Palestinian government sworn in

Temporary Cabinet part of Arafat effort to reduce pressure from Israel

October 08, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAMALLAH, West Bank - Looking frail and tired, Yasser Arafat swore in an emergency Palestinian government yesterday in an effort to counter growing Israeli pressure against him and the Palestinian Authority.

The new government is led by Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, but critics warned that the emergency action created expectations that cannot be met, such as that the new government will disarm militant groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

"It is a grave mistake to declare a state of emergency," said Ali Jarbawi, a political scientist at Birzeit University, noting the failure of the previous government of Mahmoud Abbas, who resigned last month. "Now the rest of the world will expect the Palestinians to do something different.

"Will this emergency government crack down on militant groups? That is the big question. I don't think it has the will or the capability," Jarbawi said. "And if this new government has no intention of doing that, then why create it? The Palestinian Authority is using its last bullet. After this, they have nothing left."

Israeli leaders suspended contacts with the Palestinian Authority after Abbas resigned. He had mentioned differences with Arafat, accused the Israelis of undermining his efforts and alleged the U.S. government offered little support.

Yesterday's temporary Cabinet is unlikely to please either the United States or Israel because Qureia has repeatedly said he would pursue a truce with groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad instead of ordering police to dismantle them. Abbas obtained a three-month cease-fire that lasted 50 days.

The emergency Cabinet, which is made up of eight ministers, can govern for one month, then can be given a second month with agreement from the Palestinian legislature. Qureia is trying to organize a permanent 24-member Cabinet.

After a suicide bombing in Haifa on Saturday that killed 19 Israelis, Israeli officials again raised the possibility of exiling Arafat. On Sept. 11, Israel's security Cabinet authorized the army to "remove" Arafat at a time and means of its choosing.

Palestinian officials said yesterday that they hoped the new emergency government would make action against Arafat less likely. But others said the move only served to highlight internal tensions. Young members of Arafat's Fatah political movement called the emergency Cabinet illegal. Six of the ministers are longtime bureaucrats loyal to Arafat, some of whom have blocked previous reform efforts.

In addition, Interior Minister Nasser Yousef refused to take part in yesterday's ceremony because of a dispute over his powers. That post is pivotal to the peace plan known as the "road map" because Yousef would command the Palestinian security forces, which are vital to meeting demands from the United States and Israel to dismantle the militant groups. Another new minister, Jawad Tibi, also was absent, though the reasons were unclear.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has indicated that he would be willing to meet with Qureia and work with his government, but only if it was independent of Arafat's control and took action against Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Meanwhile, tensions in Israel's north simmered as Israeli troops bolstered their positions along the borders with Lebanon and Syria, two days after an Israeli bombing raid against Syria. An Israeli soldier was killed Monday night in a cross-border shooting from Lebanon.

Syrian President Bashar Assad accused Israel of trying to spark a regional war. Sharon, in a speech memorializing the 30th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, warned that Israel might again attack outside its borders.

"Israel will not recoil from defending its citizens and will strike its enemies in every place and with any means," Sharon said in Jerusalem. "At the same time, we will not miss an opening or an opportunity to reach an agreement with our neighbors for the peace we long for so much."

Israel also released a map locating what it said were homes and offices of Palestinian militant leaders in Damascus, Syria, sending them a message that they are potential targets.

In brief remarks yesterday, Arafat said that "in these circumstances that all of us in the Arab world are seeing, it is required from us and our people to rise up to the challenges."

"God be with you, Abu Ala," Arafat told Qureia, using his nickname. "I wish you all success for saving the homeland, meeting all the expectations and getting us out of these difficulties."

Arafat has been sick for more than a week with an intestinal virus, and he was examined by a Jordanian doctor last week. Yesterday, he walked slowly into a reception room arm and arm with Qureia and Finance Minister Salem Fayad.

Aides later said it was a demonstration of solidarity. But Arafat, known for long speeches, talked for only a few minutes and used his fists to brace himself as he leaned over to speak into a microphone.

He then administered an oath to the six ministers who were present, kissed them on their cheeks and embraced them. His face looked sunken, and he had obviously lost weight, but he smiled and waved for the cameras. Asked by a reporter how he felt, Arafat smiled and said in English, "As you see."

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