Palestinian Reform: A User's Guide

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Arafat has called for reforms within the Palestinian authority

It's understandable that Yasser Arafat would be reluctant to embrace reform in the Palestinian Authority; after all, it would ultimately limit his personal power. For Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon PA reform is code for getting rid of Arafat — the Israeli leader went so far, this week, as to suggest that the U.S. and its allies oust Arafat and "impose" an "interim government" on the Palestinians. But Sharon is unlikely to have much influence over the remaking of the PA.

The demand for reform of Arafat's apparatus has been strongest among Palestinians themselves, and it has reached fever pitch amid the devastation left by Israel's "Operation Defensive Shield." The extent to which that demand has been echoed by the Bush administration, the Europeans and the key Arab League states has forced Arafat to respond by promising major, if undefined changes. And the fact that so much of the PA's infrastructure has been destroyed in the course of recent Israeli military actions makes changes unavoidable, since much of the PA has now to be rebuilt from the ground up. A guide to the PA and its future:

What is the PA?

The Palestinian Authority was created by the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1994 as an interim administrative body that would serve as the foundation for a Palestinian state. Oslo envisaged a final-status agreement between the two sides by 1999, at which point the PA would be replaced by a government created on the basis of the constitution of the new Palestinian state. That's why the mandate of the current PA legislature and Chairman Arafat himself, democratically elected in early 1996, expired in 1999. But the absence of a final status agreement has, until now, frozen them in place. In practice, however, Arafat has for the most part ignored his legislature and even overruled his own judiciary, running the PA as his personal fiefdom.

Now, the Palestinian leader has promised new elections for his own position, as well as national elections for the 88-person Palestinian Legislative Council, whose members are elected on a district-by-district basis. The PA cabinet — Arafat's comprises 30 members — is appointed by the Chairman and ratified by the legislature. The ministers are meant to oversee the workings of the civil infrastructure of the PA, as well as the negotiating process. The PA's civilian infrastructure was funded by tax revenues on Palestinian workers collected by the Israeli government, and by large-scale aid from the European Union and the U.S. Financial accountability has been questionable, too — the EU warned of rampant corruption, and Israel paid a substantial portion of the tax revenues destined for the PA into an account controlled by Arafat personally. Israeli payments to the PA ceased in response to the current intifada.

Security Structures and Militias

Oslo mandated the creation of a large armed Palestinian security force, both to maintain order and, to fulfill the agreement's requirement that the PA deploy its own forces to protect Israel's security from attack by Palestinians. Arafat ultimately created 12 separate security structures in Gaza and the West Bank, each answerable directly to himself. That allowed Arafat to play off potential rivals against one another and prevent the emergence of any significant challengers.

Even collectively, however, Arafat's 12 security services have not enjoyed the monopoly of force in Palestinian territories. Each of the major Palestinian political parties — Fatah, Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Islamic Jihad — has maintained its own armed militias, and it is these forces that have waged the current intifada. And in the case of those aligned with his own political party — Fatah's Tanzim — Arafat has actually encouraged this development.

Arafat's reasons for supporting the Tanzim are political. The aging PLO leader and his inner circle are mostly products of decades of Palestinian exile, men brought Arafat back with him from Tunisia to staff the top tier of the PA. But in the course of their 1987-1991 intifada, the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza had evolved a strong local leadership, and many of these younger men were resentful at being overlooked in favor of the Tunisians. The grassroots Fatah leaders are generally more militant than those around Arafat, fiercely critical of the corruption and authoritarianism that became the hallmark of his administration, and impatient with Arafat's strategy of negotiations which they see as doing little to end the occupation. Arafat's reaction to their challenge, however, was to attempt to co-opt them, by providing funding and political support. And it was the Tanzim that "represented" Arafat in the violent confrontations with the Israelis that began in October 2000, helping Fatah reclaim the leadership of the streets from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, although they were happy to coordinate their actions against the Israelis with Arafat's erstwhile opposition.

Reform: Elections

Arafat and his legislature have agreed to hold national and local elections by early next year, although he has warned that those can't proceed in the midst of Israeli security operations — and indications right now are that Israel has no intention of relinquishing its grip on PA territories in the West Bank. While they may agree on elections in principle, Arafat and the legislature may differ sharply over reforming his cabinet. Palestinian efforts to root out corruption and create a more transparent, accountable, democratically mandated leadership are centered on the demand that the chairman dissolve his cabinet, and select a new one to be approved by the legislature in the next 45 days. Not only that, the legislature has voted that the cabinet should be pared down to 19 members, including one responsible for managing a single Palestinian security apparatus. Even more challenging to Arafat's autocratic style of running Palestinian affairs is the legislature's demand, currently being refashioned to conform to legal requirements, that the post of a prime minister be created, to oversee the day-to-day running of the PA. They also want him to punish those guilty of corruption. The message from the Palestinian legislature, and from the streets, is that they want Arafat, but not the Arafat they've had until now. They don't want his hands on all the levers that will determine Palestinian national life and the national fate, and they don't want his cronies anywhere near those levers. But Arafat has an unhappy history of ignoring his legislature.

Reform: Security

The consensus view is that the PA needs to fold all 12 of the current security bodies into a single structure, under a single security chief. But the Palestinian legislature goes further — they want the security chief to have a four-year term limit, be prevented from engaging in Palestinian domestic politics and also from "having contact with the Israeli side without the consent of the Palestinian political leadership." Such an arrangement would certainly throw a spoke into current Israeli efforts to cultivate ties with favored strongmen, such as Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan. And it's a sign that the Israelis and Palestinians have very different expectations of how a reformed PA would behave. Another is the legislators' demand that Arafat close the State Security Court, a tribunal whose decisions can't be appealed. Israel and the U.S. have, until now, been happy to overlook any concerns over due process as long as the PA is locking up those suspected of terrorism. But the Palestinian legislators appear to be insisting on a rule of law.

The U.S. and Israel have insisted that the PA disarm all the political militias outside of the formal PA security structures, and Arafat aide Muhammad Rashid has said the Palestinian leader accepts that and is prepared to ensure that PA security structures have a monopoly of force. But disarming the gunmen is a political challenge that Arafat is unlikely even to attempt as long Israeli forces remain in his domain and there's no prospect of imminent statehood.

Not Without Pressure

The fate of Palestinian reform depends on three factors: Arafat's willingness to relinquish his almost monarchical grip on Palestinian institutions and accept constitutional limits on his role; Israel's willingness to end its de-facto reoccupation of PA territory in the West Bank; and the willingness of the international community to apply pressure in pursuit of the first two.