Arafat, Fatah faction approve tentative Cabinet members list

THE BALTIMORE SUN

JERUSALEM - A prospective Palestinian government was fast taking form yesterday, as Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and his ruling Fatah faction approved a tentative list of 23 new Cabinet members reportedly peppered with Arafat allies.

The proposed Cabinet, which must be finalized by the Palestine Liberation Organization before going before a Palestinian Parliament vote this week, marks a sharp departure from the internationally orchestrated - and short-lived - term of U.S.-backed Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

Its makeup is also a solid sign of Arafat's return to the center stage of Palestinian politics.

Despite the efforts of the United States and Israel, he never left.

Gone from the new government is Mohammed Dahlan, a U.S. favorite who was security chief under Abbas' government until its collapse. His reluctance to clash with extremist Palestinian armed factions such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad drew Israel's sharp anger.

Still, Dahlan was regarded as relatively independent, and Israel held out some hope that he would eventually confront the militants. Not so his likely replacement. The Interior Ministry, which is responsible for security, will probably be charged to Nasser Yousef, a Palestinian general who was exiled in Tunisia with Arafat and remains a close ally. The question of how much authority he would be given was still being determined.

The Cabinet choices were drafted by Prime Minister-designate Ahmed Qureia, a longtime friend hastily picked by Arafat when the Abbas government crumbled earlier this month. The speedy, low-key arrangement of the Qureia government stands in contrast to the machinations Abbas faced.

Abbas and Arafat managed to cobble together a Cabinet only after Egypt's intelligence chief flew in and prodded the pair to reluctant union in April. World leaders phoned in their encouragement. And the United States dangled a prize - after Abbas came up with a Cabinet, it promised, it would unveil the so-called "road map" to Israeli security and Palestinian statehood.

Just a few months later, Palestinians are groping for a government in an utterly changed climate. Today marks a sober third anniversary of the Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule; the peace plan has fallen apart; Abbas' carefully crafted cease-fire is long dead; the death toll is mounting.

This weekend's Cabinet debates drew barely a shrug from Israel and most international mediators, many of whom view Arafat's renewed relevance with trepidation. His involvement helped speed the breakdown of the former government, and he is living under a standing Israeli threat of deportation if the fighting worsens.

Much of the talk of the forthcoming government centered more on squaring off against Israeli policy than on piecing back together a shattered peace plan.

"The Cabinet's mission will be to confront [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon's plans. He does not want to continue with the peace process," Arafat aide Hani Hassan said. "We've regained the initiative we lost during and after the Iraq war."

The list of nominees hasn't been publicized. But according to Palestinian sources who reviewed the names, the new Cabinet probably won't set off the bitter Palestinian feuding of the past months - mostly because Arafat had a bigger hand in crafting this Cabinet.

Still, Qureia's government will have to deal with the suspicion of outsiders who regard the entire configuration as too tightly tied to Arafat. The United States has expressed skepticism over the new government.

At least two key ministers are expected to keep their jobs: Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath and Finance Minister Salam Fayyad. Both men are regarded as politically moderate and remain popular with the United States.

The Cabinet was approved swiftly by Arafat and the Fatah committee but ran into controversy when it was brought to the PLO last night.

Sources said members of Fatah's so-called "young guard" - the members who came of age during the first Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s and early 1990s and who aren't included in the Fatah committee - were displeased with some of the choices made by their elders.

The exclusion of Dahlan remains a sticking point internationally and on the Palestinian streets, particularly in Gaza, where he is a popular former security chief. Last week, 1,000 armed demonstrators marched in the streets of Gaza to show support for Dahlan.

Special correspondent Maher Abukhater contributed to this article. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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