Palestinian Officials Blast Arafat for Inaction

Yasser Arafat (search), pressed by his legislature to commit to promised reforms in writing, has largely been evasive, disappointed lawmakers said Tuesday, after two meetings with the Palestinian leader.

Arafat's only concession so far is an assurance that his prime minister, Ahmed Qureia (search), can appoint Cabinet ministers, said the legislators, members of a committee set up last month to write a reform plan, following growing chaos in the West Bank and Gaza. Qureia briefly resigned last month to protest his lack of powers.

Arafat has refused to share power and has run the Palestinian Authority (search) with a system of patronage, nepotism and official corruption.

The Palestinian leader has evaded reform demands by the international community, most recently Egypt which wants him to relinquish some control over the security services ahead of an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip (search) in 2005.

However, he appears to have been shaken by growing dissatisfaction at home, including unrest in Gaza and open criticism of his rule.

Palestinian officials said Tuesday that Arafat, sending a message through envoys, has offered Cabinet posts to two of his most outspoken critics, Mohammed Dahlan (search) and Samir Mashrawi, who played a key role in last month's protests in Gaza against Arafat's appointment of a relative to a top security job there.

Dahlan, a former Gaza security chief, is widely seen as a possible Arafat successor, and Mashrawi is a leader of the ruling Fatah movement in Gaza.

Arafat also agreed to meet with legislators to discuss reform demands.

The legislators want Arafat, whose formal title is Palestinian Authority President, to abide by the Basic Law, which spells out the separation of powers, sign anti-corruption legislation and commit to reform of the security services.

Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the committee, said "there are issues that President Arafat agreed to, others he is still reluctant to accept." Participants said they left with the impression that Arafat is still being evasive.

For example, he told legislators he was committed to the Basic Law. When asked whether he would give up control of several government institutions, such as the Palestinian Monetary Fund, in line with the Basic Law, he said no.

Arafat also avoided a clear answer on security reform, participants said on condition of anonymity. Control over tens of thousands of armed men is a pillar of Arafat's power, and he has fought hard against those asking him to relinquish it.

Legislator Abbas Zaki said negotiations with Arafat would continue, and that Arafat promised to make his concessions public in a speech to parliament.

In a televised speech to religious leaders Tuesday, Arafat made no reference to the reform debate. Instead, he delivered a long list of complaints about Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and ended with an appeal to Israel to resume peace talks. "We extend our hand to our neighbors, the Israelis," he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) refuses to negotiate with Arafat, saying he is tainted by terrorism and corruption.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, meanwhile, has frozen a plan to allow Palestinian police to carry handguns in public, after his plan drew sharp criticism from hardline Cabinet ministers, security officials said Tuesday. Last week, Mofaz had agreed to let them carry handguns.

In 2001, several months after the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence, Israel accused Palestinian police of involvement in the fighting and barred them from carrying weapons in public. Israeli soldiers are under orders to shoot at anyone who is armed.

With Palestinian police rarely seen in the streets, gangs and militants have taken control. Kidnappings, unrest and violent demonstrations have swept through the Palestinian territories. In recent weeks, gunmen have forced Palestinian Cabinet ministers to leave a Gaza town and shut down what should have been a week-long conference on government reform.

Palestinian officials had asked the Israelis to re-arm the police to restore some order.