Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday enraged many members of the Palestinian Legislative Council by declaring that the PA cabinet would not be replaced before next January's parliamentary elections.
At least half of the legislators had demanded earlier this month that Abbas form a new cabinet to put an end to the growing state of lawlessness and anarchy in PA-controlled areas.
Abbas's refusal to replace the cabinet drew sharp criticism from many legislators, who threatened to topple the cabinet through a no-confidence vote.
"You had taken a decision to reshuffle the government. Maybe you forgot that we are about to enter the election?" Abbas told the legislators during a stormy session.
"My view is that we should continue with this government and then, after the elections, we will start with a totally new page."
Rouhi Fattouh, Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, said after the session that Abbas's speech was "unconvincing." He warned that the council would convene soon to vote in favor of removing the cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei. "If the president does not change the cabinet, the council will practice its right to vote against it," he said.
Legislator Kamal Shurafi expressed deep disappointment over Abbas's position, saying he and his colleagues were determined to vote in favor of a no-confidence motion against the cabinet.
Seeking to reassure the council, Abbas said only "an act of God" could postpone the parliamentary vote. There had been speculation that Abbas might delay the polls because of ongoing squabbling within his ruling Fatah party and fears that Hamas would make a strong showing.
"The elections will be held on January 25 and nothing will delay it, except for an act of God," he stressed.
Referring to the growing violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Abbas put the blame on both Israel and the Palestinians. "Violations of the truce are being committed by both Israelis and Palestinians," he said.
Condemning the firing of rockets on Israel, Abbas said such attacks draw harsh Israeli responses against the Palestinians, who need to improve rebuild their economy in the aftermath of the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. "No one has the right to respond here and there, unilaterally," he added.
One of the legislators, Salah Abdel Jawad, interrupted Abbas by stating: "Make no mistake - the occupation is responsible for the security chaos." Abbas retorted: "We must not blame the occupation for our mistakes." According to Abbas, the PA's top priorities at this stage are to safeguard the unofficial truce with Israel, end lawlessness and absorb militiamen into the security forces.
Regarding his recent visit to the US, where he held talks with President George W. Bush, Abbas expressed satisfaction with the results of the discussions. "It was a good visit that had been well-prepared," he said.
"The Americans focused on security issues, while we emphasized our need for security and a better economy since the West Bank and Gaza Strip are now qualified for investments." Abbas said he asked the US Administration to supply the PA security forces with vehicles and other equipment.
He said that one of the most significant results of his US tour was Washington's agreement to allow Hamas to participate in the parliamentary elections. "I told Bush that we have various political factions ranging from the far right to the far left, just as the case is in Israel," he explained.
At this point, Abbas was interrupted by another legislator, who shouted: "We don't have any terrorist groups as in Israel."
After concluding his speech, Abbas left the council hastily, refusing to answer questions from the legislators.
Qurei, who also addressed the council, denied that there were differences between him and Abbas over the proposed cabinet reshuffle. "My relation with Abu Mazen [Abbas] has been continuing for four decades," he said. "Talk about differences between us is an attempt to distort the truth."
Qurei accused some legislators of waging a personal campaign against him. "I have spent eight years with you," he said in a sad tone, referring to the period when he served as speaker of the council. "I never expected you to harm me. I work 10 hours a day and I have to put up with demonstrations by the people in front of my office. I'm not personally responsible for the anarchy. This is a collective responsibility."
In a related development, a public opinion poll published on Wednesday showed that 61 percent of the Palestinians support the formation of a new cabinet.
According to the poll, conducted by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, 64.8 percent of the Palestinians are concerned about their personal security and want to see an end to the presence of weapons on the streets.
Moreover, a majority of 37.6 percent the majority of the Palestinians said they will vote for Fatah in the parliamentary elections. Hamas came in second, with only 25.6 percent.
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