There's little doubt the recent Palestinian Council elections gave Yasser Arafat greater credibility as a democratic world leader, says Aharon (Roni) Yaar, Israeli Embassy counselor in Washington, D.C.
However, in order for Arafat to retain that status and help propel the peace process forward, he now needs to fulfill his promises to Israel, Yaar added.
"Until now, he's been reluctant," Yaar said in an interview during a recent visit to the Bay Area.
Yaar, former head of Palestinian Affairs at the Political Research Center, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in Jerusalem and a member of the Israeli delegation to the Middle East peace negotiations in Washington, spoke to local groups about the future of the peace process following the elections.
To move the process forward, he said, Arafat must commit himself to revoking or amending sections of the Palestine National Covenant calling for the destruction of Israel.
"He committed himself to this in Cairo and in Oslo II. There are no more excuses for Arafat," Yaar said, adding "I believe Arafat can attract enough support among the PNC to accomplish this.
Most of the PNC's 452 members were appointed by Arafat. They adopted the covenant calling for the destruction of Israel in 1964.
According to Yaar, the PNC's role is mostly symbolic — even more so since the election of Arafat and 88 Palestinian Council members. Its last meeting convened in the late 1980s.
However, it is crucial that the PNC, and not the elected council, change the covenant, Yaar said.
"The PNC adopted it," he said. Amending the covenant, "could perhaps be the last real function of the PNC."
In addition to swaying at least two-thirds of the PNC to modify its covenant, Arafat must also crack down on terrorist groups, he added. "He needs to make certain terrorists don't threaten Israelis, Palestinians or the peace process."
In general, Yaar is optimistic about the Palestinian leader. He said Arafat's de facto rule in the territories since 1994 has been "a success story."
Arafat won the largest percentage of votes in Gaza and Jericho. The citizens there "feel the gains of Arafat's leadership — the relative freedoms he has secured," Yaar said. "They believe he's improving things."
Nonetheless, Arafat's 88 percent victory signals a vocal opposition. "By Arab standards, Arafat got a low percent of support. The normal result would be 97 percent or better," as his opposition Samiha Khalil was virtually unknown, Yaar said. However, the 88 elected council seats should serve to balance Arafat's rule.
According to Yaar, about 60 percent of those elected to the council are considered loyal to Arafat. The rest identify as either independent or Palestine Liberation Organization supporters.
Yaar believes the council members won't challenge Arafat on the basics of the peace process with Israel. However, such newly elected members as Hanan Ashrawi are expected to challenge him on issues of Palestinian human rights and democracy.
The question, Yaar said, is whether Arafat will try to silence them."I don't think so," he answered. "In fact, I think history shows he'll tolerate them to prove he is in fact a democratic leader."