Power struggle delays cabinet formation

11 April 2003
'I'm pleased with the new leader of the Palestinian Authority,' US President Bush said in Belfast on 8 April. 'I look forward to him finally putting his cabinet in place so we can release the roadmap.'

Bush may be pleased, but the process by which Mahmoud Abbas, the new prime minister of the Palestinian Authority (PA), and its chairman Yasser Arafat are forming this new cabinet is not without pain. And the power struggle that lies at its heart has forced a two-week extension of the deadline for completion of the cabinet-forming process to 23 April.

There have been disagreements over respective powers from the outset. A move by Arafat to secure the final say on the premier's cabinet was blocked by the Palestinian Legislative Council (parliament) in March. Arafat appeared to have conceded the point, but now that the process of assembling the team is under way, the dispute has resurfaced. Abbas' allies say he wants a complete overhaul, replacing veteran Arafat loyalists with new blood. Many of those so far selected have voiced criticism of the PA chairman and the issue has come to a head over the post of interior minister. Abbas' nomination is Mohammed Dahlan, a former head of security in the Gaza Strip, who has been harsh in his assessment of Arafat's reaction to the current intifada. Arafat wants the incumbent, Hanni el-Hassan, to remain in place.

The importance of the formation of the new cabinet extends beyond internal Palestinian politics. It will act as the trigger for the publication of the much-vaunted peace roadmap prepared by the quartet of the US, EU, UN and Russia. The US and Israel insisted Abbas' position be created in order to provide an alternative negotiator to Arafat.

The need for progress towards peace was yet again made stark on 8 April, when four Palestinian civilians were killed in an Israeli air raid on Gaza City. Senior Hamas member Saed Arabeed, the target of the bombing, also died, along with two other Hamas men. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued a statement deploring the use of excessive force in a densely populated area and reiterating his opposition to Israel's policy of targeted killings. 'While he recognises Israel's right of self-defence, the Secretary-General again calls on Israel to conduct itself in a manner fully consistent with its obligations under international humanitarian law,' said Annan's spokesman.

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