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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Arafat's Cabinet Quits in Political Showdown

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- The Palestinian Cabinet resigned Wednesday as a result of a showdown between Yasser Arafat and parliament -- the most serious challenge to his leadership since he returned from exile in 1994.

Earlier in the day, Arafat had set Jan. 20 as the date for presidential and parliamentary elections in an attempt to defuse the confrontation with disgruntled legislators who accused him of making only half-hearted reform efforts.

However, the gambit failed, and legislators insisted on holding a vote on the 21-member Cabinet.

"There is a crisis of confidence," said lawmaker Salah Taameri, a veteran member of Arafat's Fatah movement. "Believe us when we say it's serious."

Arafat now has two weeks to present a new Cabinet to the parliament.

The day began with Arafat summoning Fatah legislators, who dominate the 88-seat parliament, to his office to try to persuade them to back the Cabinet.

He had reshuffled portfolios in June, dismissing some ministers and naming five new ones as part of what he said would be major internal reforms. However, legislators complained that the changes were largely cosmetic, and that many ministers considered incompetent or tainted by suspicion of corruption had been allowed to stay on.

In Wednesday's meeting, many of the Fatah legislators told Arafat they would not back the Cabinet. After the meeting, Arafat issued a decree setting Jan. 20 as the date for presidential and parliamentary elections -- a move expected to displease the United States, which had sought a delay that might help sideline the Palestinian leader. U.S. President George W. Bush has urged the Palestinians to elect a new leadership.

Palestinian officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said setting an election date was part of a compromise floated at the meeting. Arafat would set a date for elections, rendering the current Cabinet a temporary one. In this case, the legislators said, they would be willing to hold a vote only on the five new ministers appointed in June, who are seen as honest and hardworking and enjoy wide support.

Arafat, apparently fearing defeat, accepted the deal, the officials said.

However, parliament's legal committee decided later that the entire Cabinet must be presented for approval, not only the five new ministers. Observers said legislators apparently did not believe Arafat was sincere and feared he might revoke the decree later.

By midafternoon Wednesday, 32 of 35 legislators said they would vote no-confidence in the government, making it increasingly unlikely Arafat would get his parliament approved.

Just before the vote was to begin, Cabinet ministers submitted their resignations to Arafat, who accepted them.

While many Palestinians find fault with Arafat, they say they resent U.S. efforts to push him aside and will not accept meddling in their affairs.

Reuven Rivlin, an Israeli Cabinet minister, said the Palestinians must know that if they re-elect Arafat, "we will continue to treat them as a people led by a terrorist." Rivlin was appointed Tuesday to the Israeli team that has been meeting with Palestinian Cabinet ministers.

No serious contender against Arafat has emerged.