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Arafat Announces Cabinet Reshuffle

Aired June 9, 2002 - 10:00   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone, I'm Kyra Phillips at the CNN center in Atlanta. We do have some breaking news out of the Middle East. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is about to issue a statement announcing a major reshuffling of his Cabinet. The actual naming of the scaled-down Cabinet is expected within the next 48 hours. U.S. and Israeli leaders had called on Arafat to make the reforms in order to curb Palestinian suicide attacks. Matthew Chance now with more from Ramallah.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, after a great deal of pressure that's been placed on the Palestinian Authority, on Yasser Arafat to introduce reforms, those reforms are now being announced. Israel has made reform a condition, one of its conditions of resuming negotiations, resuming a peace process with the Palestinians. It says it wants the Palestinian Authority to be made more accountable. It also wants very radical changes to be made in the way the security forces of the Palestinian Authority are run.

Palestinians themselves for several years have also been pushing for reforms to make the Palestinian Authority more accountable and more democratic. Their concern, of course, is not, though, that the Palestinian Authority make it anymore easy to answer the concerns of Israel, but simply that their interests are looked after.

Now, to shed light on exactly what reforms are being made, I'm joined by Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiator. Thank you, Mr. Erakat, for giving us your time. What exact reforms have been announced?

SAEB ERAKAT, CHIEF PALESTINIAN NEGOTIATOR: The president today signed a decree on reshuffling the Cabinet. I believe there's a significant change. Ten ministers are out; seven ministries have been merged. The key Ministry of Finance will have a new minister. The key Ministry of Education and Higher Education will have a new minister. The minister of justice will be a new one.

And also, President Arafat (UNINTELLIGIBLE) minister of interior, and he appointed General Abdel Razak al-Yahya to have this ministry. This is a significant change. The number of cabinets shrunk from 30 to 20. And this changes are Palestinian steps in the direction of building the institutions of the Palestinian state.

Actually, reform process is our way to nation-building, and I'm sure that the president in the next few days will announce two decrees, one concerning the presidential and legislative elections, and one concerning the local government elections. And also, introduction of the new minister of interior means that there'll be some major changes in the security apparatus.

CHANCE: You mentioned the issue of elections. Has any date behind the scenes been set for presidential elections here?

ERAKAT: We and the president today asked for specific dates concerning -- before the end of this year, the beginning of next year, because we have to have the schools to be ballot stations, and teachers who run these elections usually. So it's being studied in the technical aspects. The decision has been made that the elections will take place either by the end of this year or early next year for the presidential, legislative and local government elections.

CHANCE: Now, back to the reforms. A number of ministers has been whittled down to 20. Is this, though, a genuine attempt by the Palestinian Authority to undertake reform, to make itself more accountable, or is this just an opportunity for Yasser Arafat to get rid of the figures who he no longer likes?

ERAKAT: On the contrary, I think President Arafat in the last few days faced major difficulties, because all these ministers who are out now are very close personal friends of the president. Have been very close in the president's (ph) years of struggle. So it's been rather very, very difficult to have this reshuffle. As I said, this is going to be a government of preparation, preparation for the building the institutions for a nation state, and at the same time, for the elections that will be announced in the next few days.

CHANCE: All right. Now, what about the issue of the security forces? There are, what, 12 security organizations in the Palestinian Authority? It's obviously a point of great concern for the Israelis that this is whittled down to a number much lesser, more accountable, more streamlined number. Has reform of the security forces been sort of set aside for the moment?

ERAKAT: Well, let me first say, I don't think that Sharon cares if we are ruled by the boy scouts or Atilla the Hun. And I think the only meaning of Sharon speaking about reform is to get rid of the elected Palestinian president, President Arafat.

Sharon, while we're having Palestinian reform, Sharon is deforming us. There's something called Sharon's deforms, as we call them, in our legal system, in resuming the occupation, in continuing the attack, the destruction of Palestinian areas, splitting (UNINTELLIGIBLE), settlement activities, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) policy as far as Jerusalem.

The end game of Sharon is using reform as a pretext in order to achieve his end game, that is the destruction of the Palestinian Authority, getting rid of Arafat and replacing this authority with the Israeli civil administration and the resumption of full Israeli occupation.

CHANCE: When will we hear about reform of the security forces? ERAKAT: I think once you have the appointment of the new minister of interior -- this is significant; this was President Arafat's post for the last eight years, and now he gave it up to General Abdel Razak al-Yahya, and I'm sure that the president's been studying and reviewing many -- structure of major reforms, which will be announced hopefully in the very near future.

CHANCE: Now, you mentioned the fact that of course Yasser Arafat is still very much the man in control of the Palestinian Authority. In that case, what real differences are these reforms going to make to the way in which the Palestinian Authority is run?

