JERUSALEM - The Cabinet of the Palestinian Authority abruptly resigned yesterday to avoid a parliamentary vote of no confidence, a move that was a clear rebuke to Yasser Arafat and a step toward democratic reform.
The legislators' threat of a no-confidence vote was also a sign of the mounting frustrations within Palestinian society after two years of violent conflict with Israel. Though Arafat's hold on power is not threatened, the prospect of a vote of no confidence represented one of the most serious challenges to his leadership since his return from exile in 1994 to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Arafat's 21 ministers resigned when it became clear that the legislature would vote no confidence by a wide margin. Of the first 35 representatives to speak in the council chambers in a suburb of Ramallah, 32 denounced the Cabinet, appointed by Arafat in June, as merely a shuffling of old faces.
"This is a watershed moment," Abdul Jawad Saleh, a legislator representing Ramallah, said in an interview after the resignations were announced. "There is now a good chance for the implementation of democracy in the Palestinian system and in society."
Saleh said the legislature's threat of no confidence was "a blow to Arafat. His people really tried to scare us, but they failed. It used to be that those of us calling for reforms were in the minority. Now there is a big crowd."
Yesterday's events were also a sign of life for the Palestinian Authority, and evidence that legislators were heeding public frustration about corruption and the political stalemate with Israel. Arafat has often ignored parliament, leaving bills unsigned on his desk for years, and exerted control over its elected members, a majority of whom belong to his Fatah faction.
Now, members said, they have finally exerted independence.
"Today will be viewed as a landmark of the Palestinian people's history," Saeb Erekat, a parliament member and now former minister of local government, told reporters at the council building.
The parliament speaker, Ahmed Korei, known as Abu Ala, said the mass resignation "goes in harmony with democracy."
The Cabinet resignations came two days after Arafat gave a rambling address to the legislature, a speech widely criticized for failing to provide new ideas on ending the conflict with Israel.
Signs of dissatisfaction extend to a new effort by Fatah leaders to fashion a cease-fire proposal, an offer that militant wings still oppose. A growing number Palestinian academics and politicians say that the armed uprising that has claimed more than 1,600 Palestinian lives has failed and that it should be replaced with peaceful resistance.
"This was one of the mistakes of the leadership - the militarizing of the intifada," said Saleh, virtually echoing the complaints of the Bush administration. "Israel was successfully able to portray the struggle as one military power facing another military power, and we lost sympathy votes."
Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer told Israel Radio that the Cabinet's action was evidence that "cracks are forming within Palestinian society."
"The time has come for an agreement that will bypass Arafat and bring about a new regional order," he said.
Mahdi Abdul Hadi, head of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, an independent research group, said the legislature's stand "means that reforms are finally taking place." He urged Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to take advantage of the moment by opening a serious dialogue with Palestinian leaders.
"Our own government is not delivering," Hadi said. "Our militant struggle is not delivering. But Israel also is failing. Everyone is losing. Sharon knows that he is not bringing a solution. Arafat is not bringing a solution. We are not defeated, and the Israelis have not won. We are stuck, both of us.
"We are serious about internal reforms without external pressure," Hadi said. "Through this, we can change the current course of the conflict, gain democracy and get rule of law."