Palestinian reformers on the run as Arafat rallies

With a 56-18 vote, lawmakers put a stamp of approval on Arafat's cabinet Tuesday.

Yasser Arafat, boosted on the home front by the endorsement of a new cabinet, was cracking jokes Tuesday in what remains of his largely destroyed compound.

Weeks after being under siege, the Palestinian leader lauded the Palestinian people for their "steadfastness," and, departing from his text, he quipped: "And I really want to thank the contractors for renovating this area so that we could use it."

Mr. Arafat, who from Beirut to Tunis to Ramallah has played the role of Palestinian phoenix, had reason to be pleased, if only for the moment.

A serious in-house challenge against his autocratic ruling style fizzled in advance of Tuesday's voting on his new cabinet, as reformist legislators opted for national unity during crisis. "We believe there is a very sensitive political situation," explains Mohammed Hourani, a leading reformist legislator. "We do not want a no-confidence vote to be used by the American and Israeli side to advance in a war against the Palestinian Authority."

The reformists wage their battle in the name of separation of powers and accountability, concepts that resonate in Washington. But Mr. Hourani stresses that not only Israeli military moves, but also American calls for Arafat's ouster helped make the reformers vulnerable to the accusation that their campaign helps the enemies of the Palestinians.

What may seem like domestic Palestinian wrangling has wider implications, precisely because Israel and the United States are openly pushing for Mr. Arafat's political demise.

Arafat's associates say the fact that he has won a victory at home should signal the international community that he is here to stay for the foreseeable future. "That Arafat continues is a very clear message in all of this," says Nabil Shaath, who is continuing as minister of planning. "In fact most of the legislators who supported the government told the president, 'We are supporting it because it is your government.' "

But Ali Jarbawi, a political scientist at Bir Zeit University believes that Arafat has gained some time, but little else. "He still has the international questions hanging over him and he has postponed the internal crisis over reform, not solved it."

Arafat vowed in his speech Tuesday that the Palestinians will "continue reforms internal reforms in all aspects, mainly security, justice and management of public finance." He added that the Palestinian Authority was holding "serious and positive" discussions on the roadmap for Middle East peace agreed this month by the "quartet" of the United Nations, the United States, Europe and Russia.

But Arafat's domestic plans, as he outlined them Tuesday, conflict with the ideas of the quartet. The quartet says there should be a new Palestinian cabinet, with a new post created for "an empowered prime minister," a thinly veiled way of diluting Arafat's powers.

Arafat stressed several times in his speech that Palestinians would hold presidential as well as legislative elections, while the quartet seeks only legislative elections. The US is wary that presidential elections would offer Arafat renewed legitimacy. "The United States and the European Community will have to accommodate to the desire of the Palestinian people," says Marwan Kanafani, a legislator who is close to Arafat. "Elections cannot be divided. You can't elect representatives without electing the head."

The new cabinet, which passed with a 56-18 parliamentary vote late Tuesday, bears a close resemblance to the previous one that Hourani and other legislators brought down last month. The September vote was one of the biggest domestic challenges Arafat has faced since the 1994 launch of self-rule. They had rejected it because it was replete with Arafat associates whom they deemed unfit to serve in their posts ostensibly because they had other jobs, be it as PLO Executive Committee members or as negotiators.

Four new ministerial appointments were announced to the legislators Tuesday, but veteran Arafat allies such as Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo and Planning Minister Nabil Shaath kept their jobs. "There has been no real change in the composition of the cabinet," says Jarbawi.

Arnon Regular, who covers Palestinian affairs for the daily paper Ha'aretz, believes that Arafat has a good chance of again being an important player for the international community. "He is going to keep pushing the idea of a presidential elections, because it is hard for leaders abroad to go against this without seeming anti-democratic. I see this as another chapter in his story of being on the verge of collapsing and then coming back. If he stays in physical shape, not only the Europeans, but also the Americans will have to work with him."

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