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Palestinians Delay Vote on Cabinet

October 9, 2003

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) _ Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia suffered a severe blow Thursday when legislators failed to vote on his Cabinet, casting doubt on his future and the fate of his plan to reach a comprehensive truce with Israel.

In a heated closed-door meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Qureia suggested he no longer wanted to be prime minister, just four days after taking office, officials said. Arafat’s spokesman said there were ``serious differences,″ but denied Qureia had threatened to resign.

Qureia’s success is key to efforts to salvage the stalled U.S.-backed ``road map″ peace plan, which outlines a path to ending three years of violence and a Palestinian state by 2005.

His predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas, resigned in September after four months on the job, squeezed between Israel’s demand he end ongoing violence and crack down on militants and Arafat’s refusal to give up any power.

The 74-year-old Palestinian leader has appeared in poor health in recent days, triggering reports and rumors that he had had a heart attack or had stomach cancer or other severe illnesses. However, his personal physician, Dr. Ashraf al-Kurdi, and gastroenterologist Dr. Ala Toukan, told The Associated Press that those rumor were untrue.

Also Thursday, a suicide bomber detonated explosives at an Israeli army base in the West Bank, killing himself and wounding two Israeli soldiers and a Palestinian.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades claimed responsibility for the attack and identified the bomber as Ahmed Safadi, an 18-year-old high school student from the village of Oref, south of Nablus.

The army said the bomber walked up to an office at an Israeli army base near the West Bank town of Tulkarem, where Palestinians apply for humanitarian permits to cross roadblocks, and blew himself up.

The bombing came after Israel ordered a special call-up Thursday of four reserve battalions to patrol the West Bank and Gaza.

Qureia has pledged to work to end the violence, but Thursday’s public embarrassment seemed to bode ill for his chances of survival.

As dozens of Palestinian legislators and hundreds of officials waited for nearly an hour and a half for the expected vote on Qureia’s Cabinet, wrangling continued among members of Arafat’s Fatah faction about the size and makeup of the government.

Unable to agree on whether to confirm the eight-person emergency Cabinet appointed by Arafat on Sunday, officials canceled the vote.

``Everyone has his own script and so we feel that we need more time. We are sorry for troubling you,″ Deputy Parliament Speaker Abraham Abu Najar told waiting legislators.

The vote was tentatively rescheduled for Saturday. Until then, the Cabinet remains a temporary one that officials say can rule for only a month.

Some legislators objected to the idea of legitimizing the emergency Cabinet, which was appointed without consultation, and some even insisted there was no provision in the law for a government being appointed by decree. Others favored confirming the Cabinet with a vote in parliament, but objected to its small size.

``If this government were presented ... today it would have failed,″ said Salah Tamari, a Fatah legislator.

During the meeting with Arafat and the Fatah leadership, an exasperated Qureia told the Palestinian leader, ``Just relieve me of this job,″ according to officials who were present. That sparked speculation he might have resigned, which Arafat aide Nabil Abu Rdeineh denied.

``There are serious differences, but it did not reach the point of resignation,″ Abu Rdeineh told reporters outside Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters.

Israel, meanwhile, continued to increase the number of soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz ordered a call-up of four reserve battalions, roughly 1,000 soldiers, to patrol those areas. The call-up was to begin in about 10 days, after the weeklong Sukkot holiday that begins Friday night.

Mofaz had already ordered two battalions of active-duty soldiers to the West Bank and Gaza, canceled leaves and continued a strict lockdown on Palestinian areas, reportedly at least through Oct. 22.

Israel has enforced strict travel bans in the past three years of fighting, though there have been fluctuations. Closures are usually tightened over holiday periods.

Restrictions barring Palestinians from entering Israel and preventing many from leaving their towns have been tight since an Islamic Jihad bomber killed 19 Israelis on Saturday.

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