Arafat promises of reforms provoke skepticism

Thursday, May 16, 2002

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Yasser Arafat responded Wednesday to mounting dissatisfaction of his rule in a rambling speech that included rare self-criticism and a pledge of new elections and government reform. But his address was short on specifics, and critics said similar promises in the past evaporated without action.

Arafat has run the Palestinian territories virtually unchallenged since Israel permitted his return from exile eight years ago. While his position appears solid for now, Arafat is facing greater political pressure than at any time during his rule.

The heat is coming from the United States and European countries, some Arab states, the Palestinians and also the Israeli government, who are demanding various changes: reorganizing Palestinian security forces to prevent terror attacks, rooting out chronic corruption, and restructuring the government to end the concentration of power in Arafat's hands.

Arafat acknowledged he has made mistakes, but heaped most of the blame for the current crisis on Israel, dedicating large parts of his speech to parliament to listing the damage caused during Israel's six-week military offensive.

"Matters have been going in the wrong direction as a result of the Israeli government's attitude," Arafat said. "Our internal situation after the recent Israeli attacks needs a comprehensive review of all aspects of our life."

He also reiterated his opposition to attacks on Israeli civilians and said he remained committed to a negotiated peace deal.

"Palestinian and Arabic public opinion have reached a point where they agree such operations do not serve our goals," Arafat said. "On the contrary it creates the hatred within the international community which was behind the creation of Israel."

Israel responded with skepticism. A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Raanan Gissin, said Arafat "talks about reform but that is because of a tactical need to respond to pressure coming from the United States."

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said a positive element was Arafat's speaking out against incitement to violence against Israel. However, Peres said: "These words must be accompanied by an uncompromising fight against terrorism, by a consolidation of all Palestinian armed forces under a single authority."

The Bush administration welcomed Arafat's speech cautiously. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "Yasser Arafat's words are positive. What's important, and the president will wait and see, is whether there will be any action."

Palestinian support for Arafat has taken a sharp turn in recent weeks. When Israeli troops moved into Palestinian towns last month, confining Arafat to his Ramallah office, many Palestinians supported him, viewing the action as part of a larger attack on Palestinian aspirations for statehood.

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