Arafat bows to pressure and agrees to hold elections

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The Independent Online

In the first sign that real reform within the Palestinian Authority may be on its way, Yasser Arafat agreed yesterday to hold new elections within six months.

At stake will be his own job as President of the Palestinian Authority, and seats on the Palestinian parliament, the Legislative Council. It will be the first time Mr Arafat has faced voters since 1996.

Mr Arafat agreed to the elections after calls from Palestinian legislators – those who could make it through Israeli security cordons to simultaneous meetings in the West Bank and Gaza. The move came a day after Mr Arafat announced that he would reform the Palestinian Authority, whose reputation is tarnished with corruption.

Palestinian legislators responded to the announcement with a series of demands for serious reform. Among them was a call for Mr Arafat's complex network of security services to be streamlined. Israel has accused elements of the Palestinian security forces of involvement in attacks on Israeli citizens, and the US has pressed Mr Arafat for reform.

A special Palestinian committee formed on Wednesday to discuss reforms called for the heads of security services to be banned from making political statements, and for a new cabinet minister to be given responsibility for them.

The Palestinian Legislative Council called on Mr Arafat to dissolve his existing cabinet of 30 ministers, and appoint a new, smaller cabinet, with only 19 members. There were also calls from some in Mr Arafat's Fatah movement for a new post of Palestinian Prime Minister, but by the evening they were backing away from that demand.

The Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi described the moves as an "authentic, Palestinian homegrown program of reform: structural, legal, procedural, personal."

There has been intense pressure from Europe, America and the European Union and moderate Arab states such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan for Mr Arafat to reform his government. The flow of international funding to rebuild Palestinian cities wrecked by the Israeli military is expected to be linked to the implementation of reforms.

The focus of attention will now be on Mr Arafat's acceptance of the demand for elections in the first quarter of next year. The only time Mr Arafat has faced elections was in 1996, when he was voted in as President until 1999. But plans for further elections were shelved when the Oslo peace process unravelled.

Now though, Mr Arafat is fighting off criticism both internationally and at home. Many Palestinians are deeply unhappy with the deals which he negotiated to end Israel's recent invasion of the West Bank, complaining he had sold out a group of militants wanted by Israel for the killing of an Israeli minister by agreeing they could be imprisoned under British and American guard in return for Israel allowing him out of his besieged Ramallah compound.

There was more dissatisfaction with a second deal, to end the Israeli army's siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, under which it was agreed that several Palestinian militants would go into permanent exile.

Meanwhile, the former prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, suffered a setback as a poll showed that his success in persuading the ruling Likud party to reject a Palestinian state, humiliating the Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, had done little for his public standing. The poll, for the mass-circulation Yediot Aharonot, found that 64 per cent of Israelis do not trust the former prime minister to lead the country. Even more, 66 per cent, do trust Mr Sharon, and 72 per cent judge him to be a credible leader.

Asked who was best qualified to fight Palestinian terrorism, 66 per cent said Mr Sharon and only 32 per cent Mr Netanyahu. Most damagingly for Mr Netanyahu's comeback ambitions, 72 per cent believed there ultimately would be a Palestinian state, whether he likes it or not. Other recent polls have shown 63 per cent of Israelis supporting a Palestinian state as part of a permanent peace settlement and 57 per cent welcoming a regional conference on the basis of full withdrawal for full peace.

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