Arafat weak as demands for reform keep growing

Wednesday, May 22, 2002

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Yasser Arafat is at his weakest in years, with his popularity down and his people clamoring for reform. Yet, no serious challenger has emerged, according to political analysts and a new opinion poll released Tuesday.

Marwan Barghouti, a key street leader of the Palestinian uprising, is the front-runner among potential contenders -- but he's been sitting in an Israeli jail since the army detained him last month during a sweep through the West Bank.

Criticism of Arafat and his Palestinian Authority is becoming increasingly open as conditions in the Palestinian areas continue to deteriorate after almost 20 months of Mideast fighting. The uprising, intended to move the Palestinians toward statehood, has so far failed to do that, and Arafat is seen as reluctant to call it off without having made tangible gains.

"The belief in the street is that Arafat is not projecting leadership, that it is not clear what he wants," said Khalil Shikaki, considered the leading Palestinian pollster. "He has failed on two challenges -- ending Israeli occupation and building a democratic state."

No replacements

Yet there is no real replacement waiting in the wings, and there won't be as long as the conflict with Israel continues, Shikaki said. Arafat "will continue to be seen as the embodiment of aspirations of ending occupation. As long as Arafat lives, there will be no second man."

Arafat has the support of 35 percent of Palestinians, according to Shikaki's poll. That's down from around 70 percent after he was elected six years ago, and 46 percent in July 2000, before the outbreak of fighting with Israel. His approval rating has been in the 30s for the past year.

The survey was conducted May 15-18 by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, an independent think tank led by Shikaki, with 1,317 adults interviewed face to face. It quoted a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Barghouti, the leader of Arafat's Fatah movement in the West Bank, came in second with 19 percent, up from 11 percent in December. Known for his fiery speeches urging Palestinians to confront Israel's military occupation, Barghouti was arrested on suspicion he financed and coordinated attacks on Israelis by Fatah gunmen.

Arafat has seen his popularity swing wildly in the last month.

It soared when he was effectively imprisoned in his Ramallah office by Israeli troops from March 29 to May 2. But with his release, Palestinians are demanding reforms that include new elections, a revamped Cabinet, restructured security forces and an end to corruption.

"During the Israeli incursion, the increase in support for Arafat was mostly an emotional response," said Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian political analyst. "But now people are again judging him on practical criteria. The incursion created larger problems for the Palestinian people, and as a result, their criticisms are growing, too."

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