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Jewish World Review Sept. 17, 2002/ 11 Tishrei, 5763

Richard Z. Chesnoff

Richard Z. Chesnoff
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It's all but over for Arafat |
Maybe it's just another Mideast mirage, but there's a promising rumble and roll among the Palestinians. Faced with growing demands for democratic reforms - and the threat of a vote of nonconfidence by defiant members of his Palestinian legislature - Yasser Arafat was forced last week to dismantle his entire cabinet and set a date for elections.

In a world where Arafat has reigned as absolute czar and treated his rubber stamp legislative council with open disdain, that's very big news. What makes the shakeup even more significant is that 80% of the rebellious council comes from the ranks of Arafat's own Fatah movement.

What's going on? For one thing, an increasing number of Palestinians are finally realizing that their two-year-old terror war against Israel has been an unmitigated disaster.

Intifadeh No. 2 has resulted in more Palestinian deaths than Israeli, and with Israel determined to defend itself to the hilt, Arafat's so-called holy war has left the Palestinian economy in a shambles and the Palestinians further from independence than they were when it started.

As a result, homegrown criticism of the Palestinian dictator is mounting. At first it was whispered, then it was directed against the corruption and brutality of some of his closest associates. Finally, weeks ago, one of Arafat's former cabinet ministers, Nabil Amr, bravely published an open letter attacking Arafat for having rejected President Bill Clinton's peace proposals at Camp David 26 months ago - proposals that then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was prepared to accept and which would have established a Palestinian state.

The spitball is picking up speed. This week, after Arafat's opening speech at the legislature only wishy-washily criticized suicide bombers, other Fatah members boldly issued their own renunciation of terror attacks on civilians - especially suicide bombings.

No small part of this new Palestinian boldness is inspired bv Israel's announcement that it considered Arafat irrelevant and the Bush administration's warning that "serious reform" in the Palestinian leadership was a prerequisite to American support for Palestinian independence.

Where does it go from here? Palestinian reformers are hoping that Arafat's next cabinet will include what one legislator, Abdel Karim Abu Salah, calls "new young members whom the people can trust." What he means is Palestinian leaders who will use public funds to build public housing instead of lavish seaside and hillside mansions for themselves; who will establish an infrastructure for economic growth rather than their own personal monopolies on industries and imports; who will administer ministries without demanding bribes and graft and guarantee a free press.

It also will mean a security network capable of squashing Palestinian extremists, stopping terrorist attacks and establishing law and order.

One reformer, outgoing Interior Minister Abdel Razak al-Yahya, one of the few Palestinians the Israelis still negotiate with, has proclaimed that he will join a new government only if he can implement security reforms.

Above all, it means establishing a Palestinian prime ministership, with President Arafat as a "symbol and father" of the Palestinian cause at best. Right now, says savvy Jerusalem journalist Khaled Abu Toameh, "legislators are not trying to overthrow Arafat. What they really want is a share in decision making."

Let's hope it's the last chance they give Arafat.

JWR contributor and veteran journalist Richard Z. Chesnoff is a senior correspondent at US News And World Report, a columnist at the NY Daily News and a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Demoracies. His latest book, recently updated, is Pack of Thieves: How Hitler & Europe Plundered the Jews and Committed the Greatest Theft in History.

Richard Z. Chesnoff Archives

© 2002, N. Y. Daily News