- The Washington Times - Friday, May 17, 2002

RAMALLAH, West Bank Yasser Arafat, under pressure from Palestinian lawmakers, agreed yesterday to hold presidential and parliamentary elections within six months.
Mr. Arafat's decision came after Palestinian legislators called for elections within a year, a new Cabinet within 45 days and the creation of a post of prime minister to control day-to-day operations of the Palestinian Authority.
Previous attempts to reform the Palestinian administration have led to few significant changes, with Mr. Arafat ignoring laws passed by parliament as well as decisions by the judiciary.
The proposed election would be the first time that Mr. Arafat faces voters since he was elected president of the Palestinian Authority in 1996 with an overwhelming majority.
"President Arafat has set a program for reform and changes," said Ahmed Abdel Rahman, secretary- general of the Palestinian Cabinet.
"The core of the changes will be conducting general elections in a period that will not exceed four to six months," he said, adding that Mr. Arafat has called for a meeting of the Central Elections Committee within two days.
Israeli officials were skeptical of the proposals.
"What's clear is that any Palestinian leadership would have to, first and foremost, renounce terror as a strategic option," said David Baker, an aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "Until now, terror and the Palestinian Authority have been joined at the hip."
Mr. Arafat's decision came amid growing questions about his popularity among his people. With the economy in a shambles and the community reeling from a crushing Israeli incursion into Palestinian areas, Palestinians were pressing for reforms to an administration widely regarded as corrupt.
In a speech to Palestinian legislators on Wednesday, Mr. Arafat echoed the calls for reform but gave no details.
The legislators responded by putting together their own reform plan calling for elections and a smaller Cabinet. It was approved yesterday. Soon afterward, Mr. Abdel Rahman announced Mr. Arafat's own plans to hold elections.
Legislators from Mr. Arafat's Fatah movement also had demanded the creation of the post of prime minister, charged with governing the day-to-day operations of the Palestinian Authority. Mr. Arafat's proposal made no mention of such a post.
The legislators also called for streamlining the Palestinian Authority's eight security services, but Mr. Arafat's proposal did not address the issue.
Mr. Arafat has run the Palestinian territories virtually unchallenged since Israel permitted his return from exile eight years ago. He was elected president in 1996 with 87 percent of the vote against Samiha Khalil, a female social worker in her 70s.
Members of his Fatah faction won 50 of the 88 seats.
But pressure on Mr. Arafat is growing.
The United States has called on the Palestinians to adopt a constitutional democracy and open their closed, top-down system to counter corruption.
In addition, future U.S. humanitarian aid to the Palestinians will bypass the Palestinian Authority.
The assistance includes $50 million approved last week by the House Appropriations Committee.
On Wednesday, EU foreign and security policy chief Javier Solana called for sweeping changes. The European Union has given the Palestinian Authority $337 million in aid during the past two years.
"We need a Palestinian Authority that is more able and more determined to serve its population and the security of all," Mr. Solana said. "Our expectations are clear: more transparency, more accountability, greater efficiency."
Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi said elections should be held on all levels to bring new people into the government.
"All these have to be carried out if we are committed to democracy and democratic representation," she said.
Speaking before Mr. Arafat's announcement, legislator Hussam Khader was not convinced that the Palestinian leader was serious about making meaningful changes.
"I believe Arafat may work in making cosmetic changes in the Palestinian Authority," he said. "Maybe he will change a corrupted Cabinet for another, more corrupted Cabinet."
Mr. Sharon has urged the United States and other nations to reject Mr. Arafat's administration and appoint a one-year interim Palestinian government to carry out reforms, Mr. Sharon's foreign policy adviser Danny Ayalon said.
Mr. Sharon proposed that the new government be established irrespective of whether the Palestinians accept it, the Yediot Ahronot daily reported.
Meanwhile, Israeli soldiers backed by tanks entered Beitunia, a Ramallah suburb, early yesterday and surrounded an apartment building.
Soldiers killed Ahmed Ghanam, 25, a member of Mr. Arafat's security forces.
The military said the raid helped prevent a terror attack in Jerusalem. About two dozen Palestinians were arrested in other Israeli army raids.
Israel ended a six-week military offensive against Palestinian militias in the West Bank last week, but army raids have continued.
The Ha'aretz newspaper quoted Israel's deputy chief of staff as saying that a postponed incursion into the Gaza Strip is likely to still take place.
Maj. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, who will take over as army chief of staff next month, said it was "only a matter of time" before the Israeli army moves into Gaza.

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