Why Israel — and Arafat — Isn't Ready for Palestinian Democracy

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NASSER NASSER/AP

Palestinians in Ramallah protest for the release of Ahmad Sa'adat

Three Palestinian judges on Monday proved the independence of the Palestinian judiciary — and in the process deepened the political crisis facing Yasser Arafat. But the Gaza high court ruling ordering the release of radical Palestinian leader Ahmed Saadat also posed some uncomfortable questions about the Bush administration's efforts to reform the Palestinian Authority, and its broader strategy. Saadat, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, has been in a Palestinian prison in Jericho since April. He was imprisoned under U.S. and British supervision as part of the U.S.-brokered agreement to end Israel's siege of Arafat's Ramallah compound. Israel accuses Saadat of masterminding the assassination of right-wing Israeli cabinet minister Rehavam Zeevi last year, but the PA court ordered his release on the grounds that no evidence had been presented against Saadat, and no legal proceedings conducted. Arafat had arrested Saadat not for legal reasons, but in order to satisfy the Israeli and American demand that he clamp down on Israel's most wanted. Israeli officials immediately warned that they would not tolerate his release, and Arafat's cabinet used an implied Israeli threat to kill the PFLP leader to keep him in prison in defiance of the court order.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]Arafat has in the past routinely denied court orders ordering the release of detainees held without due process — but with all this talk of reforming and democratizing the PA in the air, a ruling that puts the rule of law and separation of powers at odds with the demand that Arafat crack down on Israel's most wanted highlights the political crisis. Israel and the U.S. want a Palestinian leadership that cracks down on militancy, but doing that will require an authoritarian strongman ready to enforce his will against the tide of Palestinian public opinion. If, as has been widely reported recently, Washington and the Israelis are eyeing Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan as a desirable successor to Arafat, it's not because they believe he's a small 'D' democrat.

Arafat's popularity has plummeted since the end of the siege of Ramallah, in no small part because of the perception that he negotiated his own freedom at the expense of men like Saadat, even as the circumstances of ordinary Palestinians continue to deteriorate under Israeli blockade. Forcing him to overrule his own judiciary won't help with the home constituency, and yet holding Saadat in prison won't necessarily help Arafat achieve the resumption of political negotiations he desperately needs. That's because Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon has made abundantly clear to U.S. emissaries this week that he has no intention of engaging in any kind of dialogue with the Palestinians as long as Arafat remains in charge.

Washington continues to push for an immediate resumption of political dialogue in tandem with efforts to stop terror attacks and to reform the PA. Sharon refuses deal with an Arafat-led PA, and Israeli officials have openly questioned the wisdom of Bush administration efforts to rebuild PA security structures as long as they're answerable to Arafat. Still, Arafat's not retiring anytime soon, and when he met with CIA director George Tenet on Tuesday to discuss PA reform the Palestinian leader emphasized that progress depends on Israeli forces withdrawing from PA territory — something Israel has shown no inclination to do.

Although Arafat looks set to respond this week to calls from the PA legislature for the appointment of a new cabinet, it appears that the political coalition on which it will be based will be exactly the same as the current one. On the ground, ordinary Palestinians are less concerned with the composition of Arafat's cabinet than with the impact of Israel's continuing economic stranglehold and military operations. And on the Israeli side, too, the signs are that nobody's holding their breath for the outcome of the Bush administration's efforts. The ongoing deployment of Israeli troops in what were once off-limits Palestinian towns have become so routine that the Israeli military now refers to them as "patrols" rather than "incursions."

Absent some form of shock therapy, the administration's efforts to start a regional political dialogue at a summit that was to have been held in June — but has now been postponed — may simply drift into oblivion. The Israelis insist they won't talk to Arafat, and it remains abundantly clear that no Palestinian will step forward to negotiate with Israel. Much now depends on what transpires over the next week when Bush meets first with Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, and then with Sharon. Bush is unlikely to hear much that will please him. The question is, what will he say?