Arafat keeps his ministers under wraps

Sarah Helm
Thursday 19 May 1994 23:02

YASSER ARAFAT, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, is about to deal his first crucial hand in the game of nation- building by naming his 'cabinet' - the 24 Palestinians who will form the new Palestinian National Authority.

Among the most influential figures expected to join Mr Arafat's new authority are Sari Nusseibeh, a key adviser during the peace negotiations; Faisal Husseini, Jerusalem's de facto Arab leader; and Nabil Shaath, chief negotiator and a Tunis-based PLO loyalist.

Mr Arafat is also trying to lure secular and religious opposition voices into the fold. Aware of the strong influence of Hamas, and its growing pragmatism towards the Israel-PLO deal, Mr Arafat is courting Islamic leaders in an attempt to build bridges. He has asked at least one religious figure close to Hamas, Talal Sider, a sheikh from Hebron, to join the authority. With a final list expected next week, Mr Arafat is struggling to balance the diverse array of interests and power blocs within the Palestinian camp.

Until the last moment, the PLO chairman has kept his cards close to his chest, and is playing one would-be appointee against another. The process of appointments is not proving to be a dignified one, and is viewed with cynicism by many Palestinians inside the occupied territories, who fear the naming of names is being given higher priority than real practical planning for a Palestinian future. In theory, the new authority should only hold power for a few months until elections are held, but, with self-rule off to a shakey and uncertain start, elections are not yet on the agenda. 'We are entering a grey area of transition. Nobody will be pushing for elections for at least a year,' said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, director of Passia, the Palestinian think-tank.

Until the 24 names are announced, little can be done to set up government departments to run the self-rule enclaves, and everyday life in Gaza and Jericho continues, for now, in limbo. No foreign cash has yet been released for the enclaves. Donors also are apparently waiting for the announcement of the new authority. Meanwhile, grassroots activists in the West Bank and Gaza are drawing up plans for their own elections within Fatah, the mainstream PLO movement, as a signal to Mr Arafat that their voices must soon be heard.

Several figures, who have strongly criticised the Gaza-Jericho deal, have turned down the offer of a place on the authority, including Hanan Ashrawi, the former Palestinian spokeswoman. 'The main issues for us now should be substance and platforms, not personalities,' said Mrs Ashrawi yesterday. She said she was 'not shirking a challenge' by turning down a post, but had prior commitments as commissioner- general of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights.

Many of Mr Arafat's critics fear that the interim political civilian authority will be spineless, while the PLO leader will concentrate real power in his own hands and those of his security and military chiefs.

Behind the manoeuvring, the Arafat strategy in naming his political commanders is already clear. He wants Palestinians from inside and outside represented. He is reserving a large power bloc for the loyalists from Fatah. Mr Shaath, and Ahmed Kurei, the PLO economic brain, are expected to be the key Fatah appointees from outside. Men such as Freih Abu Middein, and Zakaria al- Agha, and Saeb Erekat, all Fatah men, are likely appointees from Gaza and Jericho.

Mr Arafat also wants figures from influential families, technocrats and men with money. Sari Nusseibeh, the key adviser, is a philosophy professor who was jailed by Israel during the intifada. He comes from a leading Jerusalem family and has been widely tipped as a prime ministerial figure on the interim authority.

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