Ousting Arafat aids Arab cause

President Bush's recent call on Palestinians to change their leadership as a step toward reaching an independent state will greatly complicate any political reform and might even strengthen Yasser Arafat's power. But the president's criticism should not halt those of us in the Arab world from voicing our own criticism of Arafat -- perhaps for reasons different from those of the American president.
In discussions among Arab intellectuals, writers and activists, there is an undeclared reality: Arafat cannot bring about true reform. Since 1965, Arafat has dragged his people from one defeat to another, from one misery to another and from one humiliation to another. In private debates, many of us admit that the Palestinians suffer from not only the Israeli military occupation, but also another long occupation by Arafat and his cronies.
It is time for Arabs to say publicly what we have been saying privately: Yasser Arafat must go. His removal would be in the best interest of the Palestinian people, especially at this critical time:
* He has persuaded much of the world that only Arafat or ''the devil'' -- meaning Hamas or Islamic Jihad -- could lead the Palestinians. These militants, in turn, use violence not only to fight Israeli occupation, but also as a political tool to underscore the fragility of Arafat's leadership. This circle of violence severely damages the legitimacy of the Palestinians' struggle in the eyes of the rest of the world.
* He has overseen the unspeakable corruption and mismanagement of the Palestinian Authority, making Hamas and Islamic Jihad popular alternatives for the desperate people of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
* Especially at this juncture in their long struggle, Palestinians need to replace Arafat's aging visage with new, dynamic leaders who will represent them in a more favorable light internationally and work to undermine the power of the militants.
* The Bush administration has stated unequivocally that Arafat will not be part of any further negotiations. Therefore, Arafat is a real obstacle to and liability for a potential independent Palestinian state.
Separate leader from struggle
It is vital for intellectuals and activists in the Arab world to encourage its few brave voices to go beyond their shy criticism of Arafat. Prominent Palestinian intellectuals, among them Fawaz Turki and Edward Said, long have been calling for serious reform, particularly during the past 10 years. But the most crucial reform is simply the end of Arafat's long monopoly over the Palestinian cause. His removal could lead to a new leadership that not only understands the need for peace, but also has the clear and solid strategy needed to achieve it.
Palestinian society certainly is capable of producing competent new leadership -- but not under the current conditions, which make it impossible for potential leaders to emerge from beneath or within the rigid Arafat regime. Nor can Palestinians engage in a serious public debate about political reform while they are under the siege of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's military.
Power disguised as pride
Arafat is using the precarious current situation as an excuse to delay any reform. He started mobilizing his people to re-elect him in order ''to prove to the world that Palestinians do not take orders from anyone.'' A new call by Washington for the Israelis to end their brutal occupation would balance Bush's call to end Arafat's rule.
Any call by Palestinians for reform is not genuine unless it accepts the risks involved in making a major leadership change. Right now, Palestinians face a historical opportunity to prove to themselves -- and to the world -- that they are capable of taking such a risk and that they will no longer be used as pawns by a corrupt and arrogant Yasser Arafat.
Sulaiman Al-Hattlan, a Saudi journalist and political analyst, is a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard.