- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 12, 2002

RAMALLAH, West Bank The Palestinian Cabinet resigned en masse yesterday under pressure from a hostile parliament.
The action, a stunning rebuke to the leadership of Yasser Arafat, reflected dissatisfaction among the lawmakers at the pace of reform, at Mr. Arafat's failure to dismiss corrupt ministers and at the results of the 2-year-old uprising against Israel.
The mass resignation, the most tangible sign yet of Mr. Arafat's weakening authority, was intended to save the Palestinian Authority president from the even greater embarrassment of losing a parliamentary vote of confidence in his Cabinet, which had been scheduled for yesterday afternoon.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Arafat formally declared Jan. 20 as the date for general elections, signaling that the tenure of the current Cabinet would be brief in any case. But the maneuver failed to mollify the lawmakers.
"The effect is the same as a vote of no confidence. It's a big victory for the Palestinian Legislative Council and the Palestinian people. It's something we're very proud of," said Ziyad Abu Amr, a representative from Gaza. "This is what we wanted a new and accountable government with transparency."
The act of defiance by the 6-year-old parliament is virtually unprecedented among Arab governments and reflects widespread disillusionment among the Palestinian public. The fact that some two-thirds of the lawmakers come from Mr. Arafat's own Fatah faction made the defeat even more telling.
The Palestinian government has been under U.S. pressure for the last three months to carry out reforms and find new leaders, which President Bush has made a precondition for the creation of Palestinian state.
The parliamentary rebellion also underlines growing frustration with two years of escalating violence with Israel, which prompted Israel to order its army to reoccupy Palestinian cities in the West Bank five months ago, analysts said.
"It's opposition to Arafat, to the PLO, to Hamas, anyone who is in power. People are sick and tired of everyone," said Samir Rantisi, a spokesman for the government. "They're looking for a change, regardless of what that change means just as long as it's not the status quo."
Despite the blow, Mr. Arafat remains the easy favorite to win re-election in January. The only leader whose popularity ratings approach those of Mr. Arafat is Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who was captured by Israel in April and is now being tried for murder.
The elections will mark the first time since 1996 the Palestinians have gone to the polls. The first vote was a condition of the Oslo peace accords in order to set up a democratically elected president and legislature following the pullout of Israel's army from Palestinian cities and villages.
Israel, which has placed tough restrictions on travel in the Palestinian areas, agreed last week to let the legislature convene for the first time since May.
The confidence motion, originally scheduled for Tuesday, was pushed back a day so the parliament could debate procedural issues, giving Mr. Arafat extra time to persuade the deputies to reconsider.
When certain defeat became clear minutes before the vote yesterday, the Cabinet ministers called Mr. Arafat from the legislature to inform him of their decision to step down.
Mr. Arafat now has two weeks to return to the parliament with a new 21-member Cabinet. Five ministers who joined the government in June as part of Mr. Arafat's first reform effort are expected to be reappointed; most of the remaining ministers, accused of mismanagement and corruption, are expected to be replaced.
The success of the lawmakers will embolden the legislature to serve as a genuine check on the actions by the executive branch in the future, several legislators said. Many deputies want to go even further by creating the position of prime minister to share responsibilities with Mr. Arafat.
"It is a landmark. The way the legislature is looking at itself is different than yesterday," said Ali Jarbawi, a professor of political science at Bir Zeit University. "It's a message to Arafat himself that he should not think he's the sole player as a decision-making force."
The legislature with 88 seats representing electoral districts has tried to challenge Mr. Arafat in the past. Five years ago, it voted for Mr. Arafat to dissolve the Cabinet. after producing a report saying almost half of the Palestinian Authority's $800 million budget had been wasted and accusing the government of widespread corruption.
Mr. Arafat largely ignored the action. Although the Cabinet members resigned, they were reappointed a year later.

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