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As Qurei Assembles Government, Some Wonder if It’s a Familiar Script

November 4, 2003
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It looked like a remake of an all-too-familiar movie: so-called Palestinian moderates engage in political acrobatics to achieve peace at home, before once again trying to talk peace with the Zionist enemy.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei announced a two-stage strategy to end three years of Israeli- Palestinian violence: First, negotiate a truce with Palestinian terrorist groups. Then, ask Israel to match it.

Qurei pledged to travel to the Gaza Strip to speak with the terrorist groups about a possible cease-fire.

Qurei also was betting that he could push two important appointments through the ruling Fatah movement’s central committee. Once it had elected a new chairman for the Palestinian Legislative Council, Qurei wanted the committee to overrule Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and back Gen. Nasser Yussuf as interior minister, who has responsibility for the security services.

Once all that was in place, Qurei planned to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to discuss how to restart peace talks. Hope would once again lighten the dark skies of the Middle East.

Take one.

The first measures already have been taken: Fatah on Monday elected Rafik Natshe, 70, as the new Parliament chairman, replacing Qurei. Natshe, who represents the Hebron region in Parliament, served as labor minister in the previous P.A. Cabinet headed by Mahmoud Abbas.

Natshe is one of the few Palestinian politicians who have not been reticent to criticize Arafat. Coming out of Parliament on Monday, he said he would insist on implementing reforms in the Palestinian Authority, such as respect for the rule of law and separation of government powers.

Qurei shelved his threat to resign by Nov. 4 on condition that Arafat consent to Nasser’s appointment as interior minister.

It remains to be seen whether Arafat will give in on the crucial issue of Nasser’s appointment. Nasser is considered one of Arafat’s close associates, but giving him control of the security apparatus would mean taking it away from Arafat. Historically, Arafat has not been inclined to make such gestures.

As far as the structure of the new government is concerned, Palestinian analysts expect the seven present Cabinet ministers to remain in office, and two or three new ones to be appointed.

Among the candidates are Kadoura Fares, one of the key Palestinian participants in the new, unofficial “Geneva accord” between Israeli and Palestinian politicians; Hatem Abdul Kader, who advocates the equally unofficial Ayalon-Nusseibeh peace initiative; and Dalal Salameh, a young Parliament member from Nablus’ Balata refugee camp.

Although Qurei would like to keep several portfolios open for possible ministers from other Palestinian factions, spokesmen for Hamas have declared that they won’t join a Cabinet that is considering talks with Israel.

Other steps also have been taken to help improve the situation, such as the renewal of contacts between senior Israeli and Palestinian officials. Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz met with P.A. Finance Minister Salam Fayyad; and the director of Israel’s General Security Service, Avi Dichter, met with an old acquaintance, Jibril Rajoub, Arafat’s national security adviser.

Next on the agenda is a meeting between Qurei and Sharon, perhaps by week’s end, according to reports. Sharon told an economic forum in Tel Aviv last week that Israel “is at the brink of a new opportunity to find the way to quiet and peace,” adding that he was prepared to meet the Palestinian prime minister “as soon as he is ready.”

On the face of it, the mutual distrust is still immense. Israel does not see any Palestinian attempts to eradicate terrorism and the Palestinians do not believe Israel will come up with new, constructive suggestions to move forward.

Natshe’s first statement as Parliament chairman was a gloomy forecast of possible talks with Israel.

“The Israeli government has no intention of fulfilling any of its commitments in the peace process,” he said.

Both sides originally had played hard to get. Shortly after Arafat appointed Qurei prime minister of a provisional government last month, Israeli officials had spoken of him as an Arafat puppet. For his part, Qurei was reluctant to meet with Sharon for fear of losing support in the Palestinian street.

Now both parties seem willing to talk to each other.

Though Qurei, too, radiates pessimism that progress can be made as long as Israel continues “with expansion of settlements, in its policy of isolation and siege, and erection of the racist fence” — a reference to the West Bank security fence Israel is building — he did say that it might be necessary to meet with Sharon to “minimize the daily suffering of our people, in order to pave the road for a renewal of the peace process.”

Hoping to improve the lives of Palestinians during the holy month of Ramadan, Israel decided this week to allow 15,000 workers to enter Israel from the Gaza Strip. Israel also relaxed restrictions on the movement of merchandise and public transportation between Palestinian population centers.

But the major obstacles that have jeopardized positive moves in the past remain in place: Arafat’s meddling, the terrorists’ refusal to lay down their arms and the Palestinian Authority’s unwillingness to force them to do so.

Pro forma, Hamas seemed to show flexibility. Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin declared last week that “the movement wouldn’t necessarily reject an invitation” from Qurei “for talks aimed at reaching a cease-fire. “

Another Hamas leader, Abdel Aziz Rantissi, declared Monday that his organization would not halt terrorist attacks, but could limit them to soldiers and settlers “if the Jewish state stopped harming Palestinian civilians.”

To the Israeli ear, that sounds like a macabre joke. In the Palestinian context, however, it was seen as an effort to bring about some change in the situation.

The difficulty, of course, is that there are no real signs of dramatic moves that could lead to a meaningful change in the situation.

Indeed, it seemed like a remake of that familiar movie, whose final scene is always so painful: A huge explosion, followed by the main characters — those left alive at least — walking their separate ways. Cut.

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