Palestinians in crisis over new cabinet
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was deep in political crisis on Tuesday over the inclusion of members of Yasser Arafat's corruption-tainted "old guard" in a new cabinet up for approval by a reform-minded legislature.
Lawmakers from Abbas's Fatah faction threatened to vote no-confidence in the government, a move that would force Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie from office, unless changes were made in the cabinet line-up before parliament met later in the day.
Abbas and pro-reform legislators have been trying to persuade Qurie to drop some Arafat loyalists widely seen by Palestinians as corrupt and include more new faces in the government, especially technocrats who can help it run smoother.
Negotiations Affairs Minister Saeb Erekat described the situation as difficult but said: "That is what democracy is all about."
Abbas, who would be under no obligation to leave office if Qurie does, is under pressure from the United States and other international donors to revamp often competing security forces and fight corruption.
"I hope he will seize the moment," US President Bush said in a speech in Brussels on Tuesday during a fence-mending visit to Europe.
Many foreign ministers are gathering in London on March 1 to help draw up a financial assistance plan for the Palestinians as momentum toward a possible Middle East peace settlement advances following Arafat's death in November.
"Reform is part of Abbas's program and we are committed to this policy," Nabil Abu Rdainah, a Palestinian Authority spokesman, said of Bush's remarks.
Prospects for peacemaking have brightened since Abbas succeeded Arafat on a platform of non-violence and persuaded militants to abide by a de facto truce.
In a goodwill gesture to Abbas, Israel freed 500 Palestinian prisoners on Monday in the largest release for nearly a decade.
But the mood of celebration was tempered by Palestinian demands for even larger prisoner releases to help Abbas get armed groups to formalize the ceasefire he reached with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at a summit in Egypt on Feb. 8.
Israel still holds about 8,000 prisoners and says it will free 400 after a joint committee with the Palestinians finalizes a roster.
Abbas vowed to make winning freedom for all jailed Palestinians the "top of our priorities," but Israel has refused to release prisoners "with blood on their hands."
The detainees were freed a day after Sharon's cabinet approved a pullout from the Gaza Strip, the first time Israel has decided to dismantle settlements on land Palestinians want for a state.
Palestinians welcomed the Gaza withdrawal, slated to begin on July 20, but were angry at Israel's simultaneous decision to endorse a route for a barrier looping deep into the West Bank to take in major settlement blocs near Jerusalem.
Israel says the barrier stops suicide bombers. Palestinians call it an attempt to grab land they want for a state.