"Smart cabinet" causes uproar among Palestinian politicos

Members OF the Palestinian Legislative Council are up in arms about the presidential appointment of an eight-member "emergency government," ostensibly instituted to ease a looming political crisis and threats from Israel. The act is proving so controversial that after extensive discussions between President Yasser Arafat and key members of his Fateh faction, the order establishing the new government will be turned on its head, and the president’s cabinet selections will now be submitted to the Legislative Council on October 9 for approval.

Opponents of the emergency government say that the presidential order establishing the new cabinet was illegal on two fronts. First, the Basic Law, or functioning Palestinian constitution, has no provisions for an "emergency government." While it provides for the declaration of martial law, the institution of martial law requires the rescinding of specific laws that the state of emergency is intended to circumvent, some argue.

Second, by enacting the presidential order creating the new government, critics say, Arafat has once again undermined the role of the Legislative Council, which granted the power of selecting the cabinet to the prime minister in a heated power struggle that preceded the appointment of the first Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas. By law, it falls to the Legislative Council to vote in cabinet selections.

The displeasure was so widespread that on October 6, the cabinet members selected to serve in the emergency government agreed that they would refuse to be sworn in to protest the presidential maneuver. Intense lobbying from the president and prime minister-designate Ahmed Qrei’ broke the united front and all but two of the ministers expected at the ceremony showed up. Interior minister-designate Nasser Yusef and minister-designate Jawad Tibi were both absent from the swearing-in (the Palestinian press later reported that Tibi was not granted an Israeli permit to travel from Gaza). Education minister Naim Abu Hummous was also absent, as he attended a Paris UNESCO conference, carrying out his duties as education minister under the previous government.

Those defending the creation of an emergency government cite new threats coming from Israel after the October 4 attack on a Haifa restaurant, in which 29-year-old Hanadi Jawdat killed 19 Israelis. "The real motive behind composing an emergency government is not a small problem, but the largest problem that we have, which is that the Israeli government intends to expand its attacks on the Palestinian people," said minister-designate Yasser Abed Rabbo. "The current situation obliges us not to waste time in consultation or to wait for the Legislative Council to grant confidence."

The presidential order was a surprise to most; two hours before its release, Qrei’ was telling the press that all was going according to plan and that the cabinet he had selected the week prior would go before the Legislative Council in days. Some have speculated that the plan changed after a dramatic deterioration in the health of Arafat. A report in the Guardian published on October 8, states that Arafat suffered a mild heart attack early last week and his private doctor was rushed to his side. Days after this first crisis, reports of ill health resurfaced, this time the result of a stomach illness that left the president thinner by pounds and weakened. By all accounts, the president is now regaining his strength.

But even if it were crafted during Arafat’s ill health, the emergency order has the effect of returning to him to the full vigor of his political power. The majority of political figures interviewed for this article complain that the effect of the emergency government order is to restore one-man rule in the Palestinian Authority. "If the president maintains this power," notes Legislative Council member Azmi Shuabi, "tomorrow he can come and remove and add any ministers, and question any minister about his ministry. That will take us back to step one, where one individual has all the control and [a situation] that does not favor democratic organization."

In the past, when the Legislative Council has sought to restrict ministers from using their posts for self-enrichment or political corruption, it has been stymied by the president’s ability to shuffle ministers at whim. In August 1998, the president introduced a cabinet of 28 ministers in response to a Legislative Council "corruption report" that named some ministers (also Arafat’s close allies). The new cabinet maintained most of the old ministers, but brought the government critics into office. While reformers had hoped that the inception of a prime minister’s office would ease this struggle between the legislative and executive powers and introduce political change, the failures of the first prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, seem to have created a backlash against all he represented, even in law.

The cabinet-designate is currently composed of eight members of the mainstream political faction Fateh, and one independent, finance minister Sallam Fayyad. Many of the names are familiar: Nabil Shaath is to return as minister of external affairs, Saeb Erekat, the lead negotiator, has not been assigned his portfolio to date, and Naim Abu Humous will remain in charge of the ministry of education and higher education. Nasser Yusef has long been Arafat’s choice for interior minister, and Abdel Rahman Hamad and Jawad Tibi have been selected to address those clamoring for greater Gaza representation in the cabinet. Finally, in a nod to Fateh’s "new guard", which is demanding factional elections and younger representation, Jamal Shobaki was offered a ministry yet without portfolio. Those ministries now left without ministers (labor, social affairs, information, etc.) will continue to function, say officials, either grouped under the ministers currently unassigned or in the hands of the ministries’ undersecretaries.

It remains to be seen, however, if the cabinet will meet with the approval of the Legislative Council on October 9. While the prior acceptance of Fateh leaders of this modus operandi seems to signal approval by the Legislative Council, which is dominated by Fateh representatives, some council members think an uphill battle lies ahead. Azmi Shuabi, an independent, thinks the legislative body will demand that the prime minister abide by the law and reshape the cabinet (so that its appearance is "obviously changed"), and then return to the council for approval. It remains to be seen which will prevail: the will of Arafat or that of his detractors. It is worth noting, however, that the only time the Legislative Council has managed to reapportion power has been when the United States was looking carefully over its and President Arafat’s shoulders.