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Arafat Announces a New Cabinet Barely Different From Predecessor

Critics say Palestinian leader's lineup of ministers shows he's not committed to reform. Meanwhile, Israel's coalition teeters.

October 30, 2002|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Turning aside calls for a shakeup of his government, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat named a new Cabinet on Tuesday that closely resembles his old one.

At the same time, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was embroiled in a political battle within his ruling coalition that could lead to its dissolution and bring about early elections. But intense maneuvering was taking place in advance of a showdown vote scheduled for today on the national budget, and in Israel's fractious political system, such crises often end with a last-minute resolution.

Palestinian lawmakers, meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, approved the new Cabinet lineup 56 to 18. Dissenters complained that by retaining several ministers who have been accused of corruption, Arafat showed he was not serious about carrying out reforms or agreeing to curbs on his own powers.

Last month, lawmakers forced Arafat's former Cabinet to resign over allegations of corruption and mismanagement. The United States joined reformers within the Palestinian ranks -- who normally refrain from any serious challenge to Arafat's powers -- in calling for a Cabinet shakeup.

But as he faced some of the most intense political pressure in years from within and outside the Palestinian ranks, Arafat's popular standing was shored up by an unwitting ally: Israel. Last month, Israeli troops besieged his Ramallah headquarters for 10 days, destroying most of the buildings left standing in the compound.

As has happened in the past, the Palestinian leader's support among his people rebounded during the siege, and on its heels he offered up a new, 19-member Cabinet with only five new faces. Arafat told dissident lawmakers that any challenge to him now would amount to support for the Israeli and U.S. view that he be sidelined.

Neither Israel nor the Bush administration has any dealings with Arafat, whom they accuse of condoning or actively supporting terror attacks against Israel. A U.S. envoy who visited the region last week, Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, pointedly refrained from any talks with the Palestinian leader, although he traveled to Ramallah for talks with other Palestinian political figures.

During the lengthy parliamentary session Tuesday, Arafat sharply rebuked lawmakers who criticized him. When independent lawmaker Abdel Jawad Saleh complained about corruption, the Palestinian leader retorted, "I will not allow you to humiliate us," the Reuters news agency reported.

Underscoring Arafat's appeal for unity in the face of external pressure, the meeting of the Palestinian Legislative Council was held in a building in his compound that was hastily refurbished after being badly damaged during last month's standoff with Israeli troops. Lawmakers and foreign diplomats who came to observe the session picked their way past sandbag emplacements, concrete barriers and piles of rubble.

Thirteen lawmakers who said they were unable to attend because they couldn't secure travel permits from Israel participated in the proceedings by video.

Before unveiling the new Cabinet, Arafat delivered an hourlong speech in which he sounded themes of both reconciliation and defiance. He said at one point that he wanted to hold out an "olive branch" to Israel, but he denounced the Sharon government's military hold on much of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In the new Cabinet, four ministries changed hands, those of interior, justice, health and prisoner affairs. Arafat also created one new post dealing with Jerusalem affairs.

In a move interpreted as pressure on dissident lawmakers, Arafat broke with his normal practice of leaving after delivering his speech and stayed to watch the vote by show of hands.

"We are proud of these results," he said afterward.

In Sharon's government, the struggle has been simmering since last week, when the center-left Labor Party, his main coalition partner, demanded that some of the funds earmarked for Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza be diverted to social spending.

The conservative Sharon has said he will dismiss any Labor ministers who defy him in today's planned vote on next year's national budget.

If the coalition unravels, Sharon could call elections in January, but some Israeli commentators have suggested that he might be deterred by the prospect of a challenge from former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a fellow member of the Likud Party who retains considerable popularity among conservative voters.


Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah contributed to this report.

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