New cabinet gets chilly welcome

A Palestinian cabinet meeting was delayed yesterday when Israeli tanks entered Ramallah.

A new Palestinian cabinet was set to convene in Ramallah Monday, offering a first sample of Palestinian Authority reform that has been strongly demanded at home and abroad.

But instead, people here got a poignant reminder of who is really in charge of the West Bank. Israeli tanks surged into the city, storming the area's commercial capital and the seat of Yasser Arafat's battered headquarters.

The incursion, the second Israeli move into Ramallah in five days, was seen by Palestinian ministers as Israel's response to Mr. Arafat's bid to rejuvenate the Palestinian Authority. His changes trimmed the cabinet from 31 to 21 ministers and appointed some fresh faces to the group, including professionals who took the place of members criticized for being unpopular cronies of the Palestinian leader.

"Israel is saying it is not satisfied, it won't allow this to succeed, and that there remains only one authority, which is the occupation authority," says Ghassan Khatib, the newly appointed minister of labor.

Strike and counterstrike

The Israeli army said the incursion, during which more than 20 suspected militants were arrested, was aimed at countering what officers said was a rebuilding of "terrorist infrastructure" in Ramallah. It came after a surge of attacks on Jewish settlements over the weekend.

Underlying the Israeli-Palestinian battle over the new cabinet is Arafat's desire to use the new appointments to rehabilitate the PA as a negotiating partner. For Israel, any improvement in the PA's image is seen as undercutting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's strategy of excluding Arafat from future negotiations, say observers.

"The more that time goes on, the more it becomes clear that the main motivation of Ariel Sharon is to avoid decisions that would basically alter the situation created [after the war of] 1967," wrote Uzi Benziman in Monday's edition of the daily paper Ha'aretz.

"He does not intend to give up on the Israeli holdings in the territories, something that is an essential precondition for ending the conflict with the Palestinians." Sharon was expected to press home his arguments against Arafat during a meeting with President George W. Bush in Washington Monday.

Loosening a powerful grip?

The major changes in the cabinet include the appointment of septuagenarian Abdul-Raziq al Yihya, a former Palestinian Liberation Army commander and negotiator with Israel, as interior minister. The post was previously held by Arafat.

That is viewed as a concession to the United States and other countries that have demanded reform of the Palestinian security forces. But Israel is highly skeptical that he will be able to halt Palestinian attacks against Israeli targets.

"He will be a puppet of Arafat," says Deputy Internal Security Minister Gideon Ezra. "As long as Arafat rules, there will be no significant changes in the Palestinian Authority."

'Cosmetic' changes

Arafat failed to persuade Hanan Ashrawi, of the Palestinian legislative council, to join the cabinet. Dr. Ashrawi, who is well-known and respected in Western circles, declined to specify the reason for her refusal. Arafat did, however, convince economist Salem Fayad to become finance minister. Mr. Fayed served as the World Bank representative in the West Bank and as a director of the Arab Bank.

His appointment is seen as a way of gaining the trust of donors and investors disconcerted at the past lack of transparency in PA spending. Arafat has also appointed a new justice minister, Ibrahim Daghme, who replaces Freih Abu Meddein. The latter was notorious among human-rights activists for sanctioning rapid-fire State Security Courts, which were characterized by a lack of due process. Planning Minister Nabil Shaath, Local Government Minister Saeb Erekat, and Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo are continuing in their posts.

Hatem Abdul-Kader, a member of the legislative council who has been pushing for reforms, says: "These changes are not real. They are cosmetic." He says that to make a difference, Arafat should have appointed a prime minister and devolved powers to him.

But Mr. Khatib, the new labor minister, a former negotiator, says that Arafat has made real progress via the cabinet changes, by signing new laws on judicial independence and separation of powers, and by accepting the idea of elections.

"Arafat at least theoretically accepted all that we reformers wanted him to do. To make it real, we now have to move in and take part."

But he says that nothing will happen unless Israel loosens its grip on the PA areas and lifts its military sieges, which the army says are meant to prevent terrorist attacks. "Right now this cabinet can do nothing. We cannot meet, and even if we could meet, we cannot go, come, and implement programs."

Elections, he says, will be impossible unless Israeli forces pull back from cities. "I think Arafat has opened the door, and the ball is now in the court of the Israelis," he says. "America has to deliver Israel to allow the reforms to take place."

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