ERAKAT: Well, you have to keep in mind that President Arafat was elected directly by the Palestinian people as the president of the Palestinian Authority. I think 18 months into the Palestinian Authority's birth, we had major presidential elections and legislative elections. And this is the fourth government that's being reshuffled in the last four years.

I think, you know, you can -- people can score points and assign blame on President Arafat. He is the elected president of the Palestinian people. He's the one who led Palestinians toward peace. He's the one who has recognized the state of Israel's right to exist.

Now, Sharon wants to continue demonizing Arafat as a pretext in order to continue his occupation, to resume the occupation. Last year, we had the seven days. This year, we hear reform. Now we hear we can't have peace without Arafat. You know, Sharon is the last person on earth anyone would like to sit with, but inevitably (ph) you have to think. This is the elected leader of the Israeli people. This is the democratic choice of the Israelis. We have to respect that, and I hope the Israelis will respect the democratic choice of the Palestinians.

CHANCE: And just very briefly, Mr. Erakat, is there any discussion behind the scenes of Yasser Arafat perhaps stepping aside, taking a more ceremonial role, allowing someone else to come through, is that being discussed?

ERAKAT: No, that's not being discussed. You know, if you look at the Palestinian basic law, we're not an independent state, we're people under -- still under occupation. And what's being discussed now is the elections for presidential, legislative and local next year.

CHANCE: All right. Saeb Erakat, thank you very much for joining us.

We can now go to our Jerusalem bureau, where Jerrold Kessel is waiting for us there with reaction from the Israeli government.

Over to you, Jerrold.

JERROLD KESSEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Thank you very much, Matthew. And interestingly, of course, that this announcement -- if you could call it perhaps the first phase of the Palestinian reform, coming on the eve of the talks in Washington that Prime Minister Sharon will be having with President Bush tomorrow in the White House. Now, that of course adding to the interest with which Israelis will be watching these announcements coming out of Ramallah and the reform, beginning of reform, in the Palestinian Authority.

Joining us here in our Jerusalem bureau is senior aide to Prime Minister Sharon, Dore Gold. Thank you very much, Mr. Gold, for joining us. Your reaction quickly to this first announcement of perhaps the first phase of Palestinian reform, the Cabinet reshuffle.

DORE GOLD, SENIOR SHARON ADVISER: You know, just this last weekend, a young Israeli and his pregnant wife were shot down, were murdered in cold blood at point blank range by a Palestinian terrorist. There is a tremendous sensitivity and a tremendous doubt on the Israeli side whether all this talk of reform leads to smoke and mirrors, or leads to real change. For us, the proof will be on whether the situation on the ground will be fundamentally different tomorrow than it was yesterday.

KESSEL: But that's about combating terror. Israel has been demanding, so have the United States, so have many Palestinians, reform of the structure of the Palestinian Authority. Don't you concede this is the first phase of that, Yasser Arafat announcing that there will be a security, an interior minister who will, it seems, have responsibility for the security apparatuses? Isn't this something that will lead in that direction?

GOLD: Again, you know, we have gone through two years -- almost two years of an intifadah that was launched by Yasser Arafat. Mr. Arafat's spokesman claimed he was democratically elected -- well, so was Robert Mugabe. The point is, what is the performance on the ground? The state of Israel knows how to negotiate with Arab partners when they act like real partners.

When President Sadat came to Jerusalem in 1977, we negotiated a peace treaty and withdrew from Sinai. When King Hussein of Jordan exercised the same criteria as President Sadat and said -- basically adopted the principle of "no more wars, no more violence," we reached a peace treaty with Jordan. The real question is not just a political science question of how many ministries there are, the real question is whether Mr. Arafat and the Palestinian leadership will abandon violence as a political tool. And that we will only see on the ground.

KESSEL: Israel has been demanding that, in effect, there'd be a dilution of Yasser Arafat's powers, what is seen as his almost absolute powers within the Palestinian Authority. Isn't this a step in that direction that you would welcome?

GOLD: Well, again, Mr. Arafat proved that he was willing to authorize payment to various terrorists who killed Israelis before, and we have the documents, of course, from his (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to prove that. So Mr. Arafat's backing of terrorism is something that disturbs all of us. Anything that weakens his involvement in issues of security is preferable. But we will have to see on the ground whether the situation changes. In light of what we've been experiencing over the last number of days, we're not holding our breath.

KESSEL: The fact that Israel keeps pressuring and saying, it's all about Yasser Arafat, why don't you come out and say, really, reform is about pushing Arafat aside, side-lining him, that's what your interest is?

GOLD: Well, reform is many things. Reform is, first of all, creating an accountable government and transparency. How many aid dollars have come in from European Union and other international organizations and have not filtered down to the Palestinian people? Instead, many have filtered into the hands of these organizations that have been involved in attacking Israeli citizens. So we are interested in reform, we are interested in transparency, but most of all, we're interested in the security of the people of Israel.

