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Palestinian dispute still stalls government, talks

Yasser Arafat delayed the formation of a new Cabinet on Tuesday by blocking his premier's choice for security chief, a move that will slow efforts to restart peace talks with Israel after a three-month freeze, Palestinian officials said.

Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia has assigned all Cabinet portfolios except interior minister, the officials said. Qureia met with Arafat on Tuesday, but could not resolve the dispute over the post.

Underlying the argument is Arafat's refusal to relinquish control over some of the security services. Qureia's candidate for interior minister, Gen. Nasser Yousef, seeks broad powers.

Qureia's emergency government expires Tuesday, but he said he would present his new Cabinet to Parliament by next week.

Waiting in the wings are the Israelis, who established tentative contacts with Palestinian officials in recent days, hoping to arrange a meeting between Qureia and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon once a Palestinian government has been formed.

The leaders would talk about a truce and how to break the deadlock over the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan for creating a Palestinian state.

In what they described as a gesture to Qureia, Israeli defense officials said soldiers today would lift internal closures around all West Bank Palestinian towns except for Jenin and Nablus in the north.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Defense Ministry would discuss removing illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank. They said it would be a sign Israel was serious about negotiating with Qureia's new government when it is finally formed.

Israeli forces have encircled main Palestinian population centers for two months, a reaction to suicide bombing attacks, banning most travel and further stifling the battered Palestinian economy.

Jamal Shobaki, a minister in the emergency Cabinet, said the interior ministry appointment was the only issue holding up formation of the government. Arafat and Qureia met Tuesday, after a Cabinet session, to discuss it, he said.

"At the end of the meeting, we left both of them to solve the problem," Shobaki said. Asked if he thought they could work it out, he said, "I don't think so."

Arafat wants Hakam Balawi, a senior official from his ruling Fatah party, in the post. Qureia insists on appointing Yousef, a general with vast security experience, once an Arafat crony but more recently critical of the veteran leader, Palestinian officials said.

The same dispute contributed to the downfall of the first Palestinian premier, Mahmoud Abbas. He resigned Sept. 6 after just four months in office.

Qureia has said a top priority is working out a cease-fire. He said he would start by bringing Palestinian militant groups like Hamas into agreement, and then bringing in the Israelis.

Israel and the United States refuse to deal with Arafat, who they charge is tainted by terrorism. They insist on dealing with an empowered Palestinian Cabinet that controls Palestinian security forces through its interior minister.

Before leaving Moscow on Tuesday night, Sharon further clarified his position about Arafat. "If the Palestinians want to keep Arafat as a symbol _ though I don't know what specifically he embodies _ it's the business of the Palestinians. As for his political influence, Arafat must not have such influence," Sharon said.

An official traveling with Sharon said Monday that if Qureia forms a government, a meeting between the two men could take place "within a very short time."

Israel insists that the new Palestinian government confront militant groups, something Qureia has said he will not do.