Few Find Much New in Arafat Speech

Israel, U.S. adopt wait-and-see attitude; Erekat stresses chairman's call for peace

It was business as usual yesterday afternoon at the Muqata, the headquarters of PA Chairman Yasser Arafat in Ramallah. Armed policemen stood relaxedly with Fatah activists while unarmed guards, as is the custom since the Palestinian Authority has been in existence, prevented journalists from entering.

One by one, the cars of diplomats, ministers and members of the PLC pulled up. It was the normal hoo-ha before a media event but it took place this time between burnt-out buildings, sand bags and the rubble left in the wake of the Israeli attacks. Yesterday there was no sign of the Israeli police jeeps or military ambulance that had been seen there a day earlier.

The participants in these events always kiss each other but yesterday the kisses seemed to be more fervent. Friends who had not seen each other for half a year met again. Those from Jenin or Nablus, in the Palestinian ethos the seats of bravery, got the warmest welcomes.

In the reception hall of Arafat's office sat the diplomatic representatives of Europe, the Arab countries, Australia, South Africa and the Far East. Neither the Americans nor the British had sent well-known representatives. Arafat, speaking nevertheless to the cameras of CNN, called for a political solution to the Iraq crisis.

Later, most people in the West Bank agreed that Arafat's speech contained nothing new, neither in content nor in style.

Some of the Fatah-affiliated members of the council said politely that, under the circumstances of the Israeli attack on the Palestinians, it was important that Arafat had reiterated the Palestinian people's wish to make peace with Israel on the basis of two states.

Jamal a-Shati, a Fatah representative from the Jenin refugee camp, said the speech had not conveyed the gravity of the Palestinian sacrifice from the emotional point of view, nor had it really outlined the demands for reforms. On the other hand, Minister Saeb Erekat felt that the call for a peaceful solution to the conflict was the essential element in the speech. He noted that Arafat had spoken of the need for reform without using the usual excuse that he was under siege and could do nothing.

Ismail Hanieyeh, who is close to Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, rejected Arafat's call for negotiations with Israel. "We don't accept that, particularly since the intifada is starting its third year," he said. He attacked the use of the term "terror" for the Palestinian suicide attacks and said Arafat was wrong in saying they gave Israel a chance for further aggression. Hanieyeh said Israel is acting according to "a pre-programmed Zionist plan" and the proof is, he said, that when Hamas was ready for a cease-fire, Israel went ahead with its plan.

In Jerusalem, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Israel was adopting a wait-and-see attitude toward the speech. If the call for a cease-fire leads to a cessation of violence it will be positive, but if the violence continues, this will be "just another call," a statement released by the Foreign Ministry said.

Peres expressed the hope that the process that has started in the financial sphere would occur also in the security sphere and that the Palestinians would have one commander for all their forces.

Peres warned against focusing everything on the personality of Arafat, saying that there was a real and serious internal discussion within Palestinian society which should not be conducted by Israel. Some Palestinians, such as Arafat's deputy Abu Mazen (Mahmud Abbas) have publicly stated that the intifada was a mistake and a missed opportunity, while Interior Minister Abdel Razak Yehiyeh has called for an end to terror, Peres noted. "I hope the Palestinian people will sum up this dialogue in a positive way for their future," Peres said.

Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said the speech was meaningless and that Palestinian reform would not work with Arafat in power. "Peace and reforms can only happen when Arafat is not there," Gissin said.

Paul Patin, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, said after the speech that Arafat would be judged by his actions, not his words.