Challenging Arafat

September 15, 2002

PALESTINIAN LAWMAKERS had the chance last week to act decisively on calls for government reform -- and they took it. A majority of the Legislative Council pushed to reject Yasser Arafat's reshuffled Cabinet, rather than be cajoled into accepting his choices, including some suspected of corruption.

Before the council adjourned on Thursday, Mr. Arafat's Cabinet resigned. This was not business as usual -- and the council should be applauded for standing up to the Palestinian president.

But Mr. Arafat offered them little choice. He has shamelessly ignored the elected members of the council during their six years in office. And his appearance before them last week only reinforced his image as an ineffectual and uninspired leader.

During this special session, Mr. Arafat was expected to give a major policy address to discuss democratic reforms, the continuing violence in the 23-month-old conflict with Israel, and upcoming elections. But instead, the aging Palestinian leader delivered a standard stump speech: short on ideas, long on rhetoric.

Times are not good for Mr. Arafat, who remains cooped up in his battered Ramallah headquarters as Israeli troops continue to occupy Palestinian cities. President Bush has called for his removal and insisted on democratic reforms before the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, has refused to deal with Mr. Arafat.

Many Palestinians, however, have rallied to Mr. Arafat's defense in the face of this pressure and despite their disgust with his corrupt regime. But Mr. Arafat doesn't deserve their allegiance, given his apparent refusal to seriously address the issues confronting his people and their plight under Israeli occupation.

Yes, he pledged to hold new elections for president, legislative and municipal offices on Jan. 20. He denounced the Israeli occupation of Palestinian cities, towns and villages and loudly condemned attacks against Israeli civilians. But on the issue of democratic reforms, of keen interest to his people and foreign allies, Mr. Arafat offered little.

This was an opportunity for Mr. Arafat, who opposes a parliamentary system, to show his people -- and his critics -- that he embraces the need for reform and has a substantive plan to accomplish it.

Even the June reshuffling of his Cabinet has been a disappointment. Although his choices of Interior Minister Abdel Razak Yehiyeh and Finance Minister Salam Fayad have proved essential to needed change, critics claim Cabinet members tainted by corruption remain. In a nod to the 88-member legislative council, Mr. Arafat gave lawmakers the go-ahead to vote up or down his 21-member Cabinet.

The lawmakers voted their conscience, despite embarrassing the president. Mr. Arafat now has two weeks to present a new Cabinet to the group. The council's action this week -- to borrow a phrase Mr. Arafat often uses -- will certainly benefit "the national interest" more than hollow speeches.

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