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Profile: Yasser Arafat Names A New Cabinet

All Things Considered: October 29, 2002

Arafat Cabinet

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

In the West Bank city of Ramallah today, Palestinian lawmakers gave Yasser Arafat a solid vote of approval for his new Cabinet. The approval comes a month after the old Cabinet was forced to resign to avoid a vote of no confidence. Reform-minded lawmakers say the latest shakeup was mainly cosmetic, but many members are reluctant to challenge Arafat, when the Palestinian Authority is under such heavy attack by the Israeli army. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Ramallah.

PETER KENYON reporting:

It has never been easy for Palestinian legislators to criticize their leader, and it gets even harder when ordinary Palestinians are more focused on Israeli military curfews and closures than on financial transparency or accountable government institutions. Critics said the fight over this new Cabinet with only a handful of new faces was actually lost during closed-door meetings between Arafat and high-level Fatah Party members, at which heavy pressure was applied to support the chairman. On his way into the meeting in Arafat's crumbling compound, lawmaker Nabil Amer, a sometimes outspoken critic of Arafat, conceded that the battle was already over.

Mr. NABIL AMER: (Through Translator) After the decisions which were taken by the Central Committee of Fatah, now the government will pass easily.

KENYON: Despite the Israeli military barrage that has leveled most of the compound, this spacious hall with roughly the same shape and acoustics as a high school gymnasium has been restored to use. Arafat was greeted politely by the audience and delivered what some called an extended pep talk, recounting what he called the `relentless aggressions of the Israeli army' and urging his people to remain firm in their demand for an independent state.

As he has in the past, Arafat condemned attacks against civilians, and he called such killings not martyrdom operations or even military operations, but terrorist acts.

Mr. YASSER ARAFAT (Palestinian Leader): (Through Translator) Every human has the right to live. The Palestinians have this right and the Israelis have this right, and all the free people have the right to live. And we condemned all of the terrorist actions which aim the civilians in anyplace in the world.

KENYON: Israel and the United States have made governmental reforms a prerequisite to political negotiations. Chief among the demands is the effective removal of Arafat himself from power. The US-backed road map circulated by envoy William Burns last week begins by calling for a Palestinian prime minister, a move already rejected by Arafat.

Arafat said elections are still scheduled for January 20th, including presidential balloting that he would almost certainly win. From the international perspective, one change made today may prove troubling. Interior Minister Abdel Razzak al-Yahya, who was beginning what appeared to be a serious reform of the Palestinian security services, was replaced by Arafat confidant Hani Al Hassan. All of Yahya's personnel moves during his few weeks in charge were recently nullified.

Those security reforms are of far more interest to outsiders than to Palestinians. But by any measure, says opposition legislator Abdul Jawad Saleh, this new Cabinet fails the test.

Mr. ABDUL JAWAD SALEH (Opposition Legislator): It's the same, with the same personalities, with the same policies and the same corruption and corrupted people and there were no changes at all, which really expresses the impossibility of rectifying corruption as long as the chairman is there.

KENYON: Chairman Arafat's victory today comes as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon faces the gravest challenge to date to his ruling coalition. The top Labor Party member, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, says if a compromise on a budget dispute isn't found by tomorrow, the Labor ministers will resign, forcing Sharon to either rule with a very narrow majority or call snap elections. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Ramallah.

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