Many Palestinians urging reforms on Arafat government

Growing number see Israeli pullout as chance to root out corruption

May 13, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Two weeks after the Israeli army left this city and its ruling institutions in ruin, people are still busy sweeping away rubble, paving streets and rebuilding homes. But along with new bricks and mortar, many in this Palestinian capital want a new government.

A growing number of Palestinians want to use this opportunity to start over. They still view their leader, Yasser Arafat, as irreplaceable, but they are loudly calling upon him to fix what they have long believed is a corrupt, ineffective and undemocratic regime.

Pleas for reform began on the street, hours before the Israeli military pulled out and freed Arafat from weeks under siege. The movement is growing and could lead to an overhaul of the Palestinian Authority.

A high-ranking Cabinet member, Nabil Amr, resigned over the weekend, complaining that Arafat and his close aides are moving too slowly. Leaders in Arafat's Fatah faction called yesterday for the 40-member Cabinet to be reduced to 15 and for a prime minister to be installed.

"There is no escaping reform," said Ali Jerbawi, a political science professor at Birzeit University, outside Ramallah. "Arafat has two choices. He can succumb to the outside pressure and be forced to do it their way, or he can do it the way he wants to. Either way, he has got to change."

Arafat is caught between the competing agendas of the United States, Israel, Arab nations and his people. Each is calling for reform, but each has something different in mind.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says he won't embrace peace talks until the Palestinian government enacts changes that essentially reduce Arafat to a figurehead leader, with a moderate prime minister installed to run day-to-day affairs.

Sharon has made no secret of his desire to be rid of Arafat, and, under pressure from the United States, stopped just short of using force to send him into exile. Sharon is advancing a reform platform to isolate his longtime nemesis and reduce his prestige.

President Bush is sending CIA Director George J. Tenet to the region this week to help Arafat combine his many and often competing security forces, decimated during Israel's incursions, into one police department that can effectively combat terror groups intent on undermining the peace process.

But that, too, is viewed with suspicion, Jerbawi said, accusing the United States of trying to install a puppet police chief only to protect Israel from terrorist attacks. Two of Arafat's security chiefs, who head forces in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, are fighting for the top job.

The Palestinians have long called for reforms -- cries that were effectively stifled when the uprising against Israel began 19 months ago. They want an end to government corruption, an independent Palestinian judiciary and more freedom to dissent.

Israel's sweeping incursions into the West Bank have created an opening for change. And blaming Israel, said Palestinian legislator Abdul Jawad Saleh, is no longer an excuse for blocking such change.

Saleh, a longtime Arafat critic, likened the Palestinian Authority to a "mafia regime" that ignores "the basic rule of law" and has secret slush funds for everything from procuring weapons to paying for vacations.

Arafat resistance

In an interview, Saleh said Arafat has not signed 13 bills passed by the Palestinian legislature that could be the "foundation of a democracy." The potential reforms include electing, instead of appointing, judges; independent oversight of finances; and a truly free press.

Several Cabinet ministers complain privately that Arafat remains resistant to change. Two days after the siege ended and he emerged triumphant, the Palestinian leader gathered close associates for a meeting and then brushed them off when the subject of reforms came up.

Arafat railed for hours against the Israeli army and the United States, and angrily walked out when presented with a plan to revamp the authority, Cabinet members said. His close aides declined to be interviewed but have said that true reform is impossible until Israel withdraws its settlements and troops from the West Bank and Gaza.

Arafat has been weakened by striking deals to end the siege of his compound in Ramallah and at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, under which Palestinian militants were jailed or exiled. Aides say Arafat is concerned that further changes would be viewed as evidence that he is caving in to pressure and that he believes the Bush administration's calls for him to institute reforms are insincere.

"The Americans are not interested in a democratic Palestinian state," Saleh said. "They want someone in power who can stop this violence with Israel. They want change, but for the wrong reasons. And they will pay, just as we all have paid for the past 18 months."

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