Palestine Authority President Yasser Arafat is coming under increasing pressure to adopt democratic reforms. In an important development, the traditionally passive Palestinian Parliament appears to have taken up the call for real change. Mr. Arafat has so far responded with his old tricks: talking a lot but promising only generalities. The political environment has changed, however: International pressures and growing disenchantment among Palestinians over Mr. Arafat’s rule has reduced the wily old leader’s room for maneuver.
Mr. Arafat is under intense fire. The Israeli government has turned the former globe-trotting guerrilla leader into a virtual prisoner within his own compound. Israeli forces have occupied large sections of Palestinian territory and have virtually destroyed the Palestinian Authority’s infrastructure.
While few other governments have been willing to join Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in declaring Mr. Arafat “irrelevant” — U.S. President George W. Bush is one — they concede behind the scenes that the Palestinian leader has become an obstacle to peace in the Middle East and would welcome his replacement.
More worrisome for Mr. Arafat is the growing resentment among Palestinians toward his government. The hopes for democracy that greeted the Oslo peace accords have been thwarted by a Palestinian leadership that has put a premium on loyalty and has, as a result, been willing to ignore corruption, malfeasance and sheer incompetence.
Many Palestinians now question their government’s strategy to deal with Israel. In the aftermath of Mr. Arafat’s speech to the Palestinian Legislative Council last week, it is apparent that there is no such strategy. In that rambling address, Mr. Arafat resorted to his old tactics: He criticized enemies, offered to resign and touched upon important topics without making any real promises. For international observers, his unwillingness to unconditionally condemn acts of terror was proof that Mr. Arafat continues to want it both ways and confirmed that he is an unreliable negotiating partner.
For Palestinians, his failure to set a date for elections was evidence that the president was once again offering empty talk about democracy. This time, however, the legislators took action of their own. The Council offered a resolution of no-confidence in the Cabinet. When virtually all of the parliamentarians condemned the government — 32 of the first 35 — Mr. Arafat sensed that business as usual would not work. In response, his Cabinet resigned, heading off the vote, and Mr. Arafat announced that presidential and parliamentary elections would be held on Jan. 20, 2003.
The Cabinet resignation is a victory for both sides. Reformers can claim they got the new government they demanded; Mr. Arafat maintains that he, rather than the Parliament, is still in charge. It will be clear who has in fact prevailed in two weeks, when the new Cabinet is named. If there are no real changes in the new government, the Parliament could once again assert its authority by refusing to approve the Cabinet.
Setting a date for elections is also a mixed blessing. The Palestinian Authority has not held a ballot since 1996. But Palestinians have argued that a vote is meaningless as long as Israel still controls large portions of Palestinian territory. They maintain, with some justification, that it would be impossible to campaign and to organize and hold a vote under the Israeli occupation regulations.
At the same time, a quick election favors Mr. Arafat. Other candidates would not have the time to prepare a campaign or marshal the support that is needed to contest against the longtime Palestinian leader. An early election that returned Mr. Arafat would likely be the worst of all possible outcomes. It would provide a veneer of legitimacy to his continued term in office, while heightening doubts about his willingness to play by truly democratic rules. It would put the final nail in his coffin as far as his two most important interlocutors — Israel and the United States — are concerned.
This outcome would do the Palestinian cause no good. If Mr. Arafat is concerned about their welfare, rather than his own, he would move the election back and ensure that there are credible alternatives to his own candidacy. He would unmistakably condemn terrorism that targets innocent civilians, and he would select a Cabinet that puts loyalty to the Palestinian cause above loyalty to himself. There is little sign that Mr. Arafat is willing to take a real chance that he might be defeated in a vote — or that he appreciates the costs of not doing so.
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