KESSEL: Now, no secret it comes on the eve, this announcement of the Cabinet reshuffle in Ramallah from Yasser Arafat, coming on the eve of Prime Minister Sharon's meeting at the White House in Washington where he'd made it plain that he wants to see the dilution of powers in Yasser Arafat and that he is hoping the United States will go along in that direction. Do you think this announcement will have any effect on Mr. Sharon's efforts in that direction?

GOLD: Well, what Mr. Sharon has said and what he's written in the "New York Times" this morning is that he wants a real partner for peace. He wants to go forward. He has very specific ideas of how to pragmatically move the Israelis and the Palestinians in a positive direction. But he needs a partner, he needs a man like Anwar Sadat or King Hussein. And right now, Yasser Arafat hasn't fulfilled those conditions.

KESSEL: When will you know that he is that kind of man, when the kind of things he does, in terms of what has been pressed for for reforms, are done? What will be the criteria?

GOLD: We don't have great expectations for Yasser Arafat. But when we see that the Palestinian leadership renounces violence, renounces arms struggle, sets aside the use of terrorism to advance political interests, when we see the everyday security of the people of Israel vastly improving, we'll know real reform has occurred. In the meantime, that hasn't happened yet.

KESSEL: One final thing with regards to Prime Minister Sharon's meeting in Washington. What do you expect to come out of that meeting with the president?

GOLD: Well, we have a very close relationship with President Bush, who has been a real friend of Israel. And it is our interest to see a greater understanding, but that understanding already exists, to a large extent.

KESSEL: Thanks very much, Dore Gold, senior aide to Prime Minister Sharon, giving the Israeli reaction to this announcement of first steps in Palestinian reform, the Cabinet reshuffle.

We're now going over to Kelly Wallace in Washington for U.S. reaction to this move announced in Ramallah on the West Bank -- Kelly.

KELLY WALLACE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good day to you, Jerrold. The White House certainly watching events very, very closely. No official White House reaction yet to this announcement of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to reshuffle his Cabinet and take other steps.

I did speak with one senior U.S. official, though, who said what this administration is looking for is, quote, "meaningful reform." And so, the administration will be looking to see whether this is just a reshuffling of personnel, or whether real reform is under way within the Palestinian Authority.

Again, of course, it comes just as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, as Jerrold, you were just discussing, arrived in the Washington area early Sunday morning, making it very, very clear that he does not believe the Israelis should engage in any political discussions with the Palestinians until the violence comes to an end. That message coming out very clearly from Mr. Sharon and his top aides.

Also, in that Sunday opinion piece in "The New York Times," and let me quote for you from that -- Ariel Sharon writing -- he says, quote: "Israel must defeat terrorism. It cannot negotiate under fire. Israel has made painful concessions for peace before, and will demonstrate diplomatic flexibility to make peace again, but it requires first and foremost a reliable partner for peace," and as Jerrold and Dore Gold were discussing, this is a dramatically different point of view from what Mr. Bush, President Bush, heard from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak Saturday during their talks at the presidential retreat at Camp David.

The Egyptian leader making it very clear he wants the president to agree to a timeline for negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians and the creation of a Palestinian state. Mr. Bush making it clear he is not ready to commit to such a timetable just yet. The Egyptian leader also making it clear yesterday, Saturday, during his talks with Mr. Bush and again in Sunday interview program, the Egyptian leader saying, Mr. Bush, the Israelis, the entire international community should give Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat a chance.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Chairman Arafat, as far as I'm concerned, is not the issue. The issue is whether or not the Palestinian people can have a hopeful future. I have constantly said I am disappointed in his leadership. I think he's let the Palestinian people down. And so, therefore, my focus is on the reforms necessary to help the Palestinians.

PRES. HOSNI MUBARAK, EGYPT: Arafat now is weakened, very weak. He has no police, no intelligence (ph), no tools to work with. That's why he's very weak. If you ask the people now, they say they're fed up. But if he's given the authority and given the tools, I think it would work very good. If not, the people who brought him, elected him, will not accept him afterward. We should give him a chance anyway.


WALLACE: There you heard, very clear, differences of opinion. The Egyptian leader saying, give Yasser Arafat a chance. President Bush making it clear he is disappointed in the Palestinian leader, and it is no secret U.S. officials have been reaching out to other moderate leaders, who U.S. officials believe could pave the way for the reforms necessary within the Palestinian Authority.

So the stage set now for a Monday meeting between President Bush and the Israeli prime minister, and we will await any official White House reaction to these steps under way by the Palestinian Authority.

For Matthew Chance in Ramallah, Jerrold Kessel in Jerusalem, I'm Kelly Wallace reporting from the White House.

WHITFIELD: Kelly, thank you.




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