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Palestinian Authority announces new cabinet amid U.S. pressure

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Palestinian Authority named the members of a new cabinet Thursday, pledging a new technocratic government that could help rebuild Gaza and fight endemic corruption.

Muhammad Mustafa, appointed as prime minister earlier this month, announced the names of 22 new ministers who would join him in the government and outlined his vision, in a statement addressed to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The reshuffle at the highest ranks of the Palestinian Authority, which runs parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, comes amid U.S. and other international pressure to present a new face — driven by hopes, however tenuous, that the authority could overcome its credibility problems to play a role in governing what remains of the Gaza Strip after Israel’s ongoing military campaign.

Israel has vowed to crush Hamas, which gained power in Gaza in 2007 after violently ousting the authority. Israel’s targeting of key figures in the Hamas-led government — not just military leaders but also civil servants such as police — has led to a chaotic power vacuum, especially in the aid-starved north.

A “reformed and revitalized” Palestinian Authority could work to meet “the aspirations of the Palestinian people,” White House spokesman John Kirby told reporters Thursday, adding that it was “too soon to make any broad judgments about this particular new government.”

Analysts said the new cabinet contained few surprises. “Nothing new,” said Tareq Baconi, president of the board of Al-Shabaka, a Palestinian think tank. “Just cosmetic adjustments on a body that has become a central pillar of Israeli apartheid.”

The cabinet appeared to be designed to address both international pressure on corruption and governance but also widespread apathy and discontent with the Palestinian Authority, which was set up after the 1993 Oslo accords to administer the Palestinian territories.

Mustafa said in the statement that he was creating a nonpartisan government that could not only help rebuild and reconstruct Gaza, but also fight corruption and unify the divided Palestinian institutions.

The statement did not address, however, the lack of power held by the Palestinian Authority in Gaza.

It also offered no indication that 88-year-old Abbas would relinquish his role as president. The octogenarian leader has held power for two decades but has not held elections in 18 years, even as his government has grown increasingly unpopular among Palestinians.

A poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research released in December found more than 90 percent of West Bank Palestinians wanted Abbas, better known as Abu Mazen, to step down.

During a recent visit to Washington, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said: “We will identify an alternative to Hamas,” so that the Israel Defense Forces “may complete its mission.” The United States has pushed Abbas to make significant reforms to the Palestinian Authority, hoping that the body could eventually help with reconstruction in Gaza, providing an alternative to Hamas that might be acceptable to Israelis and Palestinians.

The appointment of Mustafa as prime minister on March 14 dimmed many of those hopes. An economist with a doctorate from George Washington University, Mustafa has been seen as a close ally of Abbas, and his appointment viewed as an indication that Abbas planned to retain political control rather than step back.

In the announcement Thursday, Mustafa said he would also serve as foreign minister, ending speculation about who would take one of the most high-profile cabinet positions.

Several other well-known figures were named to the cabinet. Muhamad al-Amour, who served as president of the Palestinian Businessmen Association, was appointed economy minister. Ziad Hab al-Reeh, who had formerly served as chief of the Palestinian Authority’s internal intelligence agency, was retained as interior minister.

Raquela Karamson, a spokesperson with the Israeli prime minister’s office, told reporters after the announcement Israeli officials doubted the new cabinet would change controversial Palestinian Authority policies like the payments to families of people imprisoned by Israel for terrorism offenses.

“If that continues, then there is no change in the new cabinet and no reason for a new cabinet,” Karamson said.

In the West Bank, some Palestinians expressed doubts over the usefulness of Thursday’s move.

“The solution is to form a national unity government and consult all factions,” said Muhammed Ali, a 57-year-old real estate developer in Shuafat. “What will happen to this government after the war on Gaza ends? It will lose its legitimacy and collapse.”

Lior Soroka contributed to this report.

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