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Palestinian cabinet set to take office
( 2003-11-12 08:56) (Agencies)

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie's cabinet takes office Wednesday, clearing the way for him to negotiate a truce with militants and hold talks with Israel on implementing a U.S.-backed peace plan.

Barring any last minute hitches, the 26 cabinet ministers will be sworn in by President Yasser Arafat after the Palestinian Legislative Council approves the line-up in a session in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

"Once the government gets a confidence vote...the focus will be on reviving the peace process with Israel," Saeb Erekat, slated to be a cabinet minister, told Reuters. "This government will focus on maintaining the rule of law and ending chaos."

The formation of the new cabinet will end a political crisis that has embroiled the Palestinian Authority since September, when Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas resigned after failing to wrest powers over security forces from Arafat.

It will enable the Palestinian Authority to start dealing with the implementation of the U.S.-backed "road map" to peace which calls for militant groups to be reined in and disarmed and for Israel to freeze settlement building on occupied territory.

The ultimate aim is a Palestinian state by 2005.

But it is not clear whether Qurie -- who headed an emergency cabinet established after Abbas resigned -- will be able to take steps toward tackling militant groups involved in a three-year-old Palestinian uprising.

Qurie will be a weaker prime minister than Abbas as most of his cabinet ministers are Arafat loyalists, and he will face the prospect of Arafat wielding continued clout over the security forces through a National Security Council which he heads.


Israel and the United States have accused Arafat of fomenting "terror" -- a charge he denies -- and demanded he be sidelined. But both countries appear to have resigned themselves to giving Qurie's cabinet a change before passing judgment.

"This is a grace period only," a senior Israeli government source said.

Contacts are already under way to prepare a meeting between Qurie and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Although Qurie has said he would only meet with the Israeli leader if Sharon agrees in advance to take steps to revive frozen peace talks.

Washington has retreated from its position that a prime minister must control all Palestinian security forces and said it would judge the new cabinet on its success at reining in militants behind a suicide bombing campaign against Israel.

Some Palestinians have expressed concern the new government will put an end to their hopes it would carry out sweeping reforms and end corruption in the Palestinian Authority.

"The cabinet is mostly made of old faces, who did not make things look much good in the Palestinian territories in the past and I do not think they have the desire to do so now," said shop owner Basim Diazada in the Gaza Strip.

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