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Analysts Comment on Arafat Legislative Council Speech - 2002-05-15


In a speech to the Palestinian Legislative Council in Ramallah Wednesday, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat acknowledged making "mistakes" and called for major reform of the Palestinian Authority. Analysts in Cairo are attributing much of what Mr. Arafat said to the influence of other Arab leaders.

Last Saturday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah held a mini-summit in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. The three men discussed the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, with the Crown Prince Abdullah briefing the other two leaders on his recent meeting in the United States with President George Bush.

Prince Abdullah is the driving force behind the Arab plan that calls for a normalization of Arab relations with Israel in return for Israel's withdrawal from lands occupied in the 1967 war.

On Tuesday, three days after the mini-summit, Mr. Mubarak spoke with Mr. Arafat over the telephone. No details of the conversation have been disclosed, but Abdullah el Ashaal, an expert on Arab affairs, believes Mr. Arafat's speech was "the direct result of Arab pressure" being applied on him.

A lecturer at several Cairo universities, Mr. el Ashaal said Arab leaders fully understand the importance of laying the foundation for peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. "I feel, at the end of the day, they [Palestinians] have to negotiate. But to find a common ground for the negotiations, this was very important for Egypt and Saudi Arabia to take the lead in this direction, especially Saudi Arabia, which is emerging, for the first time, to be one of the players on the scene. Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, they are trying to find a base for a fresh start for the negotiations," Mr. el Ashaal said.

In his speech, Mr. Arafat called for sweeping reforms of the Palestinian Authority, which has been accused of being corrupt. Mr. Arafat said he wanted a review of all the authority's administrative, ministerial and security forces.

Mohammad Kamal teaches political science at two Cairo universities. He said while the Arab world, as a whole, will respond positively to Mr. Arafat's effort to initiate political reform, not all Arab leaders will applaud his effort.

"Other regimes, like Iraq, they do not want to see political reform in the region. They do not like democracy. So probably they are going to blame any such movement of democracy on pressure coming from the U.S. But I do not see criticism [of political reform] coming from Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Jordan," Mr. Kamal said.

The Palestinian leader also called for "speedy preparation of elections," which Mr. Kamal describes as a "smart move." He said Mr. Arafat would likely win re-election and thereby solidify his position as the elected leader of the Palestinians. The analyst said that would "leave Israel with little choice but to deal directly with a man Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has called a terrorist."