RAMALLAH, West Bank – The new Palestinian Cabinet ran into its first hitch Tuesday while being sworn in, when the man slated to oversee security refused to take the oath in what officials called a turf struggle with Yasser Arafat (search).
The outcome of the dispute over control of security forces is critical to the future of the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, which calls for Palestinian statehood by 2005 while demanding that the Palestinians dismantle violent groups. The road map was accepted in principle by both sides, but has been mired in disputes over how to carry it out.
Reflecting increasing tension, the Israeli military announced late Tuesday it was extending the closure of the West Bank and Gaza, banning Palestinians from Israel, and cordoning off Palestinian towns. The closure was imposed before the Jewish New Year two weeks ago. Normally such closures are lifted after Jewish holidays.
The military said the closure is among measures to keep Palestinian attackers out of the country. Security was intensified after a weekend homicide bombing in the Israeli city of Haifa in which 19 people were killed. Also, Israeli military sources said orders for mobilizing reserve soldiers are being drawn up because of an increase of terror threats.
Arafat appointed Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search) and the other Cabinet members by decree Sunday, circumventing the legislature in an apparent bid to block Israeli action against the Palestinian leader in response to a deadly homicide bombing.
Qureia has been mired in political wrangling over Cabinet posts. The United States wants Israel to give Qureia a chance to end three years of violence, as he promises to try to do, and Israel's threatened expulsion of Arafat would leave him with little choice but to step aside.
Israel and the United States have made clear Qureia will be judged on his success in ending terror attacks. But Nasser Yousef (search), the man who as interior minister-designate was to have overseen the effort, refused to take the oath, though he was present Tuesday.
Arafat and Yousef have clashed in recent weeks over who would run the disparate Palestinian security forces. Palestinian officials have said Arafat continues to insist on overall control, but Yousef would not comment Tuesday.
Israel says that unless the Palestinians disarm and dismantle the militant groups — as required by the road map — it will not carry out its obligations, such as freezing Jewish settlement building.
Israel and the United States blame Arafat for the Palestinian refusal to carry out a crackdown, and they want authority over Palestinian security wrested away from him. They also accuse Arafat of encouraging attacks and sometimes supplying militants with funds. Palestinians deny the charges.
Qureia has called for ending the "chaos of weapons" in the Palestinian areas, but in an Associated Press interview Monday, he rejected the idea of a forcible crackdown. "We will not confront, we will not go for a civil war," he said. "It's not in the interest of our people, and it's not in the interest of the peace process."
Still, he said he wanted to end the violence and was prepared "to sit with them (the Israelis) to discuss reaching a comprehensive cease-fire."
In Beirut, the militant Hamas (search) and Islamic Jihad (search) groups, responsible for most of the 103 homicide bombings against Israelis in the past three years, rejected Qureia's government in a joint statement as a "strange and surprising move" aimed against them.
Arafat declared a state of emergency and appointed Qureia's Cabinet by decree Sunday, a day after an Islamic Jihad homicide bomber blew herself up in a restaurant in the Israeli port city of Haifa, killing 19 people, including several children.
There was speculation at the time the bombing would cause Israel to carry out its threat — made in the wake of two homicide bombings last month — to "remove" Arafat, wording interpreted as meaning expulsion or even assassination. Arafat's move seemed an effort to forestall such action.
Swearing in the ministers at his compound in Ramallah on Tuesday, Arafat stood behind a desk as each minister put his hand on the Quran and swore "on the great God to be loyal to the homeland and to preserve the law and the Palestinians' highest interests." Each then hugged Arafat, who appeared tired and drawn.
"These circumstances that we go through require us as a people and as a nation to rise to the challenges. May God be with you and help you, Abu Ala," Arafat told Qureia, using his nickname.
Sworn in Tuesday were Salam Fayad as finance minister, Nabil Shaath as foreign minister, and ministers without portfolio Saeb Erekat, Nabil Abu Hummus, Jamal Shobaki, and Abdel Rahman Hamad. Jawad Tibi was absent, apparently due to trouble traveling from Gaza to Ramallah because of Israeli restrictions.
Palestinian officials close to Arafat said Yousef would, in the end, agree to an arrangement under which a security council headed by Arafat would make policy decisions, and Yousef, with three deputies, would carry them out.
There was also some uncertainty about the government's term. Currently, it is an "emergency Cabinet," normally limited to a one-month term. But some officials said Qureia planned to seek a parliamentary vote of confidence in his Cabinet for a complete four-year term on Thursday.
Shaath said Yousef would take office after the vote, explaining Yousef's objections were procedural.