RAMALLAH - Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat yesterday reiterated his condemnation of terrorism and attacks against Israeli civilians. Addressing the Palestinian Legislative Council in Ramallah, Arafat emphasized the diplomatic harm that the terror attacks inside the Green Line had caused the Palestinians, noting that they had caused the United States to back down from many of its positions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in addition to giving Israel an excuse to escalate its military actions.
Citing security concerns, Israel barred 12 Gaza-based legislators from attending the meeting in Ramallah. "The only aim is to paralyze the work and the deliberations of our council," PLC speaker Abu Ala said in opening remarks. Abu Ala then announced his resignation - a procedural step ahead of Palestinian elections planned for January.
In a speech that was both conciliatory and packed with accusations against Israel, Arafat said he condemned "attacks against Israeli civilians" and that such attacks drew attention away from Palestinians' suffering under Israel's occupation. He told legislators to uphold the national interest, but he skipped passages from the draft that included a call on parliament to ban suicide attacks.
Addressing Israelis, Arafat said: "We want to achieve peace with you. We want security and stability for us and you and for the entire area ... After 50 years of struggle, I say it's enough of the struggle and bloodshed."
The PA leader explicitly linked the Palestinian terror attacks against Israeli civilians with Israel's military operations, saying that the Palestinian people and leadership were opposed to all forms of terror - state terror, the terror by groups and movements and the terror by individuals.
Arafat repeatedly said that despite the Israeli military escalation, the Palestinian people and leadership were committed to their choice of peace with the State of Israel, on the basis of agreements already signed, international decisions, and the comprehensive peace plan accepted by the Arab states.
The Palestinian leader also promised that in the framework of the move toward reform, democratization and rehabilitation in the PA, elections to the PLC, the PA's presidium and local authorities would be held in early 2003. In doing so, Arafat challenged Israel and the United States, which have strongly hinted at their opposition to elections at the beginning of next year. Arafat asked the international community to ensure that the elections could take place in a suitable atmosphere, i.e., without the restrictions of the closures and curfews.
Arafat referred - perhaps in jest, or perhaps seriously - to the argument currently taking place among members of the PLC with regard to the new Palestinian cabinet, which he set up in early June, and the idea of appointing a prime minister who would better manage the affairs of the PA than himself. The idea of a premier is also popular among Palestinians fed up with official corruption and mismanagement, and some legislators have conditioned support for Arafat's new cabinet on the creation of a prime minister post.
Arafat gave the members of the PLC "permission" to use the Palestinian Basic Law, which he ratified just three months ago, to decide whether to vote for or against each cabinet minister separately, or the government in its entirety.
In the same breath, Arafat advised the PLC members not to give Israel the opportunity to think that it was approaching its objective - to cause a rift among the Palestinian public. In other words, Arafat hinted that a vote of no confidence in the cabinet would contradict the "national unity" that was required at this trying time.
At one point, Arafat said that reforms should be based on a separation of powers, but then added: "Unless you want to bring somebody else into the executive authority. I wish you could do it and give me a rest."
Arafat aides later said the chairman had repeatedly made similar offers, always in jest, in internal meetings. And at a meeting over the weekend, Arafat had continued to resist aides' pressure that he agree to share power with a prime minister, the sources said.
Commenting on the September 11 attacks in the United States last year, Arafat said that Israel had been quick to exploit the attacks in an attempt to connect him and the Palestinian struggle to terrorism "despite the fact that we are the victims of terrorism."
"We express our condemnation of this terrorism and we express our support for the American people who were subjected to this unprecedented crime," Arafat said, adding that the attacks had "changed the balances in the world and in the Middle East, and between us and the Israelis."
Arafat also told the PLC that he hoped the U.S.-Iraq conflict could be solved "without military violence in order to find peace in the Middle East."
The PLC is slated to convene again today - this time, at its headquarters in El Bireh - to begin discussing the new Palestinian cabinet. All the cabinet ministers are expected to attend the meeting. The ministers met with the PLC yesterday to present their achievements in the reform initiative.
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