RAMALLAH, West Bank – In a speech to the Palestinian parliament Monday, Yasser Arafat condemned terror attacks on Israeli civilians, announced elections for early January and offered -- apparently in jest -- to give up executive powers.
The rambling speech was the Palestinian leader's first to the legislative council in 18 months. His lower lip quivering, Arafat repeatedly fumbled with the microphones and strayed from the text, launching into asides that were sometimes incomprehensible.
Speaking just hours after 60 Israeli tanks encircled three Gaza refugee camps and blew up the home of a suspected militant, Arafat gave an address that was both conciliatory and packed with accusations against Israel. He skipped over some passages of an earlier draft, including one that called on parliament to ban suicide attacks.
Israeli banned 12 legislators from making the trip from Gaza to the West Bank town of Ramallah, saying they were involved in attacks on Israelis. In solidarity, other Gazan lawmakers stayed behind and participated by video conference.
Several Palestinian legislators complained that Arafat had failed to present his new Cabinet -- the result of a June reshuffle -- to parliament for approval, and that he had not set a specific election date, as legislators had demanded.
When Arafat mentioned that presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections would be held in January, one of the legislators shouted: "What is needed is a presidential decree with a specific date."
The vote on the Cabinet was to have been an important test of Arafat's standing, and it was not clear whether he commands a majority in the 88-seat legislature. Several lawmakers have said they would withhold approval.
The legislature was to reconvene Tuesday.
The Palestinian leader has been weakened in recent months, with the United States shunning him and Israel trying to sideline him. Since a major Israeli military offensive that began in March, he has been largely confined to his Ramallah headquarters.
Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Israeli 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 Arafat would be judged by his actions, not his words.
In the Gaza Strip, Ismail Abu Shanab, a spokesman for the Islamic militant group Hamas, said Arafat's speech was a disappointment and that he had no clear strategy on how to confront Israel.
"We need to ... find a way to challenge the Israeli aggression," said Abu Shanab, whose group has carried out scores of suicide attacks that have killed more than 250 Israeli civilians in the past two years.
Monday's parliament session was held at Arafat's sandbagged headquarters, which has been heavily damaged during Israeli raids. Arafat's aides said he preferred to stay in the compound to avoid encounters with Israeli troops controlling the city.
At the opening of the session, the council re-elected speaker Ahmed Qureia, who has held the job since 1996. Qureia, a key player in previous peace talks with Israel, is a confidant of Arafat, but also seen as a potential successor.
In his speech, Arafat said he condemned "attacks against Israeli civilians and at the same time of any attacks against Palestinian civilians." But he did not explicitly call for an end to attacks on Israelis.
He said such attacks served Israel's interest by drawing attention away from the suffering of the Palestinians under Israel's occupation. He asked legislators to uphold the national interest, but did not specify what this would mean.
At one point, Arafat said that reforms should be based on a separation of powers, then added: "Unless you want to bring somebody else in the executive authority. I wish you could do it and give me a rest."
Arafat aides later said he has repeatedly made the offer, always in jest, in internal meetings. Arafat has resisted U.S.-backed demands to appoint a prime minister who would take over the day-to-day running of the Palestinian Authority.
The United States has been seeking a delay in presidential elections in hopes of finding a way to install a prime minister.
Addressing the Israeli public, Arafat called for new peace negotiations and said: "I would like to say that we want to achieve peace with you. We want security and stability for us and for you... This peace is still ahead of us."
Arafat also said the world expects from the Palestinians a "clear stance and firm answers regarding peace with Israel ... as well as with regard to democracy and reforms in our society."
The legislature has convened only sporadically, and usually with a low turnout, during the past two years of fighting because of Israeli travel restrictions.
Israeli hardliners criticized Sharon for permitting the session to go ahead, arguing it would give new credibility to Arafat at a time when Israel is trying to sideline him. Sharon in the past has blocked the parliament from meeting.
In other developments Monday, a senior Palestinian official said Sharon would meet in the coming days with Arafat's deputy, Mahmoud Abbas, to try to find a way to end the fighting. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, is seen by the United States and Israel as a moderate.
Sharon's aides declined comment.
However, Sharon said recently he has been contacted by a senior Palestinian official and was ready to meet with him. Sharon did not name the official, but said it was not Arafat.
In Gaza, meanwhile, troops blew up the house of a suspected Palestinian militant in the Boureij refugee camp. During the operation, about 60 tanks encircled Boureij and two adjacent camps.
The army said the suspect, a fugitive, is responsible for firing mortar bombs and for an attack on a tank in February that killed three soldiers. During the raid, troops found a building used to manufacture anti-tank missiles and mortar bombs and blew it up, the army said in a statement.
Tensions have been running high in Gaza, despite efforts to turn the coastal strip into a test area for a gradual ceasefire. On Tuesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was to meet with five Palestinian Cabinet ministers to try to revive the truce deal.