Palestinian Cabinet is victory for Abbas

Transitional panel is swept clean of most of Arafat supporters

February 25, 2005|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

RAMALLAH, West Bank - Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas nearly erased the legacy of the late Yasser Arafat from the government yesterday as he swore in a new Cabinet packed with academics and professionals given the task of rooting out corruption and overhauling his Palestinian Authority.

Abbas left only a handful of Arafat's old guard in charge during the run-up to parliamentary elections and Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in July.

The vote ended a bitter battle between Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and Palestinian lawmakers over Qureia's resistance to replacing most of the members of his Cabinet.

The ditching of so many Arafat loyalists - many of whom were tainted by charges of corruption and incompetence - marked a significant shift for the Palestinians and could be a precursor of more changes to come.

Arafat dominated the Palestinian nationalist movement for decades as an itinerant leader.

When he returned from exile in 1994 to head the Palestinian Authority, he brought with him a retinue of supporters who have held leading positions in the Palestinian government ever since, in spite of efforts by homegrown leaders to rise to the top.

Although Qureia retained his job, he was substantially weakened by his inability to win approval of his Cabinet choices and his political future is now in doubt.

Qureia has long been unpopular with the legislators, who complain that he has failed to accomplish anything since his appointment 17 months ago by Arafat, who died Nov. 11.

At the same time, the legislators who revolted against Qureia didn't win the Cabinet posts they coveted, and the Cabinet is widely seen as transitional and weak as the July elections approach.

Those elections, the first in nine years, are certain to be highly competitive and could bring many new faces into office.

Saeb Erekat, a former minister and Arafat loyalist who was axed in the fight, called on all Palestinians to support the new Cabinet.

But he suggested more turmoil would come: "Get used to it. This is Palestinian democracy, and this is what we'll see in the future."

Pro-Arafat university students held up posters of the late leader in a silent vigil outside the Palestinian Legislative Council in Ramallah, as Qureia and his 25-minister Cabinet were approved in a 54-12 vote with four abstentions.

After the swearing-in, Abbas said of his new ministers, "They are young and professional, and I think they are capable of carrying out their jobs."

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