- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 10, 2002

RAMALLAH, West Bank Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat yesterday condemned attacks against Israeli citizens, but he stopped short of demanding a complete end to violence as some of his colleagues had urged.

"In order to maintain a positive view among the international community, we must condemn any operation against civilians," Mr. Arafat said in a widely anticipated speech to a gathering of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

"The opposition is giving an excuse to the government of Israel to lay siege to Palestinian cities and reject all international agreements between us," he said.

Press reports, citing a draft text of the Arafat speech, had raised hopes that the Palestinian leader was ready to make a major policy shift after almost two years of violent confrontation with Israel and call on the legislature to outlaw suicide bombings against civilians.

Instead, he repeated previous criticisms of militant Palestinian groups, saying their actions weakened the Palestinian cause among allies abroad while strengthening the hand of Israel.

The appeal didn't soften the line of members of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's ruling Likud Party, which refuses to restart peace talks with the Palestinians as long as Mr. Arafat remains in power.

"These are empty words," said Israeli Environment Minister Tzachi Hanegbi. Mr. Hanegbi said the Palestinian leader "hasn't fought, not even one time" groups committed to violent struggle, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, far more open to negotiations with the Palestinians than Mr. Sharon, also took a cautious line.

"I am not a fortuneteller. I will test [the speech] according to the results," Mr. Peres said.

Mr. Arafat has never explicitly called for a halt to violence against Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which most Palestinians see as the heart of a future independent state.

The disappointment was not just on the Israeli side, as at least some Palestinian analysts said there was little new in the speech.

"He didn't come with any new things," said Khader Shkirat, a Palestinian human rights activist. "He didn't respond to the questions being asked every day by the people."

The 73-year-old Mr. Arafat made the address at the first session of the Palestinian parliament in two years. The inaugural plenary session was held in Mr. Arafat's partially bombed-out headquarters after Mr. Sharon last week acceded to a Palestinian request to hold the convention. Israeli tanks surrounded the compound.

The lawmakers received Israeli military approval to travel from the Gaza Strip and from cities throughout the West Bank to attend the Ramallah meeting.

During the hourlong speech, Mr. Arafat at times deviated from his prepared text, rambling to repeat previous calls for peace negotiations and an end to Israel's occupation. He addressed the Israeli public, saying he recognized that many still support the idea of creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

"I would like to say that we want to achieve peace with you," Mr. Arafat said. "We want security and stability for us and for you. This peace is still ahead of us."

But Mr. Arafat's call came even as Israeli security authorities said they uncovered a Hamas cell in East Jerusalem that planned to poison the clientele at a popular cafe in the Ben Yehuda shopping mall by contaminating the food with powerful doses of over-the-counter heart medicine.

Mr. Arafat's address came after an unusual week of public criticism of his leadership from within Palestinian ranks.

During the weekend, Palestinian Interior Minister Abdel Razak Yehiyeh called for all Palestinian militias to end their attacks, saying that the decision to use violence in confronting Israel had been a mistake.

The comment followed a newspaper article last week by Nabil Amr, a Cabinet member who resigned in May, which criticized Mr. Arafat for rejecting the Camp David peace plan backed by President Clinton in the summer of 2000.

Mr. Arafat used the speech to ridicule Mr. Amr, a member of the parliament who was in the audience yesterday. Asking whether the former minister was in the room, Mr. Arafat said his critic had more important issues to work on.

The Palestinian leader, under pressure from the United States and Israel to reform his government before continuing with Middle East peace talks, also used the address to try to seize control of the Palestinian political agenda. During the four-day session, lawmakers are expected to voice the growing discontent with the government that has followed Israel's reoccupation of West Bank cities.

The meeting in Ramallah was held in a room the size of a small lecture hall, with sandbags still in the windows from the Israeli siege of the compound earlier this month. On a movie screen in one corner of the room, a videoconference system linked the proceedings with a gathering of Gaza lawmakers who stayed behind in solidarity with a dozen representatives who were not allowed by Israeli authorities to attend.

Mr. Arafat's Cabinet faces a vote of confidence today in the 87-member body. Since May, when he declared 100 days of government reform, the longtime Palestinian leader has appointed five new ministers.

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