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Legislators Second Arafat's Emotions


BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Yasser Arafat strolled last week into the Palestinian Legislative Council, which aims to be the parliament of a future Palestinian state, and asked its members what they were debating.

A new constitution for the nation, came the reply.

"The council does not discuss the constitution!" ordered Arafat, stomping out.

The Palestinian leader was furious that members had not waited for his legal department's draft.

Mortified by the rebuke, the speaker of the council, Ahmed Korei, looked over at the members and said he was resigning. Then he walked out.

Not to be outdone, some other members also left; still others, unfazed, stayed and continued the discussion.

The next day, Arafat and the speaker entered the chamber together, holding hands. Consideration of a Palestinian constitution resumed. Arafat dismissed the previous day's emotions as "Palestinian democracy--and we are proud of it."

Impassioned debate, threats, shouting and walkouts--it may sometimes seem to Palestinians that their legislature has been called to disorder.

Elected in an outpouring of national pride in January and embodying the hopes of 2.1 million Palestinians for a sovereign state, the 88-member institution has spent five turbulent months assembling two days a week and migrating between cities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Since the May election of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the council has been arguing mainly about how to salvage the peace process, prevent the spread of Israeli settlements and obtain the brass ring of sovereignty.

At the same time, it has been battling Arafat and some around him to establish credibility as an independent legislature.

Among other things, the council has served as a forum for criticism of executive branch policies on human rights, police torture, corruption and detention without trial.

While members acknowledge that the council could degenerate into a "talking shop"--Arafat has neither signed nor implemented the majority of its resolutions--others speak proudly of having laid the foundation for a new democracy in the Middle East.

As president of the Palestinian Authority, Arafat is not a member of the legislative council. It is presided over by Korei, a veteran of Arafat's Fatah political movement.

It is uncertain whether a future Palestinian state would become a democracy or evolve into a dictatorship in which the leader's power would be backed by the army and secret police. The Palestinian Authority under Arafat has shown both tendencies.

Critics say that, since returning to Gaza, Arafat has relied too much on his 30,000-member police force to maintain his control.

Curbs on the Palestinian media, the temporary arrest earlier this year of human rights activist Eyad Sarraj and the deaths of nine Palestinians during police interrogation since 1994 are all cited as proof of a weak commitment to democracy by the Palestinian Authority.

On the other hand, such issues are being discussed "very bluntly, very frankly and very bravely" by the council, said Ziad abu Amr, an independent member. "This is what makes us feel proud and gives us some confidence or hope in the future."

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