- The Washington Times - Friday, September 13, 2002

JERUSALEM Israeli officials yesterday hailed a rebuff to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat by his own parliament as a potential turning point leading to a renewed Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.

"This was the biggest blow that Arafat has received and it was given to him by his own people," said Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer.

He called on the Israeli government to seize the opportunity by undertaking a political initiative "that will encourage a new order in the Palestinian political establishment and its relations with Israel."

The Palestinian Legislative Council, meeting for the first time in months, defied Mr. Arafat on Wednesday by making it clear that it intended to submit a vote of no confidence in his Cabinet, many of whose members stood accused of corruption or incompetence.

Of 65 lawmakers at the meeting, 57 indicated their intention to vote against Mr. Arafat. To head off the motion, Mr. Arafat accepted the resignation of the entire Cabinet and announced that a general election would be held on Jan. 20.

"This is the first time in Arafat's political career that he has been forced to publicly retreat from an important action," said Arafat biographer Danny Rubinstein.

Council member Salah Tamari, a senior member of Mr. Arafat's Fatah movement who has known the Palestinian leader for 36 years, said he has never before opposed Mr. Arafat.

"I've done so now," he said, "so he knows how serious we are. This is a crisis of confidence."

More than the differences on the Cabinet issue, the vote reflected a growing dissatisfaction among Palestinians, particularly the elite, over the loss of economic and political ground during two years of the uprising.

Much of the criticism had been directed not personally at Mr. Arafat who was said by aides to be bitter and feeling abandoned but at the advisers around him.

"The people are angry, but they don't want [Mr. Arafat] to step aside. They want him to carry out the required changes," Palestinian lawmaker Ziad Abu Amr told Reuters news agency.

Nevertheless, the vote was a "very clear message" attesting to the decline in Mr. Arafat's stature, said the head of Israeli military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze'evi.

"What has been happening is a process of internalizing the failure that has overtaken the Palestinian Authority since it declared war on us two years ago," he said. "They are finding it more and more difficult to recruit suicide bombers."

He said the internalization process began with the Israeli army's takeover of Palestinian cities in the spring after a series of suicide bombings. President Bush's public disparagement of Mr. Arafat as an irresponsible leader was also an important factor, he said.

In New York, where Mr. Bush was addressing the United Nations, a senior U.S. official welcomed the Palestinian vote as a vindication of the American policy and called it "a sign that ferment is beginning."

Mr. Ben-Eliezer called yesterday for an immediate peace initiative "outflanking Arafat," but did not name alternative Palestinian officials with whom Israel could hold a dialogue.

An aide to Ariel Sharon said the prime minister intended to meet soon with a senior Palestinian.

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