What Arafat's PA Reform Really Means

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Arafat has called for reforms within the Palestinian authority

Although he's often accused of "never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity," Yasser Arafat's call for Palestinian elections shows an uncharacteristic political agility. Under pressure from all sides to clamp down on terrorism and reform his Palestinian Authority, Arafat used a speech to the Palestinian legislature Wednesday to denounce attacks on Israeli civilians and to call for sweeping, if undefined, reforms. Thursday, the Palestinian legislature scheduled a presidential election for next March, legislative elections within a year from now and voted to name a new PA cabinet within 45 days.

By scheduling new elections for his position, Arafat has effectively neutralized efforts by Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon to sideline him from any future negotiating process. Sharon earlier this week reiterated his insistence that there would be no negotiations with the Palestinians before the PA had been thoroughly reformed, saying he would talk only to a "different Palestinian Authority" — code for an entity led by someone other than Arafat. But by committing himself to renewing his mandate from the Palestinian electorate, Arafat is answering Western and Arab calls for greater democracy in the PA. It's a relatively safe move, since Arafat is unlikely to face any credible challenger for the presidency in next year's poll.

The fundamental question of PA reform, therefore, is not whether or not Arafat occupies the presidency, but what the extent of his powers will be. On that front he faces a concerted challenge from within the ranks of his own party, Fatah, which is not only proposing far-reaching changes to end the corruption and cronyism around Arafat but also working to ensure that the Palestinian executive branch is held more accountable to its elected legislature — all of which will diminish Arafat's personal power. While that may please many of the Israeli and Western leaders frustrated in their dealings with Arafat, the irony is that a more democratic Palestinian leadership could well be even less inclined than Arafat is to accept Israel's negotiating terms.

The extent to which Arafat delivers on his promise of reform may depend on the outcome of the fierce power struggles already under way in his domain. The increasingly open split between West Bank security chief Jibril Rajoub and his Gaza counterpart Mohammed Dahlan is threatening to spark a wave of internecine violence, while the grassroots Fatah leadership is being emboldened by Arafat's talk of reform to press ahead in its challenge to the PLO old guard that dominates the PA leadership.

Israel, meanwhile, is facing its own internal struggle over how to follow up on its West Bank offensive. Sharon's own political base is trying to restrain him from entering any negotiations over Palestinian statehood. The prime minister is responding by telling supporters that statehood may be inevitable at some point, but that he won't negotiate on the subject until attacks on Israelis have ended and the PA has been reformed. His Labor Party coalition partners, sensing the possibility of an early election, have resurrected the Clinton proposals for Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank and Gaza and sharing Jerusalem as the basis for a political settlement. And Foreign Minister Shimon Peres is floating a proposal to begin immediate negotiations over Palestinian statehood by getting the U.S. and its diplomatic partners to provide the necessary security guarantees until such time as the PA has been mended.

The resurgent debate is a product of the relative calm of recent weeks, but that calm is an uneasy one that could be shattered at any moment. Hamas and other militant groups have vowed to dispatch more suicide bombers into Israel despite Arafat's injunctions, and Israel's incoming Chief of Staff, General Moshe Ya'alon has warned that Israel will mount new incursions in Gaza and the West Bank whenever deemed necessary. Washington is aware, however, that defusing the conflict requires keeping the IDF out of Palestinian territory. An Israeli invasion of Gaza — which Ya'alon said was a question of when rather than whether — will likely see the PA suspend whatever efforts it is making to crack down on Palestinian militants.

So even as the Palestinians battle over internal reform and the Israelis lock horns over the shape and timetable of a final political settlement, the security vacuum threatens to eclipse all of those discussions. Indeed, the continued potential for terror attacks inside Israel and for a large-scale IDF retaliation suggests that the current calm may simply be the lull before the next storm.