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Arafat Wins Approval for New Cabinet; Israel Faces Political Crisis

Arafat won approval for the new 19-member cabinet by a 56 to 18 vote, fulfilling an expected reform measure as part of a new U.S.-backed plan for a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Last month, the parliament forced Arafat’s cabinet to resign due to concerns that the Palestinian Authority’s inner circle was increasingly corrupt.

The Palestinian cabinet vote came after some heated debate, particularly from Arafat’s dissenters who complained that the new cabinet did not include enough new appointees free of alleged past corruption and mismanagement. Of the 19 cabinet ministers, four are new to the post.

“I don’t think this cabinet can lead the Palestinians out of the crisis,” legislator Ziad Abu Amr said, to which Arafat shouted, “You are not allowed to talk about the members of the executive committee, you are not allowed,” according to wire reports.

In a speech to the parliament Tuesday, Arafat said he is committed to reform, but inferred that it may not be as sweeping as the plan formulated by the “Quartet” of diplomats from the U.S., Russia, the United Nations and the European Union. He spoke against Israeli military strikes on Palestinians but said he still wants to work towards a future peace.

“The intifada [uprising] of the people and its rejection of the occupation and settlement doesn’t mean a rejection of comprehensive peace, because peace is our strategic choice and the choice of the Arabs,” Arafat said.

The new Palestinian cabinet will serve until planned presidential and legislative elections on January 20, 2003.

The reorganization of the Palestinian leadership comes as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon faces a serious internal political crisis that could lead to new elections in Israel. The moderate Labor party is poised to quit Sharon’s unity government over a dispute on excessive spending on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Labor Party leaders have said they will vote against the 2003 Israeli state budget Wednesday, a move Sharon has said will lead him to expel the party from his unity government and form a narrower coalition of hard-line and Orthodox Jewish parties.

According to media reports, Labor Party leaders will tender their resignations to Sharon before the Wednesday vote if the budget dispute is not resolved.

“The responsibility for passing the budget lies with everyone, and anyone who does not demonstrate this responsibility, I say clearly, will not belong to the government,” Sharon said of the budget vote, according to the BBC.

If the Israeli unity government dissolves, the move is widely expected to force early national elections. Sharon’s coalition chairman, Zeev Boim, told the Associated Press Tuesday that, “the more realistic scenario is that there will be no choice for the prime minister but… to seek early elections within 90 days.”

The political developments come on the heels of continued bursts of violence in the region. A Palestinian suicide bomber killed three Israeli soldiers and injured over a dozen others at the entrance to a Jewish settlement in the northern West Bank Sunday.

Israeli troops killed a 19-year-old member of the Islamic militant group Hamas in an overnight raid of a house in the West Bank town of Tubas. Troops also blew up the house of a Hamas member in the West Bank town of Jenin, which was reoccupied last week after a deadly bus bombing.

According to wire reports, Israeli military officials had no immediate comment on the strikes.