RAMALLAH, West Bank – Yasser Arafat (search) admitted to "mistakes" and promised to rein in corruption, but Palestinian lawmakers complained their leader's long-awaited speech Wednesday fell far short of expectations, offering no way out of the chaos plaguing the Palestinian territories.
After weeks of street protests and increasingly vocal criticism of his rule, Arafat is under tremendous pressure to share power and attack rampant graft. Lawmakers had hoped the speech from his battle-scarred compound in this West Bank city would offer a blueprint for restoring the Palestinian leadership's tattered credibility both at home and abroad.
In another development, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's (search) Likud Party handed him a stinging defeat by voting to ban him from adding the left-of-center Labor Party to his coalition, a way of bolstering his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements by the end of 2005.
The vote was 60-40 percent against Sharon — similar to the result in a referendum on the plan itself on May 2 among party members. Sharon ignored the referendum and indicated he would ignore the party convention vote as well.
Adding Labor would have cemented his Cabinet majority for the plan and give him clear control of the parliament, and Likud critics were trying to prevent that at the Wednesday meeting. Opponents to Labor's joining the government were the same Likud members who rejected the disengagement plan.
In violence after nightfall Wednesday, Israeli helicopters fired missiles at two metal workshops in a Gaza City (search) neighborhood, residents said. No casualties were reported.
The Israeli military said the workshops were being used to make weapons. The strikes came after militants fired a mortar shell that wounded one person at a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip and two rockets that hit an Israeli town just outside Gaza without causing casualties.
Arafat made a rare admission that he and others were guilty of "unacceptable practices," adding that "even prophets make mistakes." He was apparently referring to negligence in the face of graft, not his handling of the conflict with Israel or his failure to deliver on promises of statehood.
The Palestinian leader did not say what the mistakes were or how he would correct them. He announced his government would form a "comprehensive workshop of reform" but did not say who would join or what exactly it would do.
Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi (search) said it was time to move beyond words. "This is a statement of intent," she said of Arafat's speech. "If it stays just that, then we lose."
Ashrawi and other lawmakers have been trying to persuade Arafat to put some of his vague reform promises into writing, so far without success.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli also said the Palestinians must act. "Our view is that Chairman Arafat has demonstrated by a record of broken promises that, you know, we can't work with him. He's not a useful partner for us," Ereli said.
In Ramallah, the reaction to Arafat's speech, including heckling from legislators, highlighted the increasingly emboldened opposition he now faces.
At one point, former Cabinet minister Abdel Jawad Saleh (search) shouted that Arafat himself was protecting the corrupt. Arafat got angry, responding with an indignant question: "I'm protecting them?"
Saleh said after the speech that Arafat is not serious about reforms and predicted there will be a nonviolent "uprising against this authority very soon."
Others expressed concern that Arafat is more interested in deflecting growing public pressure than making genuine changes.
In a decade at the helm of the Palestinian Authority, Arafat has repeatedly resisted attempts to get him to fight official corruption, reform the security services and relinquish some of his near-absolute powers.
His speech came amid growing dissatisfaction in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with his rule. Last month, demonstrators staged violent protests against some of his appointments, and a showdown erupted between Arafat and his prime minister, Ahmed Qureia.
Even his harshest critics have not demanded Arafat resign — he is still widely considered as a national symbol and a guarantor of unity — but he has clearly been rattled by the outpouring of complaints.
In his speech, he acknowledged there is some official corruption, said those engaged in wrongdoing should be prosecuted and reiterated that he would streamline the security forces. However, he gave no specifics.
"Some have misused their positions and were unfaithful in their jobs," he said.
"Not enough effort was exerted to strengthen the rule of law and activate the judicial system," he said. "We have started to deal with all of these issues. We have to act together to correct and reform all the improper practices."
In other developments Wednesday
— Five members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad were killed before dawn in an explosion. Israel said it had targeted a senior Hamas activist, Ahmed Jabari, but gave no details on the attack. Jabari escaped with minor injuries. Palestinian witnesses said they believed a bomb was detonated by remote control as Jabari and others sat in an olive grove near his home.
— Israel released a video it said shows jailed Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouti eating in his cell Tuesday, while thousands of fellow prisoners are on a hunger strike. The fast began Sunday, and Barghouti's daughter had said her father was participating. His lawyer said that it was an old film and that Barghouti was fasting.