Under Pressure, Arafat Starts Delicate Dance with Reform ; Arafat Was to Meet an Electoral Group Yesterday to Discuss Scheduling a Vote

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Yasser Arafat must have swallowed hard before signing the bill that marks an unprecedented step toward Palestinian democracy - at least on paper. For the past six years, Mr. Arafat, who serves as president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), has done everything possible to thwart the fledgling Palestinian legislature from enabling a separation of powers and independent judiciary. He has ignored the legislative council, rebuked it, and stonewalled it. But last week, before making a speech in which he promised elections, he signed the "Judiciary Bill." If translated into action - and that is a big "if" - the law will dilute his far-reaching powers, say human rights lawyers. Arafat has not specified what reforms he supports, saying only that "all aspects of our national life" have to be reviewed. Arafat was scheduled yesterday to meet an electoral committee to discuss possible elections, saying a ballot could only be held after an Israeli withdrawal from all areas under PA self- rule. The only elections were held six years ago for the legislative council and PA presidency. The recent push for reform is attributed to introspection prompted by the shock of last month's Israeli offensive in the West Bank, while Arafat's adjustment is seen as also stemming from US demands for change. "Mr. Arafat is having an external and internal crisis, and he thinks it will make things easier if he talks about elections," says Nabil Kukali, director of the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion. He and other analysts view the holding of elections as a key indicator of whether Arafat is serious in addressing the demands for change. "The public is demanding reform in the strongest way since self-rule started [in 1994]," Mr. Kukali says. During the Israeli incursions "there were many Palestinians killed and we realized we are alone in this world," he says. "We've lost a lot, the economy is destroyed, thousands have been injured, it's very difficult to move, the peace process is stopped. There is no hope for the Palestinians. So we have to think about what happened." A 'first step' The new judiciary law would bar Arafat or security forces from intervening with court decisions, for example keeping behind bars those ordered free. Amina Mabad, a lawyer for the al-Haq human rights organization, says application of the law would spell the end of the state security courts, notorious for their lack of due process and rapid-fire convictions. Reform-minded legislators are asking Arafat to explicitly nullify those courts in a separate declaration. …

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