RAMALLAH, Feb 23: The Palestinian prime minister failed to win approval for his new cabinet for the third successive day on Wednesday in a deepening crisis with lawmakers demanding more reformists and fewer Yasser Arafat loyalists.
The political infighting put growing pressure on Prime Minister Ahmed Qorei to step down and could complicate plans by President Mahmoud Abbas to overhaul the corruption-plagued Palestinian Authority as he pursues peace efforts with Israel.
Parliamentary speaker Rahwi Fattouh said a vote on the cabinet would be postponed until Thursday or Saturday - the third delay this week - after Mr Qorei was unable to muster a majority despite adding more new faces to his line up.
"It's a big mess and we hope to sort it out," Mr Qorei said as he left his home for talks aimed at a compromise. Mr Qorei, an Arafat appointee who could never convince the veteran leader to enact widely demanded reforms, would have to resign if his cabinet fails to win parliamentary approval.
The death of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinians' nationalist icon, has left his old guard ministers more vulnerable to challenges from reform-minded lawmakers reflecting widespread public frustration with government waste and corruption.
Mr Abbas and a younger generation of pro-reform legislators in his dominant Fatah movement had tried in recent weeks to persuade Mr Qorei to include more technocrats and other newcomers.
A new government is key to Mr Abbas's bid to clean up the Palestinian Authority and merge a dozen often competing security services to deal more effectively with anti-Israel militants - steps demanded by the United States and other big donors.
Mr Qorei's initial cabinet presented on Monday contained only four new faces, prompting a near rebellion by lawmakers who want to sweep away the corruption-tainted vestiges of Mr Arafat's era. He pledged on Tuesday to add more professional appointees, but many lawmakers said it did not go far enough.
RIVALRY WITH ABBAS: Aides to Mr Qorei accused Mr Abbas's allies in their Fatah faction, which controls two-thirds of the seats in parliament, of trying to force him out. The two are long-time rivals.
Mr Abbas, who had remained on the sidelines, intervened on Wednesday to ask dissident lawmakers to back Mr Qorei's cabinet, but many remained unswayed, officials said.
The Israeli newspaper Web site Ynet said Mr Qorei had threatened to resign. The Haaretz daily said Mr Abbas could decide by Thursday to name a new prime minister to form a cabinet.
A Qorei confidant insisted he was not stepping aside. But in Ramallah, behind-the-scenes speculation of a potential successor centred on Finance Minister Salam Fayyad, a U.S. favourite.
Details were scant but Palestinian officials said there were now about 10 new faces in Mr Qorei's revamped cabinet line up. Nasser Yousef and Mohammed Dahlan, Abbas loyalists chosen to help him reform the Palestinian Authority and its security services, had agreed to join the new government, officials said.
Mr Qorei was still trying to retain some of his original choices, including Arafat ally Nabil Shaath, tipped to become deputy premier and information minister. But at least four other veteran politicians with Arafat ties were dropped from Mr Qorei's list, Palestinian sources said.
Long-time cabinet member Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian spokesman who had worked with Yasser Arafat for years, opted to stay off Mr Qorei's new government roster to focus instead on his role as negotiator with Israel, a Palestinian official said.
Prospects for peacemaking have brightened since Mr Abbas succeeded Mr Arafat last month on a platform of non-violence, and persuaded militants to abide by a de facto truce. -Reuters