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Arafat irks Palestinians, hedges on key reforms


RAMALLAH, West Bank - Some of the Palestinian legislators who came here yesterday arrived hoping that Yasser Arafat would announce he was relinquishing some of his power. Others hoped the Palestinian leader would issue a strong, clear call for militant groups to end attacks against Israelis.

All those legislators, meeting in the ruins of Arafat's sandbagged presidential compound, left disappointed.

Arafat, who was expected to outline where Palestinian society was heading and how best to end the conflict with Israel, settled for an hour-long stump speech that only hinted at reform and stopped well short of ordering a cease-fire.

"This was all old," said Azmi Ash-Shuaybi, a legislator from Ramallah who wanted Arafat to appoint a prime minister to take over the day-to-day affairs of government. "There are no changes."

Arafat's speech was his first address to the Palestinian parliament in 18 months, and many legislators had hoped to hear hints that he was willing to share power and reconsider tactics on the streets and in negotiations with Israel.

Israeli leaders have called Arafat "irrelevant," and U.S. officials have demanded new Palestinian leadership. Palestinians regard Arafat as a symbol of their efforts to create a Palestinian state, but many are also openly pushing for younger figures to exercise more power.

"If you would like to replace me in the executive powers," Arafat told the legislators, "I wish you would do it and give me some rest." But his aides hastened to explain that he had been joking.

He said he "condemns every act of terror against Israeli civilians." But he did not repeat comments made by his newly appointed interior minister, Abdel Razaq Yehiyeh, who last week urged an end to all armed resistance and called the militarization of the conflict a "historic mistake."

For Arafat, who signed an agreement nine years ago to get autonomous control over Ramallah and other cities in the West Bank and Gaza, yesterday was anything but a proud moment. The council met only because the Israeli army allowed it to do so.

In the West Bank, Arafat's Palestinian Authority has virtually ceased to exist. Schools and businesses open when the Israeli army says they can. Police operate in only a handful of cities. And legislators had to use passes issued by the army to travel here to attend the council session.

In all, 75 of the 88 legislators participated - 47 in person in Ramallah and 28 in Gaza linked through video-conferencing. Israeli soldiers all but disappeared from Ramallah's streets; one armored vehicle parked a block from Arafat's compound.

The meeting was held in the presidential compound because it is one of the few government buildings that the Israeli army has not destroyed in operations since April. Stacks of sandbags that once protected Arafat's guards partially blocked three windows overlooking a courtyard. Arafat said he feared the Israeli army would knock down the rest of the compound if he left for the council chambers.

Sitting at a conference table, Arafat began by talking slowly and deliberately. His voice often trailed off to an inaudible whisper, prompting reporters to yell for him to speak up. He fumbled with the microphones and strayed from his text into rambling remarks about past peace agreements. He often stopped to joke and spar with council members.

Arafat became visibly angry, shaking his fingers and raising his voice to condemn the reoccupation by the Israeli army and said his trapped Palestinian population is on the verge of starvation, bankruptcy and despair.

He blamed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for using the Sept. 11 attacks in America as an excuse to launch a military campaign against the Palestinians, and he reiterated calls for international help in ending the violence. "We are against the Israeli aggression and attacks," Arafat said. "The Israelis are working to destroy the infrastructure of the Palestinians."

But Arafat also smiled as he wished Israelis a Shanah Tova, or Happy New Year, for the just concluded Rosh Hashana holiday. Saying "we are at the threshold of peace," he urged Israel's leaders to go back to the negotiating table.

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

But Arafat fell well short of calling for a cease-fire. He condemned attacks against Israeli civilians within Israel proper but did not criticize militant action against soldiers and Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Yehiyeh, the interior minister who called for an end to all forms of violent resistance, brushed by reporters without speaking when Arafat's speech was over.

Israeli officials said there is a dispute within the Palestinian hierarchy about the future of the uprising, a disagreement that, they said, could lead to a reduction in attacks.

Sharon, in a television interview last week, said a political breakthrough with the Palestinians was near, but a day later he told an Israeli newspaper reporter that all written agreements with the Palestinians are "null and void."

Israeli officials repeated yesterday that any discussions with the Palestinians are impossible with Arafat as leader. But Palestinian officials said last night that Sharon has agreed to meet with Abu Mazen, a senior aide to Arafat, in the coming days. Israeli officials declined to comment. Israeli leaders believe that Palestinian reform will allow for the emergence of a moderate group that will end the fighting. Palestinians want reform to provide not only internal stability and accountability, but also provide new direction for the uprising.

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