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Arafat Swears in Emergency Cabinet

Creating a government under Ahmed Korei may buy some time for the ailing Palestinian leader, whom Israel has threatened to remove.

October 08, 2003|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

RAMALLAH, West Bank — A skeleton Palestinian Cabinet headed by Prime Minister Ahmed Korei was sworn in Tuesday at the scarred compound of President Yasser Arafat, who has declared a state of emergency amid mounting violence and political instability.

The quick, bare-bones ceremony reflected the troubles plaguing the Palestinian Authority.

Nasser Yousef, who as interior minister was expected to take over control of the security forces, was conspicuously missing. Some witnesses said he hid out of sight within the compound while his colleagues made conflicting excuses for him. A very pale Arafat, who has been sick for more than a week, could barely stand without leaning on aides or furniture.

Arafat's surprise decision to seat an emergency government probably will buy him time. He is under threat of being "removed" by Israel -- presumably forced into exile or complete isolation. Anxiety over his fate was thick among Palestinians after a suicide bomber killed 19 people in Israel during the weekend.

"This government is going to enforce the rule of law and control the security situation," said Hani Hassan, a senior member of Fatah, a faction led by Arafat. "There has to be discipline. We should not give any excuses to [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon."

While Palestinians were cobbling together a government Tuesday, Sharon sounded a note of defiance. In his first public comments since Israel's Sunday raid on what it said was a terrorist training camp in Syria, the prime minister said: "Israel will not be deterred from protecting its citizens and will strike its enemies in every place and in every way."

"We will not miss any openings or opportunities to reach an arrangement with our neighbors and a comprehensive peace," Sharon said at a memorial for soldiers slain in Israel's 1973 war with Syria and Egypt.

Israel said it was striking back at Syria for supporting Islamic Jihad, the militant group that claimed responsibility for the weekend suicide bombing. The strike represented a shift in the Jewish state's military strategy.

Israel has tried to put down the Palestinian uprising by battling militants in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, but now says it will extend that battle to neighboring countries.

The strike on Syria has raised tensions along the border with Lebanon, where an Israeli soldier and a Lebanese boy were killed Monday.

Syrian President Bashar Assad called Israel a "government of war" in remarks published in London's Al Hayat newspaper. The Arab world has been riled by the prospect of Israel launching surprise raids into sovereign countries. But President Bush said Israel was within its rights and that the United States might have responded in similar fashion.

Palestinians have been struggling to restore order to their government since their first prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, stepped down in frustration last month.

Korei, a staunch Arafat ally, was chosen to take his place and had planned to present a Cabinet to the Palestinian parliament later this week for approval.

But Arafat caught even the ministers off guard by declaring a state of emergency throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip after the latest bombing. Korei and his stripped-down Cabinet of eight ministers were hastily summoned. They swore on the Koran, and a beaming Arafat hugged each of them, kissed them and whispered into their ears.

"The circumstances we are facing require us as a people and as a nation to rise to the level of the challenge," Arafat said. "To my brother [Korei], may God help you and be with you."

Jawad Tibi, the health minister, remained in the Gaza Strip. Colleagues said he was unable to leave.

Yousef delayed his appointment because of a dispute with Arafat over the scope of his power, Palestinian sources said -- precisely the sticking point that drove the last government to collapse.

The security question is crucial. Israel, and to a lesser degree the United States, will judge the Korei government by whether it manages -- or even tries -- to dismantle the armed Palestinian militias. Israeli officials have said they will watch to see how Korei performs.

But neither Korei nor Yousef, another longtime Arafat comrade, were seen as likely enforcers. Korei's Cabinet, stacked with Arafat allies, also drew Israeli skepticism.

"We won't take him by his word," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Jonathan Peled said. "We'll take him by his actions."

Korei has remained vague about waging a campaign against militants. He has pledged to address the security problems but also has said he won't spark a civil war among Palestinians. He wants to create an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire to control what he calls the "chaos of weapons."

By the end of the day, ministers already were rejecting their "emergency Cabinet" designation. Leery of the perception that they had not been properly installed, the ministers said they would apply to parliament for legitimacy this week.

"We're not an emergency Cabinet," said Saeb Erekat, a minister whose responsibilities have not yet been defined. "We're a mini-Cabinet."

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