Can the Palestinian Authority clean up its act?

Arafat calls for elections and promises to reform his corrupt regime -- but dispirited Palestinians have no faith things will change.

By Ferry Biedermann

Published May 17, 2002 7:13PM (EDT)

Hundreds of people marched quietly past the hall housing the Palestinian Legislative Council in central Gaza City on Wednesday. They were commemorating what Palestinians call the Naqba, or Catastrophe -- the fateful events of 1948, when Israel was founded and close to three-quarters of a million Palestinians were dispossessed. The turnout was lower than in previous years and the mood more somber. For Gazans, the catastrophe -- of oppression, poverty, poor leadership, further dispossession, resistance and hopelessness -- is still taking place, culminating just a few weeks ago in the dramatic Israeli onslaught against the Palestinians in the West Bank.

Inside the dingy PLC building, at about the same time as the demonstration, more than a hundred delegates and high-ranking officials sat dolefully watching a live satellite broadcast from the West Bank city of Ramallah, where Yasser Arafat was promising to reform the Palestinian Authority. Arafat called for presidential and parliamentary elections in six months, announced the separation of the judiciary from the executive branch and said he supported other administrative and military reforms. Such reforms have been demanded with increasing forcefulness by the Israelis, the Americans, the international community and the Palestinians themselves, but all of the parties involved have different agendas -- and even many Palestinians doubt whether Arafat's regime is capable of fundamentally reforming itself.

Israel and the United States want to make sure that a revamped Palestinian Authority will prevent terror attacks and crack down on radicals. Both are also hoping that a restructured P.A. will diminish the role of Arafat, whom neither trusts -- although the United States has not ruled out dealing with the Palestinian leader, as the Israelis have. (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reportedly suggested that the U.S. impose an interim government on the Palestinians, a proposal that Palestinian lawmaker Hanan Ashrawi denounced as "racist.") Sharon is also using the issue of reform to avoid confronting the difficult underlying political issues. Many believe the same holds true for the Bush administration, which is more interested in invading Iraq and has repeatedly shown its reluctance to risk any political capital over an issue that it feels holds out more risks than rewards.

As for the Palestinians, they are dispirited and disillusioned. Many Palestinians have long called for reforms of the Palestinian governing body, which was established by the Oslo accords that granted Palestinians limited self-government, viewing it as a heavy-handed, cumbersome, opaque, corrupt bureaucracy that does Israel's dirty work for it and is run by Arafat and his cronies like a patronage machine. But they are skeptical that anything will really change beyond security arrangements, and they have no faith that the United States and Israel have Palestinian interests in mind. Palestinians also point to the devastation of their society wrought not just by Israel's recent invasion but also by its harsh economic policies, including closures and parsimoniously issued work permits.

In the PLC building, Arafat's vague promise of reforms did not elicit more than a smattering of applause. "The reforms that are demanded from the outside by the U.S. and Israel will be carried out," said one politician. "The security services will be reorganized, but will that bring real democracy? I don't think so."

In the current relative lull in the violence between Israelis and Palestinians, both sides are turning their attention toward internal politics. Almost every day people are still being killed, mainly Palestinians gunned down in Israeli raids, though occasionally a suicide bomber slips through and wreaks death and destruction in Israeli cities. But the level of the violence has dropped off, and hopes for a longer-lasting period of calm have been raised by Arafat's release from Ramallah and the postponement of a threatened Israeli raid on Gaza. Instead of aiming for a quick resumption of peace negotiations, both sides are turning inward.

As Arafat pledged reforms, a PLC committee started drafting new laws, saying Arafat would remain the leader but he had to delegate authority. On Thursday, the entire PLC, meeting in Gaza and Ramallah, passed a vote calling for elections for Arafat's post of P.A. chairman in the first quarter of 2003 and council and municipal elections within one year. It also called for a new cabinet to be named within 45 days. The vote, however, is not binding on the Palestinian leader. The Palestinians have not had an election since 1996.

