Under pressure, Arafat starts delicate dance with reform

Arafat was to meet an electoral group yesterday to discuss scheduling a vote.

Yasser Arafat must have swallowed hard before signing the bill that marks an unprecedented step toward Palestinian democracy – at least on paper.

For the past six years, Mr. Arafat, who serves as president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), has done everything possible to thwart the fledgling Palestinian legislature from enabling a separation of powers and independent judiciary. He has ignored the legislative council, rebuked it, and stonewalled it. But last week, before making a speech in which he promised elections, he signed the "Judiciary Bill."

If translated into action – and that is a big "if" – the law will dilute his far-reaching powers, say human rights lawyers. Arafat has not specified what reforms he supports, saying only that "all aspects of our national life" have to be reviewed. Arafat was scheduled yesterday to meet an electoral committee to discuss possible elections, saying a ballot could only be held after an Israeli withdrawal from all areas under PA self-rule.

The only elections were held six years ago for the legislative council and PA presidency.

The recent push for reform is attributed to introspection prompted by the shock of last month's Israeli offensive in the West Bank, while Arafat's adjustment is seen as also stemming from US demands for change.

"Mr. Arafat is having an external and internal crisis, and he thinks it will make things easier if he talks about elections," says Nabil Kukali, director of the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion. He and other analysts view the holding of elections as a key indicator of whether Arafat is serious in addressing the demands for change. "The public is demanding reform in the strongest way since self-rule started [in 1994]," Mr. Kukali says. During the Israeli incursions "there were many Palestinians killed and we realized we are alone in this world," he says. "We've lost a lot, the economy is destroyed, thousands have been injured, it's very difficult to move, the peace process is stopped. There is no hope for the Palestinians. So we have to think about what happened."

A 'first step'

The new judiciary law would bar Arafat or security forces from intervening with court decisions, for example keeping behind bars those ordered free. Amina Mabad, a lawyer for the al-Haq human rights organization, says application of the law would spell the end of the state security courts, notorious for their lack of due process and rapid-fire convictions. Reform-minded legislators are asking Arafat to explicitly nullify those courts in a separate declaration.

The law would necessitate trials of those involved in extrajudicial killings, including of alleged collaborators with Israel. And it would eliminate Bedouin tribal justice, in which an elder serves as judge, Ms. Mabad says.

"This is the first step in organizing our society," she says. "If there is law, there is a system. If there is no law, there is no system."

Rumblings and resignations in Arafat's cabinet, and the unprecedented confidence of self-styled reformers are further signs that Palestinian society, or at least its political elite, is bubbling with change. Analysts stress, however, that Arafat still has the power to halt the drive, and that he may opt for cosmetic reforms aimed at perpetuating his dominance.

The struggle promises to determine whether a Palestinian state, if it emerges, will be accountable to its people or whether it will resemble the presidential dictatorships and monarchies of the region. If the Israeli pronouncements about the need for Palestinian democracy and transparency are to be taken at face value, then the battle for Palestinian power sharing would also impact on the chances for peace with Israel.

Mohammed Hourani, a Fatah representative in the Palestinian Legislative Council, is one of the vocal advocates of change. Seated in his office beneath a portrait of Arab nationalist hero Jamal Abdul Nasser, his 3-year-old young daughter Sheema playing with the pens on his desk, Mr. Hourani outlined the demands for change submitted to Arafat. "We need a public treasury where every penny must go in and out according to the budget law. Transparency," he says.

Hamas is wary

Also high on the list is Arafat's signing of the "basic law" outlining a separation of powers within 10 days, and that the presidential, legislative council, and municipal elections be held before next April. Trimming the size of the cabinet is to be done within 45 days.

"Fatah has said to him, enough is enough. Arafat has tried to avoid all of this and we are now facing him with it," Hourani says.

Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, has been noticeably absent from the push for reform. "We don't believe there will be any real reform or that democracy will be implemented. No one trusts the propaganda about reforms," says Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader. Mr. Zahar also expressed skepticism about the fairness of any election to be held under the auspices of the PA, saying the central election committee "played very much with the results last time."

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