Aides say Arafat willing to run for election within six months

Palestinian lawmakers aim to trim leader's power


JERUSALEM - As Palestinian legislators prepared to challenge Yasser Arafat by presenting detailed proposals to curtail his power, replace his ministers and hold elections by early next year, two of his top aides said last night that he was willing to run for election within six months.

The Palestinian Legislative Council, the assembly of Arafat's Palestinian Authority, is leaping for the opening that he provided it Wednesday - when, under pressure at home and abroad, he invited the council to propose changes to improve Palestinian governance.

"I thought President Arafat was immune to change," said Ziad Abu Amr, a political scientist and Palestinian legislator from the Gaza Strip. But, he added, "I think he got the message clearly from the Palestinians and from the outside world that he will have to carry out changes, or he may risk being changed himself."

Like other supporters of wholesale change in the Palestinian Authority, Abu Amr, one of eight legislators drawing up the council's reform proposal, cautioned that the effort faced a struggle.

"I don't think it will be an easy go with Arafat, who will bargain until the last moment to maintain his powers," he said. But he predicted that the proposal would easily win a majority in the full council.

Appeal to the people

In a sign of the legislators' ambitions for democracy, they are planning to issue their proposal as a letter to the Palestinian people, rather than to Arafat. They plan to propose that Arafat's ministers resign and be replaced within 45 days of the measure's going into law. The government, they said, should consist of no more than 19 ministers, rather than the 30 it has now.

Yasir Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian minister for information and culture, confirmed that Arafat was willing to hold elections as soon as the fall. But he said that doing so would require Israel to permit Palestinians to move more freely, adding: "It can be organized if they leave us alone, if they permit us to do that. It can be done within three months."

Ahmed Abdel Rahman, a close aide to Arafat, said the Palestinian leader would meet within 48 hours with the Palestinian central elections committee to set a date for voting. "Elections should be held within four to six months," Abdel Rahman said. "The issue is serious for the president. Everybody is telling him, `We heard words, we want action.' And therefore we must start with action."

The Oslo peace process gave the Palestinian Authority limited power to govern Palestinians in about 20 percent of the West Bank and 60 percent of the Gaza Strip. But elections have not been held for the president of the Palestinian Authority and the 88 members of the Palestinian Legislative Council since January 1996.

Any Palestinian was eligible to run in the last elections, but extremist groups such as Hamas, which opposed Oslo, boycotted them.

Ensuring a majority

Arafat has generally succeeded in working the assembly to ensure a majority for his views, and when he has failed he has simply ignored its bills. For example, a "basic law" passed by the council and intended to serve as a sort of constitution has languished for years on Arafat's desk.

Legislators have met infrequently during the conflict with Israel. Some cannot cross Israeli roadblocks to reach Ramallah. The eight members of the committee drafting the proposed reforms have had to use the council videoconferencing system to meet. The members are divided evenly between the West Bank and Gaza.

The committee is preparing in the coming days to submit to the full council a raft of reforms, including empowering a watchdog agency to monitor the rest of the government; consolidating the multiple security services, subjecting them to civil control, and halting abuses by members; and aggregating all taxes, fees, grants and other income into one budget.

The speed with which the legislature is responding to Arafat's invitation is evidence that Palestinians are frustrated with official mismanagement and corruption, and that the legislators have been down this road.

After a corruption scandal in his administration five years ago, Arafat - who has not been personally accused of corruption by Palestinians - invited suggestions for reform. In the end, he chose only to expand his administration by a half-dozen ministers.

This time, the United States is pushing for reform, with help from Arab states, Palestinian politicians said.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel is trying to impose successful reform as a condition for peace talks, though the Bush administration has not accepted that approach.

Abed Rabbo denied that outside pressure had anything to do with Arafat's decision. Asked if Arab states such as Saudi Arabia had raised the idea of elections, Abed Rabbo replied dryly, "In Saudi Arabia, or here?" He denied that they had done so.

Gideon Meir, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, called Arafat's talk of elections "a PR exercise, not more than that," adding, "I wish it would have been more." He also said that "anything that comes from the people will be welcomed, more than what comes from Arafat."

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