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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 April, 2003, 20:35 GMT 21:35 UK
New Palestinian cabinet voted in
New Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas
Abbas is a critic of Palestinian militant attacks on Israelis

The Palestinian parliament has approved a new cabinet led by Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas - a key step in the introduction of a US-led plan for Middle East peace.

After a day of debate, the Palestinian Legislative Council endorsed Mr Abbas' cabinet list at a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah by 51 votes to 18, with three abstentions.

The new cabinet under the first Palestinian prime minister is the product of intense international pressure on President Yasser Arafat to give up some of his powers and implement democratic reforms.

The BBC's James Reynolds described the atmosphere after the cabinet was approved as one of "relief".

In his acceptance speech, Mr Abbas declared himself "very happy" before adding: "I hope the government will live up to everybody's expectations."

The United States has welcomed the vote, with the Bush administration saying this was an optimistic moment in the Middle East.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said: "The president looks forward to working with the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian people, the Israeli Government [and] the Israeli people to advance the cause of peace in the Middle East."

ROADMAP: WHAT WE KNOW
Phase 1: End of terrorism, normalisation of Palestinian life and Palestinian political reform; Israeli withdrawal and end of settlement activity
Phase 2: Creation of an independent Palestinian state; Palestinian elections and international monitoring of compliance with roadmap
Phase 3: Permanent status agreement and end of conflict; agreement on final borders, Jerusalem, refugees and settlements; Arab states to agree to peace deals with Israel

He said that following the vote the US would shortly release its "roadmap" for Middle East peace, designed to end 31 months of Israeli-Palestinian violence and paving the way for an independent Palestinian state as early as 2005.

He also said President Bush would now be putting a lot of time into the peace process, and that he wanted to see quick progress, warning both Israelis and Palestinians not to change any of the deadlines outlined in the roadmap.

The ministers in the new cabinet include both critics of Mr Arafat and loyalists from within his mainstream Fatah faction.

Mr Abbas - usually referred to as Abu Mazen - is a critic of Palestinian militant attacks on Israelis.

In his first policy speech, ahead of the vote approving the cabinet, Mr Abbas denounced violence and pledged to control militant groups and illegal weapons.

But his stance was rejected by the Islamic militant group Hamas, which said it would not disarm.

Ahead of the meeting, there was violence in the Gaza Strip, where Palestinian officials said at least one militant was killed and a number of others wounded in an attack by Israeli helicopter gunships.

Powell trip off

The internationally-backed roadmap calls for steps towards peace to be taken by Israel and the Palestinians, ahead of the advent of a Palestinian state by the end of 2005.

Diplomatic sources in Washington say the new peace plan will be presented to Israel and the Palestinians, probably on Wednesday.

However, US Secretary of State Colin Powell has postponed a planned trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Yasser Arafat
Arafat: Rejected by the Americans

The BBC's Jon Leyne in Washington says that while Mr Abbas is someone the Americans are eager to deal with, they are anxious not to make him look like a US puppet at a time when Mr Arafat is still isolated in Ramallah by Israeli forces.

Mr Arafat and his prime minister walked into the crucial Ramallah meeting together, shaking hands, reports said.

The Palestinian leader gave the victory sign, and called on legislators to endorse Mr Abbas as prime minister.

Mr Arafat said he wanted freedom and independence for Palestine. Anyone who disagreed, he said, should go and drink from the Dead Sea.

In a powerful speech, Mr Abbas then set out the priorities of his new government, saying he would concentrate on security, national development and reforms.

"To end the disorder and the chaos of weapons... will be one of the main tasks of the government," he said, adding that security forces alone would be allowed to carry weapons.

"The government will in particular concentrate its attention on the security of Palestinian citizens and their safety in their homeland," he added.

But he also staked out tough policy positions, warning that real peace would only come if Israel dismantled Jewish settlements on Palestinian land.

And he spoke about the roadmap, criticising what he saw as Israeli efforts to change it.

"We will not negotiate the roadmap. The roadmap must be implemented," he said.




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