Signs of life after Arafat

September 16, 2002

Yasser Arafat, who has made a career of playing the role of victim of external enemies--largely Israel and the United States--now has a new and formidable foe: his own people.

In a stunning rebuff Wednesday, the Palestinian parliament forced the resignation of Arafat's handpicked Cabinet. It is the first time that the legislature of the Palestinian Authority, traditionally a rubber stamp for whatever he wanted, has displayed some backbone.

It's tempting to make too much of this unexpected sign of a democratic pulse within the authority. The 73-year-old Arafat is still running for re-election in January, and as discredited as he is--among his own people and in the international arena--he is still expected to win handily. There are no credible challengers, and cleaning up the corruption, inefficiency and cronyism that animate Palestinian government will require far more than a single dramatic vote in parliament.

Yet, there it is--stirrings of democracy and political life after Arafat among the Palestinians--just what the U.S. has been demanding. It ought to be taken seriously. Certainly, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon should not attempt to undermine these democratic initiatives, as some pessimistic analysts predict he might. Nor should he interpret the legislature's repudiation of Arafat as a validation of Israel strategies during the past two years.

Indeed, one response may be to keep pounding the Palestinians in search of their total submission. Instead, Wednesday's vote should be accepted at face value--the beginning of an overhaul of the Palestinian Authority by the Palestinians themselves. It could be a first step toward ending the two-year bloodletting created by the current intifada and even eventual negotiations with someone other than the senescent Arafat.

Undoubtedly, Sharon's iron-fisted policies have taken their toll on the Palestinians and fed popular discontent. Israeli troops have taken control of large parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where life for more than 3 million Palestinians has become nearly intolerable. Arafat has been ineffective in ending this catastrophe; he richly deserves blame for the widespread suffering of his people.

But dissatisfaction with the Palestinian Authority goes far beyond the current misery. As president of the Palestinian Authority, Arafat's leadership has been a deadly mix of stupidity and rapacity--and the victims have been the Palestinians themselves.

In a speech Monday before the Palestinian parliament, a feeble and incoherent Arafat promised to hold general elections in January. For the legislators, such promises were not enough. To stave off a vote of no-confidence, Arafat's Cabinet resigned.

Three Palestinians have announced plans to challenge Arafat in the elections next year. None has put forth a constructive platform that would bring peace with Israel any closer. But the prospect of a contested election, and a legislature disposed to challenge Arafat's authority and demand some new thinking, has to be taken as a positive first step out of the present morass.

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