Israel, for its part, continued to struggle with the question of what it really wants to offer the Palestinians. The week started with Sharon's right-wing Likud party rejecting any chance of a Palestinian state "west of the Jordan River." The vote came against Sharon's wishes: His own vision of such a state is totally unacceptable to the Palestinians themselves, but he wanted to keep his hands free in his dealings with the international community, which has firmly embraced the idea of Palestinian statehood. The vote, in the Likud's Central Committee, represented more of an internal struggle in the party, between Sharon and former Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, than an actual policy shift. Netanyahu is trying to do what Sharon did to him when he was prime minister: outflank him on the right. The move may actually backfire on Netanyahu, however, because polls consistently show a majority of Israelis, even Likud voters, accept a Palestinian state if it is part of a comprehensive peace deal. Nevertheless, Netanyahu is a skillful politician who is still hugely popular in the Likud, and his struggle with Sharon may yet influence the way the conflict develops.

The Likud's meeting was followed on Wednesday by a similar Labor Party forum where the clash over how to deal with the Palestinians also served as a backdrop for a leadership struggle. Defense Minister and Labor leader Benjamin Ben-Eliezer for the first time presented a full-blown diplomatic vision that was largely based on the Clinton proposals for a final status deal between Israel and the Palestinians. His challenger, former Trade Unions boss Haim Ramon, hammered on the need for "unilateral separation from the Palestinians." He advocates withdrawing from Gaza and most of the West Bank and then building a fence around it, even before a deal has been reached, because "there is no Palestinian partner." He objected to Ben-Eliezer's detailed proposals, saying "why talk about dividing Jerusalem when they are still killing us."

Ramon is a long way, though, from gaining control over the party, and the discussions inside Likud and Labor seem rather pointless, since there is no prospect of a diplomatic process anytime soon. Sharon this week did his bit to put off that prospect even further by adding a new condition to his old demand of a total end to violence before negotiations can resume: a thorough reform of the Palestinian Authority. "There can be no peace with a corrupt terror regime which is rotten and dictatorial," said Sharon in a speech to the Knesset, Israel's Parliament. "There has to be a different [Palestinian] Authority."

Sharon's intention in calling for reforms in the P.A., apart from raising one more obstacle to substantive peace talks, is also to sideline Arafat. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres welcomed Arafat's remarks on reforms, calling them encouraging but cautioning that "these words must be accompanied by an uncompromising fight against terrorism, by a consolidation of all Palestinian armed forces under a single central authority" -- a position essentially echoed by Washington, which said it welcomed Arafat's statements but wanted to see concrete results. Sharon's spokesmen, on the other hand, dismissed the speech, saying such reforms had been promised before and that nothing would change as long as Arafat was in charge.

In his speech to the PLC, Arafat acknowledged the need for reforms but blamed Israel for the P.A.'s problems. "Matters have been going in the wrong direction as a result of the Israeli government's attitude," he said. "Our internal situation after the recent Israeli attacks needs a comprehensive review of all aspects of our life." He did not give any specific proposals but said: "I call for a review of all our administrative, ministerial and security forces."

The United States and its most important Arab allies, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have been pressing for the P.A. to reorganize its redundant, overlapping and poorly regulated security forces, which were shattered by the Israeli attack. CIA director George Tenet is planning a visit to the region to kick-start that process, although his trip has been delayed several times. Saudi Arabia and Egypt have made it clear to Arafat that they expect the P.A. to do more to rein in militants who are planning attacks on Israel. (A commentary in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz suggested that the P.A. has in fact begun cracking down on terror, citing the fact that no group has stepped forward to take responsibility for the recent suicide bombing in Rishon Letzion, presumably because they feared retribution from the P.A.)

But the U.S., Israeli and even Arab demands for reform of the P.A. are a far cry from what the Palestinians themselves would like to see. They clamor for more democratic control, transparency, an independent judiciary and an end to teeming corruption. "We will never see real reforms," said Abdullah Hourani, who heads the political committee of the Palestine National Council, the highest ruling body of the PLO and who had watched Arafat's speech in the council hall. "He never once mentioned the PLO, while we are supposed to negotiate peace with the Israelis on behalf of the Palestinian people, not the P.A."

