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BEIRUT — Following the hammer blows of the Palestinian intifada and Israeli repression, Palestinian reforms are the great new prescription for Middle East peacemaking, which is to be directed by an international conference.

Rarely has there been such a show of unanimity. Everybody wants reform: Israelis and Americans, Palestinians and Arabs. For who, in principle, could object to the desirable things that reform would bring — democracy, due process, accountability, an end to corruption?

Unfortunately, it is an outward unanimity only. The truth is that the Palestinians most sincerely seek them. For the Israelis, and in varying degrees the Americans and Arab regimes, reforms are just a means and a cover for altogether less exalted ends.

Never mind that the sudden enshrinement of reform as the indispensable prerequisite for further peacemaking came first from their most detested enemy, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon himself, and that it was quickly endorsed by the United States. The Palestinians had no inhibitions about joining the general clamor for the very good reason that demands for reform have been an almost continuous theme of their internal politics since the 1960s, when Yasser Arafat and his Fatah guerrillas took control of the national struggle.

What was important before the Oslo Agreement of 1993 became even more so after it. The chief architect of Oslo, Abu Mazen, said at the outset that it would “lead either to the Palestine state or to the liquidation of the Palestine cause.”

With his “return” to a West Bank and Gaza still under full Israeli military control, his renunciation of armed struggle, his dependence on U.S.-sponsored diplomacy and his commitment to Israel’s security above the Palestinians’ own, Arafat had to draw on all possible resources to offset a balance of power weighted overwhelmingly in Israel’s favor.

Everything hinged on whether, through good governance, Arafat made proper use of the talent, education and goodwill of the people who inhabited this state-in-the-making. Unfortunately, no sooner had the guerrilla chieftain, who in exile had trumpeted the contrast between his “Palestinian democracy” and Arab despotisms, acquired a polity of his own than he set about emulating those states. That became intolerably clear in his people’s eyes with Sharon’s pacification campaign in the West Bank, during which the heroism of an unofficial few dramatized the long-accumulated flaws of officialdom.

Said Palestinian commentator Mouin Rabbani: “The belief that the absence of structural transformation is intimately related to Israel’s political and military victories unleashed the torrent of Palestinian demands for change.”

Obviously, change that would strengthen his adversary’s ability to confront him is not what Sharon wants. Ideally, he would destroy Arafat and his Palestinian Authority on the ostensible grounds that Israel, as he puts it, cannot deal with a “corrupt terror regime that is rotten and dictatorial.” In reality, though, Sharon has always abhorred any legitimate, representative institution that embodies Palestinian national identity and eventual statehood on territory he and the Israeli right deem to be an inalienable, exclusive part of Greater Israel.

He has not managed to destroy Arafat. But the reforms that — as the next best thing — he has in mind are the precise opposite of what the Palestinians envisage: They would not empower the Palestinian people through a democratically installed regime, but would subject them to one that, of necessity, would be more tyrannical and unrepresentative than before. In effect, far from advancing the peace process, Sharon would take it back to the point it was at least a generation ago, when neither Israel nor the U.S. so much as contemplated the idea of a Palestine state on Palestine territory, or recognized the Palestinians’ right to a leadership of their own choosing.

Sharon’s notion of a peace plan, so far as it is known, repudiates all the progress made via the 1991 Madrid conference, Oslo and subsequent accords and negotiations. It would consecrate all existing “Zionist facts on the ground” under yet another “interim” agreement of indefinite duration, during which Israel would be free to create ever more new ones.

Sharon’s notion of a Palestinian leadership is one that acquiesces in these conditions. If neither Arafat nor anyone else comes forward to do so, Israel will promote a leadership of its own choosing, just as it did the so-called Village Leagues, apparently the model for what Sharon has in mind today, in the 1970s when he was in charge of settlement policy in the territories.

Since an international conference — originally Sharon’s idea too — is to furnish the framework in which peacemaking resumes after the Palestinian Authority is duly reformed, he also arrogates to himself the right to decide who will attend it. Thus Syria or Lebanon will not be there — at least not until they carry out a series of “reforms” as drastic as those required of the Palestinians, such as the disbandment of Hezbollah.

Like the Israelis, the Americans showed little objection to Arafat’s corruption and oppression when, amid a semblance of a peace process, he was exploiting them to do what they both wanted of him: fighting the “terror” which they now accuse him of tolerating, or sponsoring outright.

The Americans don’t want to get rid of Arafat — their deference to Israel has not gone that far, or at least not yet. They want to keep him as a national figurehead in nominal charge of a Palestinian Authority whose security services and finances have been “reformed’ in accordance with their own specifications. They seek the assistance to this end of pro-American Arab regimes for which the outbreak of real Palestinian democracy would be as disturbing, if for different reasons, as for them and the Israelis.

These rival concepts of reform are impossible to reconcile, although Arafat is trying like a contortionist to do so. It makes for as fiendish a predicament as he has ever faced and could be his final undoing. The more ground he cedes to his own people, the more that will prove to the Israelis that, if they really expect yet greater pliancy from their adversaries, Arafat “the corrupt dictator” would have been far better able to supply it than an Arafat confronted by Hamas deputies in a properly elected Parliament. The more he accommodates the Israelis, the more he will persuade his own people that violence, in defiance of himself as well as Israel, is the only solution.

But whatever does eventually come of Palestinian reforms, they won’t on their own advance the peace process. For that, there would have to be far-reaching Israeli reforms, too, about the means of achieving what has, or should have, been Israel’s overriding national purpose since it came into being: winning the acceptance of the Palestinians whose conquest or displacement are the root cause of all its woes. But there is little chance of that.

As the Likud Party’s latest repudiation of the very idea of a Palestinian state showed, a repudiation that almost cast Sharon in the astonishing role of a “centrist,” Israel’s democracy now translates into the very opposite of what, in theory, democracy would be expected to do for the Palestinians.

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