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Qurei Forms New P.A. Cabinet, but Israel Expects Few Breakthroughs

November 12, 2003
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He pledged to stand tough. He pledged to insist that his man control the Palestinian Authority’s myriad security services.

But when all was said and done, the 18-member government that P.A. Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei put together left P.A. President Yasser Arafat firmly in control of the security services — much to the chagrin of Israel and the United States, who fear Arafat will continue to foil moves to end violence and make peace.

The Palestinian parliament was expected to approve the Cabinet on Wednesday.

Arafat can be proud: Despite all the obstacles, he proved once again that no one can challenge his near-absolute rule in the Palestinian Authority.

Qurei had threatened to quit if his favorite, Nasser Youssef, wasn’t appointed interior minister and given extensive powers over security.

But Arafat vetoed Youssef’s appointment. In the end, the new interior minister will be Hakam Balawi, a PLO veteran and Arafat favorite who is not expected to take serious steps to crack down on terrorism and impose order on the Palestinians’ chaos of security services and armed militias.

In addition, the security organs are subordinate to the national security council. And who chairs that council? Again, Arafat.

What happened to Qurei? Why did he give up? Why didn’t he simply give the keys back to Arafat, as his predecessor Mahmoud Abbas did in September after just 129 days in office?

Qurei did not offer an explanation. He merely issued a statement saying he had reached an agreement “on a formula to unify the work of the security services . . . to fulfill all the obligations to end chaos and achieve security.”

Qurei apparently understood that for the time being, nothing could be done in the Palestinian Authority without Arafat. He would not repeat the mistake of Abbas, who challenged Arafat in his first week in office in a famous speech at the June 4 summit in Aqaba, Jordan.

“The dilemma of every Palestinian leader is between meeting the national consensus and pleasing the Americans and the Israelis,” Guy Bechor, of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, told JTA. Abbas “made a clear-cut choice. He chose a dialogue with America and Israel, ignored Arafat and the internal scene — and paid the price.”

Bechor, author of a “Who’s Who” guide to the Palestinian Authority, believes Qurei’s Cabinet will last much longer than Abbas’.

Shalom Harari of the Interdisciplinary Center, a former Arab affairs adviser at the Defense Ministry, said Qurei is better equipped for the task than Abbas but will face the same dilemmas.

“Qurei is much more sophisticated,” Harari said. “He knows how to maneuver in Palestinian politics. Precisely because he is aware of the dilemma between the internal necessities and outside pressures, he may be more successful.”

The new Cabinet includes a majority of Arafat loyalists.

“Our top priority is to release all our prisoners from Israel, lift the siege imposed on our people, halt the construction of the separation fence and settlements, and open new horizons for the peace process,” Qurei said this week.

That statement was a far cry from Abbas’ speech in Aqaba, in which he denounced terrorism and called for the renewal of peace talks with Israel. Qurei so far has refrained from strong anti-terrorist messages and still hopes to reach a general cease-fire without alienating Palestinian terrorist groups.

Qurei enjoys a number of advantages over Abbas, analysts say:

Arafat likes him better and trusts him more.

Unlike Abbas, who returned to the area from the Palestinian diaspora, Qurei is a resident of Abu Dis, near Jerusalem, and his wealthy family is deeply rooted in the West Bank. He thus has much more popular support than Abbas.

As the former speaker of the Palestinian legislative council, Qurei is better acquainted with the labyrinth of internal Palestinian politics.

As one of the architects of the Oslo Accords, Qurei is well acquainted with Israelis.

Israel and the United States have learned from Abbas’ failure. Though they will continue to demand that terrorist organizations be dismantled, they will be more careful about putting pressure on the new P.A. Cabinet.

“Both Israel and the U.S. are now more aware of the limitations in their demand for democratization and dismantling of terrorist organizations as a precondition for talks,” Bechor said. “When you combine a more sober American view, and an Israel which is tired of terrorism and wants an arrangement, there is more than a 50 percent probability that this can work.”

But, Bechor warned, “this demands creativity from both parties.”

In any case, the obstacles ahead are considerable.

Tensions between Arafat and Qurei continue.

Neither Hamas nor Islamic Jihad has joined the Cabinet. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine also are not represented.

The Cabinet relies heavily on the old cadre of Fatah movement leaders, with the addition of representatives from several splinter groups. Therefore, it may be difficult to convince radical groups to lay down their arms.

Israel says it intends to renew contacts with the P.A. Cabinet as soon as it is approved, but Israel is unlikely to respond favorably to Qurei’s main demands — a halt to settlement building in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a freeze on construction of the security barrier and a wholesale release of prisoners.

Israel’s foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, said Sunday that the new P.A. government “will be judged by its actions,” but he added, “Leaving security authority in Arafat’s hands is not promising.”

“If terrorism continues,” said Harari of the Interdisciplinary Center, “then nothing will change.”

That view was shared by former Defense Minister Moshe Arens.

In an interview with JTA, Arens made several observations about Israeli policy toward the Palestinians.

Though he said he is disappointed that Arafat maintains his control of the security forces, Arens suggested that Israel stop threatening Arafat.

“We should leave him alone, simply ignore him,” Arens said. “When our ministers appear time and again and blame Arafat for every terrorist attack, this is a demonstration of lack of intelligence, and is probably untrue. It is counterproductive because it shows lack of thinking. By magnifying his role, we only do him good service.”

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