Hourani explained that there are two visions of reforms: those forced on the P.A. by outside forces, and those generated by the Palestinians themselves. "The two can contradict each other," Hourani said. "When the outside demands tougher action against so-called militants without strengthening the legal framework, we are in trouble." According to Hourani, that is what happened in the late 1990s, when the Americans helped strengthen the Preventive Security Service to help prevent attacks against Israel. The tactic provided some years of relative quiet but led to much resentment among the population over strong-arm tactics by the security forces and the lack of due process. (As the Israeli journalist Amira Hass documents in her book "Drinking the Sea at Gaza," Gazans came to dread being hauled before the draconian State Security Court, which functions outside the law, usually conducts its trials -- many of which last five minutes -- in the middle of the night, and hands down verdicts that cannot be appealed. The court was condemned by Amnesty International as violating "minimum standards of international law" but was praised by Israel and the United States for taking "concrete steps" against terror. Suspects brought before the SSC have included not just militants but journalists whose "crime" was "libeling" the P.A.)

The debate among Palestinians over reforms is not only focused on the way the P.A. is run, but as Hourani indicated, also on relations with the Israelis and the future of the intifada. The criticism of Arafat and his clique swelled after the Israeli offensive, in which the P.A. proved incapable of protecting its own people. Much of the resentment is aimed at two deals to end the crises around Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah and around the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. In the latter, the P.A. agreed for the first time to the exile of 13 of its people. Arafat defended some of his aides against accusations of selling out and, in an unusual statement, took full responsibility, admitting that "mistakes" might have been made.

Many Palestinians are unhappy with the turn the intifada has taken, with the escalation of violence and the subsequent suffering of the population. "People are tired," Hourani acknowledged. Arafat called in his speech for an end to attacks on civilians. "Palestinian and Arabic public opinion have reached a point where they agree such operations do not serve our goals," he said. "On the contrary, it creates the hatred within the international community which was behind the creation of Israel."

Many Palestinians, however, view such calls skeptically, seeing them as caving in to outside pressure. Dr. Haider Abdel Shafi, the veteran negotiator who headed the Palestinian delegation to the talks in Madrid in 1991, became Arafat's fiercest critic after the Oslo accords were signed in 1993. (Shafi regarded allowing Israeli settlements to remain in the occupied territories while Palestinians were granted limited self-rule elsewhere as a critical mistake from the Palestinian point of view -- a view that history has vindicated.) He has consistently fulminated against the lack of democracy in the P.A. and what it does to Palestinian society and the Palestinian negotiating position. "The lack of democratic leadership of the intifada has meant that we are unable to control its negative aspects or to promote its positive aspects," he said. He called for a "National Unity leadership" after the promised elections.

Although he said he understood what motivates suicide bombings, Shafi criticized the attacks because of the international outrage they stir, calling them counterproductive. For Shafi, the Palestinians' only hope is to get the support of the democratic world. "We should keep fighting, but only in self-defense, against settlements, house demolitions, the uprooting of our farms, etc.," he said. "That way the world will see that we only fight in the defense of our just rights." But he argued that Arafat's calls to the militants to stop those actions were doomed to be ineffective. "Only if they all feel that they are part of a National Authority will they abide by a majority decision to cease such operations," he said.

Shafi professed a deep disappointment in the failure of the Western countries to come to the Palestinians' aid. And he argued that the leadership should not only act to stop suicide attacks, but also more firmly advocate the legitimate rights of the Palestinians. He opposes participation in an international peace conference as long as Israel does not stop all settlement activity in the occupied territories.

Hourani too is skeptical of international involvement -- and of the capacity of the Palestinian leadership to deliver change. He foresees that the Americans will push through the reorganization of the security services -- "that fits in with their plans" -- but that the rest of the reforms are unlikely to be passed by Arafat, who will keep ruling relatively unopposed. "This is the Third World," Hourani said bitterly. "Most of the people who watched that broadcast with me in the council hall are crooks. They were elected because of dirty tricks and money they get from the leadership. Why should that change if new elections are held?"

Ferry Biedermann

Ferry Biedermann is a journalist based in Beirut.

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