RAMALLAH, West Bank – A 24-member Palestinian Cabinet dominated by professional appointees, including nearly half with doctoral degrees, took office Thursday after being approved by the parliament in a major move toward long-promised government reform.
The new Cabinet was sworn in by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) at his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah, hours after parliament gave its approval.
The 54-12 vote, with four abstentions, ended days of wrangling between rebellious legislators and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search), who initially sought to reappoint political cronies of the late Yasser Arafat (search).
"They are young and professional, and I think they are capable of carrying out their jobs. We have chosen them very carefully," Abbas said of the new Cabinet members.
Abbas had intervened Wednesday in the dispute between parliament and his prime minister, and persuaded legislators from his Fatah Party (search) to support a Cabinet largely consisting of ministers chosen for their expertise, not political loyalty.
The crisis strengthened Abbas and weakened Qureia, who may not survive as prime minister beyond parliamentary elections in July, after which a new Cabinet would be formed. Abbas and Qureia cooperated during a transition period after Arafat's death in November, but relations have cooled since then.
Abbas won Jan. 9 presidential elections in part on a promise to reform the government and the security services. His new Cabinet is largely devoid of politicians, and 17 of the ministers are newcomers.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom praised the appointment of the Cabinet as a "positive step," but said he would withhold final judgment until the government's approach to militant groups becomes clear. Abbas has said he would avoid confrontation with militants, and it appeared unlikely the new Cabinet would adopt a different approach.
Virtually all the new ministers are experts in the field they are to oversee, including 10 with doctorates, a medical doctor, a lawyer, several engineers and several with master's degrees.
Only two of the 24 are women, the same as in the outgoing Cabinet. One of the women is in charge of the women's affairs ministry, the second has no portfolio.
The names were chosen in Wednesday's meeting between Abbas and Fatah legislators, said Abbas Zaki, a top Fatah official. "We had about 100 names of top professionals, and we chose them one-by-one, not through voting, but by consensus, as the best to handle these posts," he said.
The method stood in stark contrast to the formation of Cabinets in the Arafat era, when the Palestinian leader would choose the ministers based on loyalty.
"It's a turning point in the rationale, the approach and the methodology of forming Cabinets, in going beyond political patronage ... and to look for people who can deliver," legislator Hanan Ashrawi said.
One key appointment was Nasser Yousef, a tough ex-general, as interior minister who would oversee security reform and try to rein in Palestinian militants. Yousef was in charge of cracking down on militants in the 1990s, but Arafat had resisted his appointment, preferring to keep control of the forces.
Nasser Al-Kidwa, the former Palestinian representative to the United Nations and Arafat's nephew, was chosen as foreign minister.
Salam Fayyad, the Palestinians' widely respected finance minister for the last three years, will keep his job. Saeb Erekat will continue in his role as chief negotiator with Israel, but will lose his Cabinet position.
In Israel, meanwhile, the Yediot Ahronot daily reported Thursday that police expect most Jewish settlers will resist evacuation from the Gaza Strip (search) and northern West Bank and are girding for an array of extreme scenarios that include attacks on Israeli and Palestinian public figures, and threats of mass suicide. Police didn't comment on the report.
The report, citing a secret document police submitted to Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, said that contrary to their public declarations, police don't expect most settlers to leave voluntarily.
Police were bracing for the possibility that resisters will unleash attack dogs on officers, build trenches, block roads with tree trunks and spikes and hurl hot oil, paint and rocks from rooftops.
More extreme scenarios envision settlers firing weapons, detonating explosives and throwing firebombs or arming themselves with gas canisters.
One has settlers barricading themselves inside buildings and threatening mass suicide in a Waco, Texas, type of siege, the newspaper said. About 80 people died in the 1993 U.S. government siege at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco.