Arafat says elections next step for new Cabinet
RAMALLAH, West Bank (CNN) -- Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat swore in members of his newly streamlined Cabinet Thursday and said he hopes to issue a decree "over the next few days to set up the official timing" for presidential and legislative elections.
Addressing the first meeting of his restructured 21-member Cabinet, Arafat said holding elections is one of three priorities for the group.
"Before us also is the preparation of the elections. As soon as possible we should prepare for the local elections and also to prepare for the presidential and legislative elections," Arafat said.
"And hopefully, I shall issue a decree over the next few days to set up the official timing for such elections. I hope that God will guide us to carry out our duties in order to regain our freedom and build our Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital," he said.
Arafat had announced a reshuffling of his Cabinet on June 2, cutting the number of ministers from more than 30 down to 21. However, he postponed the initial meeting of the panel when Israeli troops surrounded his compound in Ramallah and began making arrests following a suicide bomb attack at Megiddo junction in northern Israel on June 5.
At least 20 Israeli tanks, armored vehicles and jeeps left Ramallah on Wednesday after pulling back toward the outskirts of the city.
After the tanks withdrew, Palestinian police and security officers ran into Arafat's compound, shouting slogans in support of the Palestinian leader.
In another development, Israel Radio reported that Israel has asked British warders guarding six Palestinian prisoners at a jail in Jericho to tighten restrictions on them.
Israeli troops lifted a five-week siege of Arafat's compound in early May after he agreed to a deal under which the six were transferred to the jail in Jericho under international supervision.
The six include Arafat's paymaster, Foaud Shubaki; Ahmad Sa'adat, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine; and four men convicted in the assassination last October of Israeli Tourism Minister Rechavam Ze'evi.
The report said the British were told if Sa'adat is freed under orders from a Palestinian court, Israel will "get its hands on him in a way it sees fit."
Israel accuses Sa'adat of ordering the Ze'evi assassination.
Elsewhere, Israel's largest daily newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, reported Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told U.S. President George W. Bush he opposes the creation of a "temporary Palestinian state" as a transitional step toward final-status negotiations with the Palestinians.
On Wednesday, the Arab language daily Al-Hayat, published in London, printed an interview with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in which he said Bush was considering the declaration of temporary Palestinian state before its final borders are negotiated as a means for moving peace negotiations forward.
The White House has emphasized that Bush has not settled on a plan. He met Thursday with Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal.
After the meeting, al-Faisal said he was "very pleased" with what Bush had to say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and said he believes Bush felt the same about what the Saudis had to say.
"I think we are commonly working together on the road for peace, a peace that will respond to the aspirations of the Palestinian people for dignity and a homeland, and a peace that will establish security and normalcy for Israel," said Faisal.
He did not offer any details about the discussion.
Powell is scheduled to meet Friday with Nabil Shaath, Yasser Arafat's planning minister and one of his closest political aides.
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