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The World & Nation

Palestinian Legislators Send Arafat a Message

Mideast: Lawmakers force leader's Cabinet to resign despite his setting an election date.

September 12, 2002|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — In a rare mutiny against the power of Yasser Arafat, Palestinian legislators Wednesday forced his newly appointed Cabinet to resign--the latest sign of his crumbling authority.

Arafat also announced that presidential and parliamentary elections would be held Jan 20. He had hoped that at last fixing a date would stave off the challenge to his Cabinet, but the maneuver failed.

"Today we proved we can bite," Qadoura Faris announced to reporters outside the offices of the Palestinian Legislative Council in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Faris, a member of the council, is from Arafat's Fatah movement.

"Our aim was to topple the government, and the government now is toppled," declared Jamal Shobaki, another Fatah lawmaker. "Our next step is to enforce the rule of law."

Since its election six years ago, the Palestinian legislature has been viewed as little more than a rubber stamp to Arafat's will. The Palestinian Authority president routinely ignored the laws it passed.

But Wednesday, members served notice. Their resistance reflected a growing wave of unhappiness with the way the Palestinian Authority is run and the direction of the Palestinians' nearly 2-year-old conflict with Israel.

Fed up with the 73-year-old Arafat's autocratic rule and what they see as his refusal to introduce serious reforms into a corrupt and inept government, legislators let it be known that they would not ratify the Palestinian leader's recently reshuffled Cabinet. Several conditioned their approval on his appointment of a prime minister, something he refuses to do because it would take away some of his power.

Arafat lobbied legislators all day long. He summoned key Fatah leaders to his Ramallah headquarters and agreed to the Jan. 20 date for elections, apparently thinking that would win approval for the Cabinet.

But when it became clear that his government was headed for a no-confidence vote that he would be likely to lose, Arafat accepted the resignations of his ministers.

The political drama came on the third day of the Palestinian legislature's first full session in nearly two years. A video link allowed members who live in the Gaza Strip to participate. Israel had barred 14 Gazan legislators from traveling to the West Bank because of allegations that they were involved in attacks on Israelis.

Arafat revamped his Cabinet in June under U.S. and European pressure, adding five members. They included Interior Minister Abdel Razak Yehiyeh, who recently called for a halt to suicide bombings, and Finance Minister Salam Fayyad, who is well respected in international finance circles.

The lawmakers are opposed to the longer-serving Cabinet members, Arafat cronies who are blamed for many of the regime's failings, mismanagement and abuse.

Legislators were nearly giddy with what they viewed as their newfound power.

"This was a challenge to Arafat and his one-man rule," said Hassan Khreisheh, an opposition legislator from the West Bank city of Tulkarm. "Arafat must learn from this. We are beginning to show that elected members can have power."

Wednesday's developments may not change things substantially within the Palestinian Authority. Arafat has 14 days to appoint another Cabinet, and the current one will continue to serve in the meantime.

Still, the fact that much of the 86-member body rebelled was a significant barometer of discontent and of a willingness of legislators to speak out.

In another unusual display, Nabil Amr, who quit Arafat's Cabinet this year, published a scathing criticism of the president's rule this week. And he used the semiofficial Palestinian newspaper Al Hayat al Jadida to do it.

Amr wrote that all Palestinian national institutions are "going through the darkest days of their history." Instead of blaming Israel and its military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, he held the Palestinian Authority responsible.

"We failed in the management of the historical process we faced," he wrote. "We failed to establish the rule of law in a manner that would order the relations between the government and the people."

As for the elections, Arafat had previously said voting would be held in January but only Wednesday set a date. The Bush administration, which has called for the removal of Arafat, had advocated a later date, believing that the sooner elections are held, the more likely the Palestinian president will be reelected.

No major candidate has thus far stepped up to oppose Arafat.

Reuven Rivlin, Israel's communications minister, told Israeli radio Wednesday that if Palestinians reelect Arafat, "we will continue to treat them as a people led by a terrorist."

*

Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah contributed to this report.

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