinian militants accused of a suicide bombing at a train station in central Israel last week that killed a security guard. The two were captured after a gun battle and a six-hour standoff at their hideout.

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