- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 16, 2002

From combined dispatches
RAMALLAH, West Bank Yasser Arafat, responding to pressure at home and abroad to overhaul his government, yesterday said he had made mistakes and called for sweeping reforms and new elections.
But he gave few details and won only polite applause when he announced his plans to the Palestinian Legislative Council, a day after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ruled out peace talks unless he cleaned up his "corrupt terror regime."
"It is the time for change and reform," Mr. Arafat said in a speech on the day Palestinians commemorate the "Nakba" (Catastrophe), the uprooting of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in fighting as Israel was created in 1948.
"I call for a review of all our administrative, ministerial and security forces," Mr. Arafat, wearing his trademark military uniform and Arab headdress, told the lawmakers gathered in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
The United States and the European Union welcomed the statement but said they were looking for action from the Palestinian leader to fulfill his promises, which, if carried out, could push the stalled Middle East peace process forward.
Mr. Arafat said the struggle for a Palestinian state would continue and that peace remained his "strategic" goal.
But he reiterated calls for attacks on Israeli civilians to cease and, in a rare display of self-criticism, accepted blame for any mistakes made by the Palestinian leadership.
There was little expectation that Mr. Arafat would loosen his grip on power despite Mr. Sharon's efforts to sideline him, and some of the legislators said they had heard such promises before.
European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana told the European Parliament that Mr. Arafat had told him he planned to hold legislative and local council elections by the fall.
Palestinian parliamentary Speaker Ahmed Korei said he expected the municipal elections before the end of this year and elections to the legislature at the start of next year.
Mr. Arafat's comments followed demands by Israel, Palestinians and the United States for change in the Palestinian Authority after years of failure to bring prosperity and charges of cronyism, corruption and inefficiency.
The White House said President Bush was looking for deeds from Mr. Arafat to follow his pledges.
"Yasser Arafat's words are positive. What is important, and what the president will await to see, is whether there is any action," spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters.
Israel took a wait-and-see approach. "These words must be accompanied by an uncompromising fight against terrorism, by a consolidation of all Palestinian armed forces under a single central authority," Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said.
Calls for change have grown more insistent since Israeli forces ended a 35-day siege of Mr. Arafat's Ramallah headquarters earlier this month after a major Israeli offensive across the West Bank.
"Our dream is real freedom and complete independence in the state of Palestine with Jerusalem as the capital. Whoever likes it or not, it is our aim to have that," Mr. Arafat said.
In Israel, the status of Jerusalem was among the topics at a heated debate between two top Labor party leaders at a convention yesterday.
Meeting at a seaside convention hall at a collective village north of Tel Aviv, the Labor leader, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer, 65, and Haim Ramon, 52, a charismatic legislator and ex-Cabinet minister proposed conflicting views on peace with Palestinians. The two are competing for Labor's nomination to run for prime minister next year.
Speaking at the convention, Mr. Ben Eliezer endorsed a December 2000 plan by President Clinton, calling for an Israeli pullback from Gaza, virtually all of the West Bank and Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem.
He said there should be a "special regime" for the city's disputed shrines, holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians, meaning that Israel would drop demands to be the sovereign there.
It was the most far-reaching proposal yet by any senior Israeli official regarding the division of Jerusalem. The deal offered to the Palestinians in July 2000 by Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Labor was similar to what Mr. Ben-Eliezer outlined yesterday, but Mr. Barak stopped short of giving up sovereignty over the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as Haram-as-Sharif.
Mr. Ramon proposed pulling out of all of Gaza and much of the West Bank, dismantling settlements and building a border fence.
Mr. Ramon's concept, called "unilateral separation," is gaining popularity in public opinion surveys, reflecting disillusionment with peace talks and disappointment with the military's inability to stop Palestinian attacks in Israel without a West Bank-Israel border.
The Labor meeting followed a convention of Mr. Sharon's Likud Party on Sunday, where Mr. Sharon suffered a humiliating defeat when delegates voted in favor of a proposal backed by his main rival Benjamin Netanyahu opposing the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Labor has long advocated far-reaching compromises with the Palestinians in exchange for peace.
In fresh violence, Palestinian officials said a 17-year-old was killed by Israeli tank fire in central Gaza. The Israeli army said its forces fired back after a mortar attack but denied they used tank shells.
Israeli troops backed by four tanks and an armored bulldozer, pushed 200 yards into a Palestinian-controlled sector of the southern Gaza Strip early yesterday and destroyed three houses, Palestinian security sources said.

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