Arafat and some troubling signs

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

For a few hours it seemed as if the dawn of a peaceful new era was rising over the Middle East. Palestinians had cast their votes to elect their own government — a democratic first for them, or any Arabs, for that matter.

So what if the process was marred by a few irregularities? Those who complained of ballot tampering were fringe candidates who, besides voicing sour grapes, were peace-process opponents. After all, former President Jimmy Carter observed the elections and gave the thumbs up.

But hints of ballot-box tampering really point to everything about Yasser Arafat that makes Israel and its supporters nervous about whether a truly democratic, Western-style Israeli-Palestinian partnership is merely a mirage.

In truth, Arafat has yet to prove he has evolved from an iron-fisted, autocratic ruler of a terrorist organization into a real political leader capable of delivering his people to statehood.

The signs were there before the elections, and they are cropping up only too soon again.

In the weeks before the elections, Arafat briefly jailed a Palestinian activist who had criticized the state of human rights in the Palestinian autonomous areas under Arafat's rule. Then, an East Jerusalem newspaper editor was detained after giving a flattering Arafat story less than front-page play.

Israeli officials expressed concern about such developments but nowhere near the type of attention they gave to Arafat's behavior when they wanted him to come down harder on Islamic extremists. Were it not for the Israeli and Western media, the stories would not have been told.

Now, post-election, even more troubling signs about what life may be like in a Palestinian state have arisen: Arafat has waffled on whether he will keep his commitments to the Oslo Accords and ensure the Palestinian National Council — the putative Palestinian government-in-exile — will rescind the clauses of the Palestinian Covenant calling for Israel's destruction.

Arafat has likened changing the clauses to amending the U.S. Constitution — as if he were the Palestinians' founding father. Perhaps the parallel is more apt than he intended. Perhaps the Palestinians need to write their own constitution and enact real laws of governing so that even men such as Arafat will be forced to live by those rules or lose.