Middle East

Middle East

Reform Rhetoric

Yasser Arafat
Yasser Arafat, listening to his bodyguard, surveys the damage to his Ramallah headquarters, June 6, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

[Editor’s note: On June 24, at press time, President George W. Bush made a long-anticipated speech outlining U.S. policy on the creation of a Palestinian state, in which he said, “Peace requires a new and different leadership so that a Palestinian state can be born. I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror. I call upon them to build a practicing democracy based on tolerance and liberty.”]

Following increasing domestic, regional, and international pressure for political reform of the Palestinian Authority (PA), President Yasser Arafat announced in mid-May that he took responsibility for mistakes under his leadership and pledged reforms, including elections before the end of the year and a “separation of powers.”

Palestinian politicians, activists, and the public have been at the forefront of a push for reform that has gained steam since Israel lifted its siege of Arafat’s Ramallah compound on May 2. Israel’s spring West Bank incursion “has revived an atmosphere of dialogue” about the future of the Palestinians, wrote Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine representative Ahmad Majdalani in Al-Ayyam (May 1).

Shortly after the siege ended, several hundred Palestinian political activists and PLO figures convened an informal assembly that called for a continuation of the Intifada and an overhaul of the Palestinian Authority (PA). A few days later, Palestinian officials criticized the PA’s performance and called for a new Cabinet, while Arafat adviser Nabil Amr submitted his resignation. Arafat reportedly stormed out of the meeting in protest.

Responding to the reform mood, Al-Quds (May 16) agreed that the Palestinians need to launch a “wide-ranging campaign of self-criticism” to determine the causes of its current malaise. Israel’s occupation “cannot be an excuse for the continuation of corruption and nepotism, absence of equal opportunity, profiteering through monopolies, not to mention the multiplicity of security organs with conflicting authority,” it said.

Writers across the region agreed that Palestinians not only deserve greater freedoms and a more accountable leadership, but in the long run, such reforms would help serve the Palestinian cause as well. Abdel Rahman al-Rashed, editor of Al-Sharq al-Awsat, expressed this sentiment in a lead editorial (May 18): “The Palestinians, not the Americans or anyone else, stand to benefit from the restructuring of the PA….Everyone knows that the keys are in the hands of the PA chief,” Al-Rashed concluded. “The siege of [Arafat’s] compound in Ramallah has proved beyond doubt that it is risky to leave those keys in one hand.” And he added that credible democratic leadership is the best way to effectively resist the Israeli occupation.

Palestinian and other Arab commentators, however, have rejected calls for reform coming from Israel or the United States. Arab editorialists reacted skeptically to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s demands that the reform of the PA was a precondition for the resumption of peace talks, and stressed the irony that Palestinian transparency and democratization had not been high priorities of Israeli and U.S. administrations while the Oslo peace process was still alive. Now, another motive seems to be in play: Israel’s desire to delay negotiations on any territorial compromise.

In its May 16 editorial, Al-Quds warned that the Israeli government would like to use the issue as “an excuse to destroy the peace process and deprive the Palestinian people of their national aspirations to freedom, independence, and an end to the occupation.” This sentiment was echoed widely in the regional Arab press.

According to Jamil Hilal in The Daily Star (May 18), “Sharon and his government have raised the issue only after they failed to rid themselves of Arafat and the PA.” Hilal added that the Israeli demands represent a “new tactic to delay as much as possible the political negotiations over a final settlement.” Randa Haidar, writing in Al-Nahar, agreed. Sharon, she said, is seeking to “achieve his political aim of banishing Arafat, paving the way for a new Palestinian leadership and postponing any negotiation over a Palestinian state.”
“Defeat and surrender” was how Lebanese columnist Sateh Noureddine, writing in Al-Safir (May 16), termed Arafat’s declaration of culpability and his promise to restructure the PA. Israelis and Americans will now impose “impossible measurements for reform and democracy that are not even fulfilled by Scandinavian countries.”

While Israeli and American calls to reform the PA were difficult to stomach, similar statements from Arab regimes struck an even more sensitive chord with journalists. Ahmed al-Rabie acidly remarked in Al-Sharq al-Awsat (May 20): “Arab states—where people live in a state of chaos, absence of freedom and...human rights—are now criticizing the state of the PA and demanding its reform.”

And in Jordan, journalists questioned why the young King Abdullah and his government pushed for democracy and elections in Palestine rather than at home. Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of Al-Quds al-Arabi (May 31), lashed out at the proposal that Egypt and Saudi Arabia would assist the PA in overhauling its security apparatus: “The Palestinian people will pass, because Arab corruption has gained worldwide fame....We wish the governments concerned would put their own houses in order first....Then we would be delighted to emulate their experiences.”

Al-Quds al-Arabi, in its lead editorial on May 18-19, dismissed the PA’s precondition that new elections will be held only after Israel’s withdrawal. “Free and fair elections will put real pressure on the Americans and Israelis....Even if the elections were to be held under occupation.” Whether Arafat and the PA are prepared for change remains to be seen. According to Abu Ghazala, writing in Al-Khaleej (May 9), Arafat knows that radical reforms are needed to stop his and the PA’s popularity slide. “If the Old Man wants to deny the opportunity to Bush, Sharon, and others who are stirring up murky waters with the aim of splitting the ranks of the Palestinians,” he wrote, “the first thing he must do after his release…is institute radical reforms.”