Time for free elections

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 July, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 July, 1994, 12:00am

IF he follows through with free elections, Yasser Arafat's return to Gaza and Jericho after 27 years in exile have marked a turning point in the fortunes of the Palestinian people. If he does not, he should have stayed away.

The five-day visit was only a start. But it would have meant little had he not promised to make the Autonomy his base in future rather than Tunis. It may still mean little, if he cannot back it up with decent, organised government, steady enough to persuade international donors that their money is well spent. It will mean still less, if he cannot also maintain law and order inside the Autonomy and put a lid on violence against Jewish and Israeli targets elsewhere.

And, crucially, it will mean nothing if he cannot convince his own people that he is an honest leader, unafraid to ask for their endorsement at the polls. Israel has said it will not withdraw troops from other areas of the West Bank until the election date is fixed. And Mr Arafat will lose his remaining credibility with the Palestinians if he cannot persuade Israel to go.

He will not find any of these tasks easy. Statecraft is alien to him. All his experience and training has been as a guerilla. His henchmen have toted guns and killed innocent people. His approach to leadership has been to keep his own lieutenants as confused as the Israelis and the international community. Now he must grasp the basics of civilian leadership fast if he or the courageous experiment of Palestinian autonomy are to survive.