New Palestinian premier may quit

Qureia, Arafat squabble

parliament delays vote on emergency Cabinet

October 10, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAMALLAH, West Bank - The new Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, reportedly threatened to resign yesterday after legislators blocked his efforts to form an emergency government and Yasser Arafat objected to one of Qureia's Cabinet appointments.

During what Palestinian officials described as a stormy meeting yesterday afternoon, Qureia told the Palestinian leader that he no longer wanted the post of prime minister, aides said.

The dispute, in part, apparently involved the scope of powers of the interior minister, who would oversee reforming the security services. That reform is a key demand of a stalled U.S.-backed peace plan. The plan would be in grave jeopardy if Qureia, who took office this week, were to resign.

There was considerable confusion last night as to whether Qureia had formally quit or whether the episode was part of politicking between the two men on how they would eventually share power.

The dispute was unfolding as reporters and foreign diplomats waited for Qureia and Arafat to present the new Cabinet, which the Palestinian parliament had been expected to confirm yesterday. After waiting 90 minutes inside a cramped, hot room in Arafat's ruined compound, the assemblage was told the appearance was canceled.

Leaders of the parliament said they were unable to resolve internal differences that would lead to the Palestinian Legislative Council confirming the new government, which Arafat had approved Sunday on an emergency basis.

The crisis plunged the Palestinian Authority into further chaos amid a new wave of violence.

Yesterday, an 18-year-old Palestinian man blew himself up at an Israeli army checkpoint in the West Bank city of Tulkarm, killing himself and wounding two Israeli soldiers and a Palestinian waiting at a window for a permit to cross the barrier. The Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed faction associated with Arafat's party, Fatah, claimed responsibility.

And early this morning, a large Israeli force moved into the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza to destroy tunnels allegedly used by Palestinians to smuggle weapons from Egypt, the Associated Press reported.

The U.S.-backed peace plan has been on hold since last month, when former Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas resigned, partly because of disagreements with Arafat. Israeli and U.S. officials have said they would not re-engage in peace talks until a new Palestinian government is formed and its prime minister cracks down on militant groups.

Qureia, a veteran peace negotiator who is closely allied with Arafat, was nominated to fill the vacant post after Abbas quit Sept. 6. But Qureia has been unable to form a full Cabinet because of internal bickering. He is trying to choose members acceptable to Arafat but also viewed by the Americans and Israelis as independent of Arafat. Both U.S. and Israeli officials have called Arafat an obstacle to advancing the peace plan.

After a Palestinian suicide bombing Saturday that killed 20 people, Israeli leaders intensified their pledge to exile Arafat. Qureia and Arafat then moved quickly to form a temporary, emergency government to give the authority some semblance of stability and shielding Arafat from exile.

Arafat swore in six of the eight new Cabinet ministers in front of reporters Tuesday. Two others, including the interior minister-designate, Nasser Yousef, boycotted the ceremony, saying that they would only join a permanent government subject to the approval of elected legislators.

Yesterday, Arafat recommended that Qureia oust Yousef from the new Cabinet, Palestinian officials said. Arafat, who had supported Yousef, apparently was angry at the appointee for not attending the swearing-in ceremony.

Officials said Qureia insisted that Yousef remain in the Cabinet, sparking what witnesses described as an angry exchange between the two.

The vote to confirm the emergency Cabinet was tentatively rescheduled for Saturday after angry legislators complained that Arafat and his allies had circumvented the democratic process. Until then, the Cabinet remains a temporary one that officials say can rule for only a month.

The legislators demanded yesterday that the new council members be subject to a vote of confidence. Several openly criticized Arafat, an unusual move, accusing him of establishing a Cabinet in order to save himself rather than advance a peace plan or internal reforms.

"Why do we have to call a state of emergency?" Abdul Jawad Saleh, a legislator from Ramallah and a leading reformer, said in an interview. "We have been living like this for years. We should respect the law. This Cabinet just serves Arafat's personal goals."

Ziad Abu Amr, a legislator from Gaza who helped negotiate a cease-fire with militant groups as a minister in Abbas' government, also said that he was against forming an emergency government, saying it would not be empowered to implement any decisions.

"It does not enjoy and support, thus it is weak," Amr told reporters yesterday. "A small Cabinet like this would be unable to do the things we need to get done. We had a Cabinet with 24 members before; it couldn't do anything. I'm not sure that such a small emergency Cabinet could even take care of our bad security situation.

"Changing the name of the government does not change the actions on the ground," Amr said, adding that if given a chance, he would vote against the Cabinet. "We need to establish security and a truce with Israel."

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