RAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinian officials expressed confidence that an apparent turf struggle between Yasser Arafat (search) and the designated security chief who refused to be sworn in with the rest of the new Cabinet would be resolved.
Nasser Yousef (search), a longtime Arafat crony slated to become interior minister in charge of security, was in the building Tuesday as the new ministers took office but demonstratively declined to join in.
The issue of control of security forces is critical to the future of the troubled U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan (search), which calls for Palestinian statehood by 2005 while demanding that the Palestinians dismantle violent groups.
Reflecting increasing tension, the Israeli military announced late Tuesday it was extending the closure of the West Bank (search) 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 has been intensified after a weekend suicide bombing in the Israeli city of Haifa (search) in which 19 people were killed. Israeli military sources also said orders for mobilizing reserve soldiers are being drawn up because of an increase of terror threats.
Arafat declared a state of emergency and 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 Saturday's suicide bombing.
There was speculation at the time that the bombing would cause Israel to carry out its threat -- made in the wake of two suicide bombings last month -- to "remove" Arafat, wording interpreted as meaning expulsion or even assassination. Arafat's move seemed an effort to forestall such action.
Qureia was tapped a month ago but 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. Israel's threatened expulsion of Arafat would leave him with little choice but to step aside.
Israel and the United States have made clear that Qureia will be judged on his success in ending terror attacks.
In Beirut, the militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups, responsible for most of the 103 suicide bombings against Israelis in the past three years, rejected Qureia's government in a joint statement, calling it a "strange and surprising move" aimed against them.
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 a freeze on 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 himself has called for ending the "chaos of weapons" in the Palestinian areas, but in an AP interview Monday he rejected the idea of a forcible crackdown.
Still, he said he wanted to end the violence and was prepared immediately "to sit with them (the Israelis) to discuss reaching a comprehensive cease-fire."
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.
Despite their close ties, the Arafat and Yousef have clashed repeatedly in recent weeks over who would run the Palestinian forces. Palestinian officials said the dispute has been resolved, with Arafat retaining overall control, but Yousef would not comment.
Palestinian officials close to Arafat said that in the end Yousef would 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 also was 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.