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Arafat reshuffles Palestinian Cabinet on eve of Sharon talks
RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat named a new, smaller Cabinet on Sunday that includes a new minister to oversee the security forces. The move follows strong calls for reform by ordinary Palestinians and Western governments.
In a press conference, Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said that presidential and parliamentary elections will be held in January of next year and municipal elections this fall.
The announcements came on the eve of a sixth White House meeting in about a year between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Bush, harsh critics of the Palestinian leader. Sharon, in a newspaper opinion piece, reiterated his position that no peace negotiations will resume until Palestinian violence ends.
Arafat slimmed down his Cabinet from 31 to 21 ministers, and brought in several new faces.
"It will be a smaller, more effective Cabinet," said Nabil Shaath, planning minister in both.
In the most important change, Arafat named 73-year-old Abdel Razak Yehiyeh interior minister -- a position that "will be responsible for all the security issues inside the Palestinian territories and supervise all the security establishments," said Rabbo, a close confidant of Arafat who retains his information post and assumes the cultural affairs portfolio.
Arafat took the interior ministry portfolio for himself when the Palestinian Authority was established eight years ago. However, Arafat has come under intense pressure from the United States and Israel to revamp the security forces with the aim of preventing violence against Israel. Planning and International Cooperation Minister Nabil Shaath and Local Government Minister Saeb Erekat retain their positions.
Israeli Defense Minister reacted skeptically to the naming of Yehiyeh, saying he signified Arafat was not serious about reform.
"This man represents the very old generation. So once again we have a commitment to the past and not to the future," Ben-Eliezer said.
CIA director George Tenet met Arafat last week at his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah and pressed him to restructure the multiple, overlapping security agencies.
Yehiyeh, a former guerrilla commander, has not held any high-profile positions recently and his selection bypasses more prominent figures.
Some Israeli analysts have said the move is an attempt by Arafat to appear to be putting someone new in charge of security while still wielding power himself behind the scenes. Arafat has been the dominant Palestinian political figure for decades and the power of Cabinet ministers is limited.
"Most Israelis will remember that this weekend that a young Israeli and his pregnant wife were murdered," Israeli government spokesman Dore Gold said. "Therefore, when they hear about this Cabinet reshuffling, they are going to see mostly smoke and mirrors and they are not going to be holding their breath."
Dogged by accusations of widespread corruption in his government, Arafat named a new finance minister, Salem Fayad, 50. He has worked in Jerusalem for the International Monetary Fund and was regional director of the Arab Bank. He has called for greater financial accountability in the Palestinian government.
Arafat also plans to announce a restructuring of the security forces in coming days. Since the Palestinian Authority was formed in 1994, elections only were held in 1996.
Early Monday, a powerful explosion rocked the Jebaliya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, destroying one building and damaging nearby homes. At least 25 people were injured, including three in critical condition, hospital officials said. Witnesses said the blast came from inside the building, but Palestinian officials would not comment on the cause.
In other developments Sunday, Palestinian police arrested a leader of the militant group Islamic Jihad, which took responsibility for a suicide attack last week in which 17 Israelis were killed.
Sheik Abdullah Shami was arrested in his neighborhood in Gaza City, group officials said. The arrest came in light of intense American pressure on the Palestinians to crack down on militants behind deadly attacks in Israel.
Also Sunday, about 10 Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers entered the West Bank town of Tulkarem. Two Palestinians were lightly wounded by Israeli fire, witnesses said. The army has been making almost daily forays into Palestinian areas searching for militants.
Meanwhile, Sunday was a day of funerals for three Israelis killed Saturday during a Palestinian attack on a West Bank settlement and seven Palestinians killed while carrying out or attempting to carry out attacks.
Sharon, in an opinion piece Sunday in The New York Times, reiterated his position that Israel was prepared to resume negotiations if Palestinian attacks stop, though he does not believe a final settlement could be reached now.
"The only serious option ... is one based on a long-term interim agreement that sets aside for the future issues that cannot be bridged at present," Sharon wrote.
Sharon has said he envisions an interim agreement that would last for years, possibly even a generation. The Palestinians strongly oppose this, saying they seek a final settlement that includes a Palestinian state at the earliest possible date.
Bush also met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak this weekend, part of a flurry of diplomatic contacts aimed at ending 20 months of Mideast violence and restarting peace talks. Several months ago, the Arab League adopted a Saudi Arabian proposal for peace with Israel in exchange for Israel returning all occupied lands.
But Sharon, citing Israel's security concerns, said Israel would not withdraw from all the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which it captured in the 1967 Mideast War, or redivide Jerusalem.
"Israel will not return to the vulnerable 1967 armistice lines," he wrote.
The Palestinians want the West Bank and Gaza for their future state, with a capital in east Jerusalem.
The Sharon-Bush meeting is not expected to produce any major developments and is considered the latest installment of close U.S.-Israeli consultations on the Mideast conflict.