JERUSALEM (May. 15)
Israeli politicians and pundits alike were skeptical after Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat called this week for new Palestinian elections.
Arafat on Wednesday told Palestinian legislators to make “speedy preparations” for new elections, but mentioned no date.
In the address before the Palestinian legislative council, Arafat also said it is “time for change and reform” in the Palestinian Authority.
Arafat offered a rare acknowledgment in the speech that he has made mistakes, but placed most of the blame for the current crisis on Israel.
While condemning Israeli military actions against Palestinians, he also denounced attacks against Israeli civilians.
“We have announced in the past, and we reiterate in our announcement today, our rejection of all kinds of operations that target Israeli civilians,” he said.
At the start of the speech, Arafat vowed that the Palestinians would never give up their dream for freedom, independence and sovereignty.
Arafat’s speech came on the day of Al-Nakba — Arabic for the “catastrophe” — which is how Palestinians describe the founding of the State of Israel.
Earlier this week, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said reforms in the Palestinian Authority and a halt to Palestinian terror were preconditions for renewing negotiations with the Palestinians.
The United States and some European nations have backed Sharon’s call for reform in the Palestinian Authority.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Wednesday that Arafat’s speech represented a positive development toward stopping incitement.
But the real test would be Arafat’s deeds, not his words, Peres said.
“These remarks must be accompanied by an uncompromising war against terror,” Peres said.
Cabinet minister Yitzhak Levy of the National Religious Party said he is always surprised to find that people still trust Arafat.
“The man hasn’t changed, and there is no chance he will change,” Levy said. “Anyone with eyes in his head can see Arafat is the same manipulator, whose sole objective is to strengthen his corrupt rule in the Palestinian Authority.”
An analyst of the Israeli daily Ha’aretz likewise was unimpressed.
Arafat “knows that he will win landslide support in any election, and that this will cement his power,” Zvi Bar’el wrote Wednesday. “He certainly wouldn’t talk of going to elections if he had any doubt over the outcome.”
Along with the international calls for reform in the Palestinian Authority, officials in Arafat’s Fatah movement have been pressing for change.
Some Palestinian officials have advocated a redistribution of power, with Arafat giving up some of the powers he now holds.
Arafat convened Fatah’s Central Committee on Tuesday night to discuss proposed changes in the Palestinian Authority, including reform of the judicial system.
In published remarks this week, a Palestinian legislator said some Fatah members are preparing a plan to limit Arafat’s powers.
In an interview with the Arabic-language newspaper Al-Hayat, Hatam Kader said that once the plan is implemented, Arafat “will have to surrender some of his authority.”