Arafat promises reforms but fails to dispel doubts

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The Independent Online

Yasser Arafat moved to improve his tarnished position on the world stage yesterday by announcing his intention to reform the Palestinian Authority and to hold elections, although without saying when.

In a move also intended to bolster his diminishing popularity among his own people, he admitted making mistakes during the intifada, and reiterated his commitment to the one goal that unifies his population – the creation of a Palestinian state.

His comments came in a televised speech made before the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), the quasi- parliament, in Ramallah, which was vague and often rambling. The timing is a measure of the mood of popular dissatisfaction among the Palestinians, including his mainstream Fatah movement, deepened greatly by his handling of Israel's recent military offensive.

Mr Arafat's speech, which coincided with the annual Nakba day, when Palestinians mourn the creation of Israel in 1948, was received by Palestinian legislators in silence interrupted only by mild applause. He said: "Matters have been going in the wrong direction as a result of the Israeli government's attitude. Our internal situation after the recent Israeli attacks needs a comprehensive review of all aspects of our life.''

He called for "speedy preparations" to hold elections and restructure the Palestinian Authority to "fulfil the principle of a separation of powers", and made a fresh appeal for an end to attacks on Israeli civilians. On Tuesday, he took a step in the latter direction by signing an order on the judiciary, intended to give courts and judges – who are appointed by Mr Arafat – independence from interference by the executive powers.

His words were welcomed abroad. Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said Britain and the European Union were ready to help the Palestinian Authority rebuild and reform its security structures, but there was little sign that many Palestinians were impressed.

A general public weariness with the intifada – deepened by the failure to achieve any gains, and Israel's punishing military measures – appears to have combined with anger over Mr Arafat's part in several recent deals involving Israel.

There is particularly strong, and surprisingly public, criticism in the occupied territories over his willingness to allow six Palestinian militants to be jailed under British and American supervision in the West Bank town of Jericho – in return for lifting the Israeli siege of his compound – and over the exile of 13 Palestinians from the Church of the Nativity.

The United States, supported by the EU and urged on by Israel, has been calling for reforms in the Palestinian Authority (PA) including more transparency, and unification of its security forces, of which there are more than a dozen.

The PA is corrupt and prey to Mr Arafat's hands-on dictatorial style of ruling, in which he plays off officials against one another, controls the purse-strings personally, and intermittently cracks down harshly on his opponents. He routinely ignores legislation passed by the legislature or judiciary. The PA, now reeling from Israel's assault on its institutions, has long been condemned as corrupt and inept by Palestinians in the street.

This sentiment, which reached a climax in mid-2000 before the intifada began, has gained fresh momentum because of the recent wave of calls, at home and abroad, for reform.

But the lack of detail in Mr Arafat's speech casts doubt about whether he means to act, or whether his words were merely the repetition of past neglected promises to make changes. He referred to elections – last held for the PLC and for the PA chairmanship in 1996 – in a speech last December, but did nothing.

Ariel Sharon, Israel's Prime Minister, is demanding reforms in the Palestinian Authority before negotiating, but his chief goal is to sideline his arch-enemy, Mr Arafat. Israel is only likely to be interested in Palestinian elections if they help cultivate a new leadership, and reduce Mr Arafat's position. But Mr Arafat is only likely to hold them if he knows he can win. There is also the possibility, unwelcome in Israel, that parliamentary elections would be a boost for the extremist Islamic-nationalist Hamas movement, if it takes part.

Nothing Mr Arafat said yesterday indicated he was seriously considering curtailing his power or forfeiting his position as the leader of the Palestinian cause. The signs were that he was striving to do the minimum to curry support.