Arafat fails to make credible changes in reshuffle


After a year of procrastination and prevarication, the Palestinian President, Mr Yasser Arafat, yesterday presented a "new" cabinet to the Legislative Council meeting in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

The council had threatened a vote of no-confidence in his government if he did not make a reshuffle by today. Mr Arafat made no real changes. He defied the council by prefacing the announcement of his appointments by saying: "The cabinet will remain as follows."

The list was greeted with jeers and hisses from the legislators who had been led to expect a limited but credible reshuffle.

Dr Ghassan Khatib, a leading Palestinian commentator, told The Irish Times: "He sacked no one, shifted one minister, created one new ministry [so there are now 24] and appointed half a dozen ministers of state." Dr Khatib said that many Palestinians had hoped Mr Arafat would introduce "strong, credible elements" to serve the "higher political aims" of building the state and confronting Israel and the US from a position of strength instead of weakness and division. Mr Arafat retained ministers cited last year by the council for mismanagement and corruption after it had been revealed that $326 million (£231 million) in donor funds had been squandered or misappropriated. "They stay where they are because he is not prepared to accept any questions about the credibility or efficiency of his government," remarked Dr Mehdi Abdul Hadi, an academic analyst.

Three ministers classified as independents were designated as "ministers of state" (so they could keep their salaries and privileges) while critics from Mr Arafat's own Fatah party assumed their portfolios. By co-opting his critics he silenced them and consolidated his grip on the cabinet. Dr Hanan Ashrawi, an effective spokeswoman and Minister of Higher Education, was shifted to tourism, left vacant by the death of the minister earlier this year. She is said to be very unhappy about this change because she does not feel comfortable with this portfolio. Last week, Dr Ashrawi said there would be a "constitutional crisis" if there was no reshuffle but the council has not yet decided how to react to yesterday's exercise, dubbed the "non-reshuffle". Ms Rawiya Shawa, from Gaza, head of the six-member democratic bloc in the 88-seat council, had expected technocrats to be appointed to the cabinet in place of the discredited "Tunisians" who returned with Mr Arafat from exile and corrupt and commercially monopolistic local cronies. She believes Mr Arafat will continue to "lose popularity" by "ignoring the demands" of both the legislators and the people who "are exhausted by the situation."

AFP adds: Mourners cried out for revenge yesterday at a funeral ceremony for two militant Jewish settlers killed overnight by Palestinians in an ambush on the West Bank.

Around 1,000 people, including several government ministers, gathered in Jerusalem for a memorial ceremony hours after Mr Harel Bin Nun (18), and Mr Shlomo Liebman (24), were gunned down while patrolling around the West Bank settlement of Izhar.

"Revenge," chanted the crowd, made up mostly of right-wing nationalists, when the Transportation Minister, Mr Shaul Yaalom, tried to address the mourners.

Mr Yaalom, a leader of the ultra-nationalist National Religious Party, shouted above the chants, "Whatever the terrorists do, we will go on" with settlement building.

Meanwhile, a Lebanese civilian was killed and another was seriously wounded yesterday during an Israeli bombardment around the village of Zibqin, across from the Israeli-occupied strip in south Lebanon, police said.