Intifada Against Arafat

Observers of the Middle East have long noted the potential for full democracy among Palestinians. As a people, they have a relatively high level of education and greater exposure than many Arabs to the workings of democracy in other lands – including Israel.

That potential moved a step closer to realization last week with an assertion of power by the Palestinian Legislative Council – a body that, until now, often appeared to be a rubber stamp for President Yasser Arafat.

Using the threat of a no-confidence vote, the council forced the resignation of Mr. Arafat's entire cabinet. He must now form a new government, but it will be short-lived, since he also had to give in to council demands for elections on Jan. 20.

This turn of events throws into full view the depth of discontent among Palestinians with the Palestinian Authority led by Arafat. Allegations of corruption and mismanagement have grown ever louder, and Arafat's reforms are seen as cosmetic. The legislators, many of them from the president's own Fatah movement, made clear they're ready for the real thing.

There are no assurances, of course, that events will evolve toward better government or more open democracy as the US or other outsiders want. Any effort to orchestrate events could only hinder the process. Palestinians want, above all, to prove they can take charge of their future.

That future should include a number of crucial reforms. Among them:

• A shift away from a strong presidency to a parliamentary system. Council members started in that direction with their demand that Arafat OK the creation of a prime minister, who would assume most day-to-day responsibilities of government. He hasn't agreed to this – obviously it would dilute his power – but is reported to be thinking about it. A parliamentary system, with its emphasis on coalition building, would suit the diverse Palestinian body politic – just as it serves a diverse polity in Israel.

• Establishment of an independent court system. Justice is now meted out among Palestinians in often summary fashion.

• Unified security and police forces under civilian control. The present system has allowed a proliferation of forces and the emergence of rivalries among them.

The road toward such reform is favored by most Palestinians and Arafat would be wise to join it. Otherwise, he should let other, more credible figures, try their hand at peacemaking and nation-building.

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