Reinventing Yassir Arafat

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There's a dark sense of humor at work when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agrees, at the prodding of the Bush Administration, to release to President Mahmoud Abbas $100 million of the Palestinian Authority funds it has frozen — and Abbas's aides then tell the New York Times that the money will be used "to strengthen his Fatah movement and pay salaries to Fatah loyalists." Clearly, the U.S. and Israel have come full circle on the question of Palestinian governance: Now that Yasser Arafat is gone, they appear to be reinventing him.

In 2001 the Bush Administration, coached by then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, embraced the notion that the reason there was no peace between Israel and the Palestinians was the nefarious maneuvering of Arafat. The Palestinian leader — elected in a race that could hardly be described as competitive — was an incorrigible autocrat, who had accumulated massive amounts of political and financial power in his own hands, bypassing the elected legislature and democratic institutions. He was running the Palestinian Authority as his personal fiefdom, the argument went, stoking militancy and blocking the emergence of a moderate consensus through his political control.

Outraged by this tale of cynical autocracy standing in the way of Middle East peace, the Bush Administration read the Palestinians the riot act. Before there was to be any pressure on Israel to move forward on the peace process, the Palestinians would not only have to dismantle Hamas and other groups mounting terror attacks, they would also have to complete a thorough reform of their institutions — Arafat would have to cede much of his executive power and control over funds and the security forces to the democratically elected legislature and a cabinet headed by its chosen Prime Minister. Palestinian democracy, as well as security crackdowns, would now be a precondition for peace.

It was a good story, even if it ignored the fact that Israel and the U.S. had actually helped put in place the autocratic structure around Arafat, in the belief that this was key to his ability to deliver a peace agreement. There were certainly no complaints about Arafat's autocratic control over the security forces and his disregard for the rule of law and human rights when he was rounding up masses of Hamas activists in 1996 following a campaign of bombings by the organization inside Israel. And far from complaining about his personal control over PA funds, Israel was in fact paying half of the revenues due to the PA into accounts personally controlled by Arafat. It was only after Arafat failed to accept the terms offered by the Israelis at Camp David, and instead encouraged a renewed intifada, that his personal power was raised as a problem — and then by a new Israeli leadership even more fervently opposed to the deal offered at Camp David than Arafat had been.

Even when Arafat died, and was replaced as President by Abbas after an election that was hardly competitive (Hamas didn't run), the U.S. continued to press for democratization, insisting that the PA go ahead with new legislative elections despite Israel's misgivings and warnings from the Fatah leadership that elections would weaken their position. And sure enough, Hamas took the opportunity to contest its first-ever PA elections, which it won handily as the electorate repudiated Abbas's party for its rampant corruption and its failed political strategy.

With democracy having produced the "wrong" result, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice slammed the policy gears into reverse. For the past year, the Bush Administration has insisted that President Abbas take personal charge of the Palestinian security forces, and has blocked donors from paying any funds to the democratic institutions of the PA until Hamas accepts its demands to recognize Israel and renounce violence. Instead, it has called for support not for the democratically elected government of the Palestinians, but for President Abbas personally. The Administration has sought funds from Congress to create new Palestinian security forces answerable directly to Abbas, and now appears to be finding ways to channel funds directly to him — even as his aides make clear that these monies will be used not to meet humanitarian needs or keep Palestinian institutions going, but to pay off Fatah loyalists. And the U.S. is widely believed to be pressing President Abbas to topple the democratically elected government, by calling for early elections — though it's not clear that he is constitutionally empowered to do so.

To paint U.S. policy on Palestinian democracy as consistent requires a bottomless well of chutzpah. Worse, the attempt to install Abbas as the new autocrat is no more likely to bring peace than having Arafat in that role did. Arafat fooled himself and his people over what the Israelis would offer at the conclusion of the Oslo process; the Israelis fooled themselves over what Arafat, or any other Palestinian leader, would be prepared to accept. Just as Israeli democracy restrains the government from making the concessions necessary for peace, so does the uncorked genie of Palestinian democracy restrain Palestinian leaders from compromising. In fact, a cursory assessment of the positions articulated thus far by Abbas and Olmert offers little evidence to suggest that these two men are any more likely to agree on where to draw the borders between Israel and Palestine than were Arafat and Ehud Barak. Instead, an unfortunate history may be repeating itself.