Rights activist quits Palestinian Cabinet Ashrawi, known for role in '91 peace talks, protests Arafat's failure to reform

August 07, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Hanan Ashrawi, the woman who artfully articulated the Palestinian cause to the world during the 1991 peace talks in Madrid, resigned yesterday from Yasser Arafat's Cabinet because he failed to tackle much-needed reforms.

Ashrawi made her decision by refusing to take a new position in a Cabinet reshuffle announced Wednesday. The reorganization was expected to address allegations of government corruption made over a year ago by a special legislative committee.

But instead of firing ministers accused of corruption, Arafat merely reassigned some of them to different portfolios. He transferred other ministers untouched by the probe -- like Ashrawi -- to new jobs without consulting them. And he added 10 new ministers.

Ashrawi, a professor of English literature and a human rights activist, had been minister of higher education. Arafat appointed her minister of tourism, but took from her the biggest tourism project under way in the self-ruled areas: the redevelopment of Bethlehem that is to coincide with the millennium celebrations.

"Being part of this new formation in my opinion will not achieve anything," Ashrawi told reporters in Ramallah. "The comprehensive and pervasive reforms that are needed are not being met by this new Cabinet. The real issue is can we build new institutions that would ensure internal empowerment to face external challenges."

Ashrawi said allegations of corruption, abuse or misuse of positions and funds "should be investigated and people should be held accountable. If we continue to look the other way or to allow or to accommodate such actions, then we are not involved in a genuine and responsible process of not only self-assessment but of genuine reform."

Ashrawi, 52, a Palestinian Christian and the only woman in Arafat's Cabinet, wasn't the only minister to quit.

Abdul Jawad Saleh, the agriculture minister, refused to accept a post of minister without portfolio. Of the Cabinet reorganization, Saleh told Reuters, "This move institutionalized corruption and the school of corruption in the heart of the Palestinian political system and has really accelerated the frustration of the Palestinian people."

Ashrawi was not among Arafat's confidants -- he governs more like an autocrat than a president. But she was not afraid to speak out publicly on issues.

Ashrawi said she considered herself a reformer. She said the public wants genuine reform. A recent poll by the Center for Palestine Research and Studies in Nablus of 1,335 Palestinians found that 89 percent wanted the Cabinet reorganized -- 51 supported a limited change while 38 percent approved of replacing the whole body.

A legislative committee investigating public corruption urged Arafat last summer to change his entire Cabinet. The panel also recommended the trial of three ministers suspected of wrongdoing.

L At the time, Ashrawi said, "Changes should not be cosmetic."

Yesterday, she also talked about the stalemate in the peace process and said she was unhappy with the way the talks were being handled.

"I felt I had to take personally a principled position. And I will not accommodate and justify any position which I feel goes against our national interest," she said.

She also said the Palestinians were constantly reacting to American "dictates and pressures when they themselves [Americans] were incapable of carrying out their responsibility."

Ashrawi said she would remain in the Palestinian Legislative Council. If serious and substantive reform is undertaken, she said, she would be willing to return to the government.

"Hanan was a good person, serious and professional," said Ziad Abu Amr, a colleague on the Legislative Council. "When she resigns from government, it's a message that it is not a good government or a serious government. It's a signal that should be read carefully by the PA [Palestinian Authority]."

"She should go immediately to Washington to build public opinion. She is an excellent ambassador in the United States and Europe for the Palestinian cause," said a commentator, Mahi Abdul Hadi.

Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian-American Mideast specialist at the University of Chicago, agreed.

"Among the many areas that Arafat has failed utterly is in the area of making the Palestinian cause understood and making clear the enormity of the folly of this [peace] agreement and the pain that it causes to the Palestinians and the bad faith of this [Israeli] government," he said.

"This is a case that has simply not been made to public opinion in the United States. Congress doesn't even know another point of view exists. Someone like Ashrawi, articulate, intelligent, knowledgeable about the West, charismatic, telegenic, could and should be here making that case."

Ashrawi effectively did just that as the spokeswoman for the Palestinian delegation to Arab-Israeli peace talks in Madrid in 1991.

Pub Date: 8/07/98

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