Arafat's mistakes

August 20, 2004

IT'S EASY to be cynical about Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's admission this week that "some mistakes" were made during his 10-year rule. Self-criticism is not part of his public persona. And yet this obstinate autocrat recognized the need to take some personal responsibility for the corrupt, ineffectual authority that he oversees. It's the closest thing to a mea culpa that Mr. Arafat could muster after this season of discontent and protests by Palestinian factions. But Mr. Arafat's speech to Palestinian lawmakers will be written off as another public relations ploy if he doesn't accede to demands that he reform his government and share power.

In his remarks, Mr. Arafat admitted that "there is no one free from mistakes, from me on down." He conceded Palestinian institutions and public officials were at fault and that some had violated the public's trust. He veered briefly from his usual bombastic attacks against Israel and its occupying forces when he said, "We must not blame everything on the occupation. What we can do, we shall do."

But the president never specified what, if any, reforms he would implement. There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of Mr. Arafat's intentions. He has long resisted attempts to dilute his power over Palestinian institutions and its security forces. He repeatedly ignores legislative proposals to address government corruption. Neither his disaffected public nor dismayed international allies have worn him down.

The summer protests in the Gaza Strip, internecine street fights among former Arafat loyalists and challenges to his leadership, marked the first public displays of discontent with him since Palestinian militants took on the Israeli military four years ago. And still Mr. Arafat refused to yield to calls for reform and a power-sharing agreement with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei.

Despite his ineffectual leadership, Mr. Arafat remains a popular national symbol of Palestinian aspirations. Palestinians complain about the miserable condition of their lives without regard for Mr. Arafat's role, but nothing will change until they make the connection.

Until Palestinians shake loose their near total allegiance to Mr. Arafat, they will remain captive to his political will. Until they hold him accountable for his role in the failed Palestinian Authority, Mr. Arafat will remain content to promise reforms rather than deliver them.

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