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Palestinian Cabinet packed with professionals intent on reform

RAMALLAH, West Bank—Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas nearly erased the legacy of the late Yasser Arafat from the government Thursday as he swore in a new Cabinet packed with academics and professionals tasked with 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've 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's 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."

Abbas was elected Jan. 9 on a platform of political reform and an end to Israeli-Palestinian violence. His aim now is to use his Cabinet of technocrats to help achieve those goals. He and some of the ministers will start by attending an international conference in London hosted by British Prime Minister Tony Blair in early March. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also plans to attend.

Most of the lawmakers are eager to see Abbas succeed quickly, in order to restore the reputation of the Fatah party before the elections. They fear that apathetic voters might otherwise cast them aside in favor of candidates from the Islamic militant group Hamas, as happened in West Bank and Gaza Strip municipal elections in recent months.

But many of the new generation of Fatah leaders who'd hoped this Cabinet would give them their first chance at wielding real power were shut out just as Arafat loyalists were, a sign of Abbas' determination to promote his agenda without political interference. That outcome didn't sit well with this homebred generation of leaders.

"Palestinians like their leaders to be involved in politics, to be leaders of factions. Only the (Fatah) party is losing by this kind of government," complained Ziad Abu Ein, part of the young guard aligned with popular West Bank Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who's serving five life terms in an Israeli prison on terror-related convictions. Barghouti was the only challenger in January's presidential elections that opinion polls showed had a chance of beating Abbas.

Barghouti later dropped out at the urging of other Fatah leaders, who feared their party would break apart.

For all the wrangling, proponents and opponents of the new Cabinet both said they view it as little more than a transitional body, one that likely will be replaced after the July elections. One reason is that Qureia may not survive that poll, as he has few allies in the new Cabinet and lost his fight with Abbas to make the prime minister post more powerful. Qureia's departure would legally force the appointment of a new Cabinet.

The new ministers were selected in Wednesday night's closed-door meeting between Abbas, Qureia and Fatah legislators. Virtually all are experts in the ministries they are to oversee. Two dozen of them hold doctorate or master's degrees; one is a doctor, another a lawyer and several are engineers.

Few have any name recognition or connections to Palestinian political parties, in stark contrast to previous Cabinets formed by Arafat whose members were selected based on loyalty and favoritism.

Most of the Palestinian legislators and Israeli officials praised the new Cabinet as a positive development, but some analysts warned that the ministers lack the political clout to get the job done.

"Technocratic governments during transition reflect weakness," said Hillel Frisch, a senior researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center and a political scientist at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv. "You don't get people to reform easily. It takes technocratic vision, but also the carrot and stick method politicians are good at."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Ahmed Qureia, Mohammed Dahlan, Nabil Sha'ath

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