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Palestinians Near Deadline on Forming New Government - 2003-04-23

Time is running out for the formation of a new Palestinian government under the leadership of Prime Minister-designate, Mahmoud Abbas. Mr. Abbas has until midnight Wednesday (2200 UTC) form his government. The question is, can he resolve the bitter dispute with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat over his Cabinet choices?

All eyes are now on Ramallah to see whether a compromise can be reached in time to allow the formation of a new Palestinian government to go ahead.

On Wednesday, several Arab leaders launched a last minute effort to resolve the impasse between Yasser Arafat and his Prime Minister-designate, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is reported to have called Mr. Arafat and has dispatched his intelligence chief to Ramallah for talks. Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa also telephoned.

Several European leaders have also contacted Mr. Arafat, among them British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The U.S. State Department has said the dispute is hurting peace efforts and Palestinian aspirations for an independent state.

Mr. Abbas was named by Mr. Arafat as the new Prime Minister. According to Palestinian law, he does have the power to select his Cabinet, which must then be approved by the legislature. But in political terms, he must get the approval of Mr. Arafat, whose Fatah faction commands a solid majority in the legislature.

The stormy dispute between the two men ostensibly focuses on Mr. Abbas's choice for security chief, but there there seem to be deeper reasons for the impasse. Senior Palestinian sources say Mr. Abbas simply demanded too much independence and showed too little willingness to compromise. That, they say, was something Yasser Arafat could not accept.

Some news reports cite another source of friction. They say Mr. Abbas wants to dismantle Palestinian militia groups, including the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which is linked to Fatah. But senior Palestinian sources have denied this.

The dispute also has wider implications. The Bush Administration has said it will only reveal its so-called "road map" for peace once the new Palestinian government is sworn in. The road map outlines a step by step approach to end Israeli-Palestinian violence, negotiate a peace agreement and establish an independent Palestinian state. Failure to reach agreement on a new Palestinian government could delay those efforts significantly.