Palestinians pick highly educated cabinet
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By Mohammed Daraghmeh
Feb. 24, 2005 | Ramallah, West Bank -- Nearly half of the 24 ministers joining a new Palestinian Cabinet on Thursday hold doctorates -- many earned at topflight universities in the United States or elsewhere in the West.
The new lineup of doctors, lawyers, engineers and economists embrace a one-word credo -- reform -- in sharp contrast to the outgoing body of Yasser Arafat cronies.
After swearing-in his new ministers late Thursday, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas told reporters, "They are young and professional ... We have chosen them very carefully."
The Cabinet revolution, spurred by lawmakers' demand for a clean sweep of the political hacks associated with Arafat's corruption-plagued regime, signaled the decade-old Palestinian Authority is ready for a new era.
The Cabinet has an economist heading the Finance Ministry, a physician as health minister and a statistician as labor minister. By contrast, the outgoing Cabinet featured an Arafat crony as interior minister, a local affairs minister who purportedly got rich skimming government contracts and the widow of a famed Palestinian fighter who is best known for her frequent appearances in corruption reports.
The new Cabinet reflected the priorities of Abbas, who has pledged to clean up Palestinian politics as he embarks on a renewed peace track with Israel following four years of bloody conflict.
The Palestinian Legislative Council approved the new Cabinet Thursday by a vote of 54-12.
"It's a turning point in the rationale, the approach and the methodology of forming Cabinets, in going beyond political patronage ... and to look for people who can deliver," said legislator Hanan Ashrawi, who has long clamored for reform.
Among the key appointments is Nasser Yousef, a tough ex-general, as interior minister charged with overseeing security reform and trying to rein in Palestinian militants. He replaces Hakam Bilawi, who saw his job as turning control of security forces back to Arafat.
Nasser Al-Kidwa, the former Palestinian representative to the United Nations, was chosen as foreign minister.
Almost half of the ministers hold doctorates, several obtained in the United States.
The only old-guard holdover is Nabil Shaath, who gives up his job as foreign minister to become deputy prime minister in charge of information. Saeb Erekat, one of the most visible Palestinian spokesmen over the past decade, will leave the Cabinet, though he is expected to continue playing a large role in negotiations with Israel.
Legislators led by rebels from the ruling Fatah Party rejected two earlier lists presented by Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, insisting on new faces. The legislators themselves had plenty to fear -- polls show consistently that Palestinian voters are fed up with their government, raising the prospect of a first-ever Fatah defeat in parliamentary elections set for July.
Since he won a Jan. 9 election to replace Arafat, who died Nov. 11, Abbas has been sweeping with a wide broom. He cajoled Palestinian militant groups to stop attacks against Israel, at least temporarily, setting up a summit meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon earlier this month where both declared an end to four years of bloodshed.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom praised the appointment of the Cabinet as a "positive step," but said he would withhold final judgment until the government's approach to militant groups becomes clear. Abbas has said he would avoid confrontation with militants, and it appears unlikely the new Cabinet would adopt a different approach.
Virtually all the new Palestinian ministers are experts in the field they are to oversee, including 10 with doctorates, a medical doctor, a lawyer, several engineers and others with master's degrees.
Prominent among them is Finance Minister Salam Fayyad, who holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Texas, served with the International Monetary Fund and has made great strides in cleaning up the murky finances of the Palestinian Authority in three years in office.
Hassan Abu Libdeh, who has a Ph.D. in statistics from Cornell University, becomes labor and social affairs minister.
Dr. Zohni al-Waheidi, head of the Gaza physicians union, is the new health minister, while Abu Libdeh takes over social affairs from Intissar al-Wazzir, the widow of a famed Palestinian fighter who has faced numerous corruption allegations.
Mohammed Ishtayeh, with a doctorate in economics from Sussex University in Britain, is the new housing and public works minister.
Another Ph.D., Khaled Qawasmeh, takes over as local affairs minister in place of Jamil Tarifi, mentioned frequently in construction corruption cases. Al-Wazzir and Tarifi have both insisted they are innocent.
Only two of the 24 are women, the same as in the outgoing Cabinet. One is in charge of the women's affairs ministry, and the second has no portfolio. Two ministers are Christians, and at least two speak fluent Hebrew, learned in Israeli prisons.
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