Arafat blow as Ashrawi quits cabinet

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HANAN ASHRAWI, one of the most articulate Palestinian voices on the world's television screens, resigned yesterday from Yasser Arafat's Cabinet in protest at his failure to curb corruption. She also complained that he was too ready to accept American mediation in negotiations with Israel, even though Washington was unable to deliver.

In a reshuffle on Wednesday, Dr Ashrawi had been switched from the Ministry of Higher Education to Tourism and Archaeology. Mr Arafat brought in 10 new ministers, but dismissed none of those whose heads the Palestinian parliament had demanded in a devastating 1997 report on "mismanagement" and "misuse of power."

Explaining her decision, Dr Ashrawi told a press conference in Ramallah, the Palestinians' de facto West Bank capital: "I feel that the whole issue of comprehensive and pervasive reform that is needed is not being met by this new Cabinet. The question was not one of adding more people to the Cabinet and keeping the old one just the same. The question was not in changing the Minister of Higher Education. The real issue is whether we can build institutions that would ensure internal empowerment to face external challenges."

Dr Ashrawi, a 52-year-old professor of English literature, made her name as spokeswoman for the Palestinian delegation that negotiated with Israel in Washington after the 1991 Madrid peace conference. Following Mr Arafat's return from exile in 1994, she founded one of the first groups monitoring human rights under Palestinian self-rule.

She will remain a member of the legislative council, to which she was elected for a Jerusalem constituency in 1996.

Palestinian MPs have been campaigning for reform since July last year, when a parliamentary commission urged Mr Arafat to dismiss his entire Cabinet and form a new government of "technocrats and qualified professionals".

The commission was established in response to an official auditor's report, which found that a massive $326 million of the Palestinian Authority's $800 million budget for 1995-96 had been "misused or mismanaged".

The report recommended that Mr Arafat bring criminal charges against two of his most senior colleagues, Jamil Tarifi and Nabil Sha'at, ministers respectively of civil affairs and planning, and called for further investigation of several others. Both Mr Tarifi and Mr Sha'at denied the allegations. No action was taken against them.

Another ex-minister, Abdul Jawad Saleh, declined to serve in the new Cabinet. He said yesterday that when he tried to fight corruption, Mr Arafat stepped in to shield the culprits.

The new Cabinet is to be sworn in today and is expected to be endorsed by the Legislative Council. Palestinian commentators suggest Mr Arafat has drawn his critics' teeth by co-opting some of the most vociferous of them onto his team. Nine of the 10 new ministers are MPs.