Who Wants to Reform the Palestinian Authority?

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The sun sets over Arafat's destroyed compound in the West Bank

Suddenly everyone wants to reform the Palestinian Authority. But long before George Bush and Ariel Sharon were pressing to democratize the PA, the Palestinians themselves were trying to reform the corrupt, authoritarian government run as a personal fiefdom by Yasser Arafat. It was many of those very advocates for good, transparent governance who began the current intifada, which close observers of Palestinian politics interpreted at its outset as a challenge to the politics-as-usual of Arafat and his inner circle. And those advocates have ideas that are profoundly different from Sharon's about what democratizing the PA would entail.

Sharon appears to have convinced Bush this week that reforming the PA is a precondition for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians — which means such negotiations couldn't start any time soon. That position may change if the expected Israeli military offensive in Gaza rekindles the fires of crisis that prompted the U.S. to intervene three weeks ago. A primary objective of "reforming" the PA from Sharon's point of view is simply getting rid of Arafat, allowing Israel to deal with a new leader Sharon hopes will be more pliant. But the moderate Arab states and even Palestinian critics of Arafat won't accept his ouster, although they are likely to support moves that effectively limit some of the Palestinian leader's current power through developing structures of government that are more democratic, transparent and accountable.

Washington has wisely urged the Israelis to keep out of any attempt to remodel the PA — which would strip it of any credibility as a negotiating partner — and is hoping to enlist Arab help in making some concrete changes, particularly in the areas of finance and security.

International donors will be expected to come up with hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild Palestinian infrastructure, and the administration wants to ensure that the money is spent on its intended purpose. The days of Israel paying a substantial chunk of the tax revenue earmarked for the PA into personal discretionary accounts controlled by Arafat are, no doubt, over. It may well be that the guiding principle of Arab and Western funding to the PA from now on will be to keep Arafat's hands as far as possible from the treasury. Even though that would weaken Arafat's influence by removing the power of patronage, few Palestinians will have much problem with that.

Reforming the PA's security services into a single structure is the more complex challenge, particularly in the light of Israel's continuing military operations. Perhaps to safeguard his own rule by preventing the emergence of strong power centers to challenge him, Arafat has created nine different Palestinian security structures, each with its own budget and chain of command, and each ultimately answerable to him. When the militant grassroots of his own Fatah organization began to organize armed militias to wage the intifada, Arafat sought to bring those, too, under his wing — often to the chagrin of his security chiefs, whose own ability to maintain control was increasingly diluted by a plethora of unofficial armed formations operating with a nod and a wink (and regular cash infusions) from the PA leader.

Even as he found himself increasingly at odds with the mood on the Palestinian streets in the final years of the Oslo Accords, Arafat relied on his relationship with these competing security forces and militias for his power. Any move to consolidate the PA's security structures into a single force — much less to disarm the militias as envisaged by CIA director George Tenet's cease-fire plan — is likely to provoke fierce power struggles. The rivalry between West Bank security chief Jibril Rajoub and his Gaza counterpart Mohammed Dahlan has been increasingly open since the Israeli invasion, while the leader of Fatah's West Bank militias, Marwan Barghouti, languishes in an Israeli prison.

While it's hard to find a Palestinian politician today that isn't calling for reforming the PA, the big question remains how. The intifada and the Israeli invasion of the West Bank has disrupted and fragmented the PA, which has strengthened Arafat's own hand. Not only has Sharon's siege restored Arafat's political standing in the eyes of his own people, it may have also deepened the extent to which any institutional changes in the PA require his endorsement. But democratizing the PA necessarily weakens Arafat's own power, and with the Israelis having made clear that their objective is to eliminate him as a political player, the Palestinian leader may be more inclined to consolidate his power rather than allow it to be decentralized.

Sharon's insistence that a democratic PA is a precondition for negotiations may also be something of a hedge. After all, most surveys of public opinion in the West Bank and Gaza find a majority of Palestinians implacably opposed to cracking down on those who have fought the intifada, and disinclined to accept the terms of new cease-fires with the Israelis. A more democratic Palestinian leadership would naturally be more responsive to the concerns of its constituency, and therefore possibly even more difficult for the Israelis to deal with than Arafat. Even before the latest intifada, the Palestinian public had lost faith that the Oslo peace process could bring a peaceful end to the occupation and remove Israeli settlements from their midst. In the absence of any new political process to achieve those ends, they may be looking for a leadership to more firmly stand up to Israel than acquiesce to its requirements. A more democratic Palestinian Authority may well create conditions for a more durable peace, but only in the long term. The problem is that all of those now clamoring for PA reform may not be able to wait that long.