Arafat's support ebbing away

Wednesday, Palestinian legislators will symbolically challenge Yasser Arafat with a no-confidence vote.

With many of the white ceiling tiles over his head missing like a bunch of knocked-out teeth, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat sat in the remnants of his half-destroyed headquarters here and told Palestinian legislators that there has been "enough bloodshed, enough conflict."

But President Arafat's hour-long speech Monday was dismissed by many observers as another meandering monologue that condemned violence against civilians – including the Sept. 11th attacks –yet stopped short of demanding an end to violence against Israelis. It also failed to show Palestinian reformers that Arafat was serious about making the political changes necessary to end corruption and restore credibility to the Palestinian Authority.

"The problem," complains Hatem Abdel Qater, a legislator from East Jerusalem, "is that there is no plan."

Some of Arafat's critics interrupted his speech – unthinkable a year or two ago – to urge him to consider creating a position of Palestinian prime minister. Abbas Zaki, a legislative council member from Gaza, also interrupted to demand specific plans for legislative elections.

Mr. Zaki is among those backing a politically symbolic vote of no-confidence in Arafat's government Wednesday. Even members of Arafat's own Fatah movement are reportedly wavering on whether to support the vote.

Speaking two days before the anniversary of Sept. 11 – a day which fundamentally changed how Americans viewed the once-distant problem of terrorism – Arafat's effort to repair his image and credibility seems to have failed.

Israeli and American officials have been so tepid in their response to Arafat's mixed messages – his calls for a return to the peace negotiations came with support for continued "resistance" against Israeli occupation – that there appears to be a growing indifference to what Arafat has to say.

Palestinians generally were also underwhelmed by his use of this week's opportunity to make a statement on domestic political change.

The critics assembling at this week's legislative council session fall into two camps: those who demand that he agree to appoint or allow the election of a prime minister who can handle the Palestinian Authority's day-to-day affairs, and those who think Arafat must be replaced altogether.

"I think his goal here was to gain acceptance in the international community," says political analyst Mustafa Barghouti, lingering in the media-swamped courtyard of Arafat's Ramallah headquarters.

"But without real, free, democratic elections," says Mr. Barghouti, the Palestinian Authority won't regain its standing. "We are demanding serious changes in the election law. What we saw [from Arafat's speech] is a repetition of the last six years. What we are missing," he says of Arafat's outlook, "is the urgency of the moment."

The moment, however, leaves little apparent room for maneuvering. In his speech, Arafat accused Israeli Prime Minister Sharon of taking advantage of the attacks on America "to frame us as terrorists." But if Arafat condemns all suicide bombings and arrests the extremists who organize them, analysts here say, he loses credibility with those Palestinians who see the attacks as their only effective weapon.

"The problem is that as he tries to improve his image with American and Israeli circles, he loses ground with the Palestinians," says Abdel Sattar Kassem, a professor of Islamic political thought at an-Najjah University in the West Bank city of Nablus. Professor Kassem says he will run against Arafat when elections are held.

"The Israelis are sure that Arafat is not able to meet their security requirements," he says. "And no matter what measures he takes against those who bomb the Israelis, it will not be accepted by the Palestinians."

Even amid demands to officially call Palestinian elections in January, as Arafat has proposed, there are simultaneous pressures to put them off by a few more months. American officials here acknowledge that the Bush administration is skeptical of holding elections too soon because they might just lead to Arafat's reelection – a failure for another sort of "regime change" that Washington has urged Palestinians to undertake.

Another factor is that a US attack on Iraq could turn Palestinian voters to more extreme ends of the political spectrum – such as the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, which rejects any compromise with Israel.

"Even though we grant the Palestinians the right to elect their own leaders, a reasonable interpretation is that we're saying, 'Don't elect Arafat,' " says Paul Patin, a spokesman for the US Embassy in Tel Aviv.

"The speech did not give Arafat a new lease on life," Mr. Patin says. "The Israeli reception was cool and the US response was also cool. We appreciated his statements about the terror attacks on the US, but he was careful to refer to those on one side of the Green Line [Israel's pre-1967 border] as if those on the other side are OK. We believe all violence should stop."

So does Arafat, the president's senior advisors insist.

"President Arafat's message was that we condemn the horrible attacks last September, but Sharon should not be allowed to hijack Sept. 11," says Saeb Erekat, Arafat's senior negotiator. "His message to suicide bombers was: 'Stop it.' Suicide bombing will not get us anywhere."

Yasser Arafat is the indelible symbol of their struggle, many Palestinians acknowledge, but doubts are growing about his ability to lead them out of the current impasse. "If he resigns, it will be a good plan," says Ayman Ghazal, a Palestinian man from from the nearby village of Deir Debwan. "The burden on us will be lifted. Then the people can make a decision on what they should do."

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