A Note About Reforms

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Everyone is speaking about reforms these days. Everyone uses the same words, but the intentions and the plans are very very different.  Here’s a brief clarification of what everyone is talking about:

Israel’s Intentions:

When Sharon and Ben Eliezer talk about reforms in the Palestinian Authority, the simply mean weakening or replacing Arafat.  Israel has not suddenly become concerned about the human and civil rights of Palestinians.  Israel hasn’t suddenly discovered that there is no democracy in Palestine and out of altruism is interested in the rights of the average Palestinians.  Israel is interested in a Palestinian regime that will re-enter into security cooperation with Israel and work for Israel’s security interests as the Palestinian Authority security services did during various periods since 1993. Israel is interested in a Palestinian Authority that will say yes to the "peace" program it puts down on the table, even those that will leave most of the settlements in place and will prevent Palestine from being a truly sovereign independent State.

United States:

When the United States speaks about reforms it is generally speaking about a re-organization of the Palestinian security forces. The US is afraid of real Palestinian democracy because of the chance that Islamic fundamentalists would come to power through real open and free elections.  So the Americans are coming to the region with a CIA created plan and money to create a streamlined Palestinian secret police with a clear chain of command leading directly to the political level (meaning the Chairman).  The aim is to create conditions for real control of Palestinian extremists and to prevent terrorism, or at least to create a situation whereby the Palestinian Authority will not be able to escape responsibility by saying that they don’t have control.  The American version of reform concentrates on effective and efficient control of the Palestinian street through whatever means are necessary.

The European Union:

When the EU talks about reforms they base their thinking on the conditions that led to the creation of a united Europe free of war.  The Europeans put their stock in economics.  The EU wants the Palestinian Authority to create transparent and responsible business procedures dealing with finances. The EU believes that Palestinians must be able to gain economically from the possibility of peace.  Therefore, the EU puts great emphasis on the creation of more professional and business like mechanisms of tax collection, proper exploitation of donor grants and streamlined mechanisms for public allocations.  The EU is pushing for reductions in the number of government ministries and checks and balances with regard to financial management.  The EU is concerned with the reduction of corruption.  All of these reforms will enable the EU to continue to put large amounts of money into Palestine.  Failure to implement these measures will lead to reductions in the amount of EU financial support.

The Arab World:

(Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan mainly): When the Arab World speaks about reforms they are mainly referring to the creation of a situation that would enable Arafat or whoever leads the Palestinians to have effective control over the Palestinian street.  They mainly fear spillovers of the intifada and violence into their own streets and are therefore putting great pressure on Arafat to take control and to put an end to the suicide bombers.  The fear there is that a strategic suicide bombing or attack of the kind that almost succeeded at the gas depot would create an Israeli reaction so swift and fierce that the end result could be a destabilization of the entire region.  The Arab World (Egypt, Jordan and Saudis, mostly) want the Palestinians and the Israelis to enter into the Saudi initiative. They are very concerned about putting the Israeli-Palestinian dispute to rest – not for the benefit of the Israelis and the Palestinians, but mainly in order to protect their own regimes. They have no problem with Arafat adopting the kind of policing policies that they use in their own countries against their own citizens – democracy is not on their minds.

The Palestinian People:

When the Palestinian people talk about reforms they are speaking about a demand for a democratic Palestine.  They want new elections – within political parties, local municipal elections, elections for the Parliament, elections for the President.  They want elections to be based on the national interests of the Palestinians people and not on the Oslo Agreement, as were the last elections. They want clean and streamlined government.  They want the executive branch to be constituted from professionals and technocrats and not petty politicians.  They want reforms in the security forces, but not those that will serve mainly the interests of others (as they perceive them).  They want the security-police forces to provide protection for them, as the security forces have failed to do.  They want a police force that will confront crime and corruption. They want security forces that do not engage in corruption and do not profit economically on the backs of the people. They want professional security forces that are depoliticized. They say all of these things loud and clear, but it is not clear to what extent they are willing to fight for them should the present internal and external situation continue.

What does Arafat want?

This is very unclear.  He is under extreme pressure from everyone – the Americans, the Europeans, the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Jordanians, but mainly and most importantly from home – from the Palestinians.  He must respond. There will be reforms.  He has already signed the Palestinian Basic Law – one of the first laws drafted by the Palestinian Legislative Council. This is a good Constitutional Law that puts limits on governmental power, separates branches of governments, creates an independent judiciary.  In short, it is a good basis for democracy.  Until now, Arafat refrained from signing this law.  He had been quoted as saying that the Israelis prevented him from signing the law in the past. I personally, have written many policy briefs to all of the Israeli Prime Ministers since Rabin urging them to put pressure on Arafat to sign this law and not to allow him to use Israel as an excuse for not implementing democratic policies.  No Israel Prime Minister acted on this advice – apparently Israel has never really been concerned with Palestinian democracy.

The signing of the law, or course does not necessarily mean that it will be implemented. But nonetheless, this is an important step on the road to Palestinian democracy.  Arafat will streamline his cabinet.  There will be fewer Ministers and Ministries.  It is not clear how the decision of who is in and who is out will be made and what are the considerations behind those decisions.  They clearly will be made by Arafat himself. There will also be reforms in the security structures – few branches, fewer Generals, more direct control from a central authority.  But it is not clear that these re-organized forces will in fact behave differently than they did in the past.  In a recent negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians on the establishment of a transportation zone like Karni in Gaza to be established in Betunia, the brother of a senior security chief showed up to negotiate the agreement on behalf of the Palestinians. This same person was one of those behind the taking of commissions and graft at the transportation zone in Karni.  Recent talks between Israel and the Palestinians and between the Palestinians and the US have been conducted by Arafat’s economic advisor of Kurdish descent.  So, in the day-to-day operations, there doesn’t yet seem to be any change.

Rumors are running wild about who’s star is shining and who’s is dying out. Talks of elections are still very theoretical and many Palestinians don’t believe that they will be held for a long time to come. There are also no apparent prominent Palestinians who seem to be ready to challenge Arafat in a Presidential race, should elections happen. There has been talk about the need for an effective Prime Minister with real political and governmental power while Arafat would retain mostly a symbolic role, however it is not clear if this talk is primarily emerging from Jerusalem and Washington or from Ramallah and Gaza.

That’s the way it looks right now.  This was a brief attempt to put some order into the chaos.  But it is the chaos that will probably survive in the short run. The situation is still that both sides (the Israelis and the Palestinians) are locked into positions that they cannot extract themselves from.  The solution is still in the hands of the international community – meaning mostly the United States. And it still appears that we are quite far away from any conflict resolution.

While we’re talking about reforms, why doesn’t Mr. Sharon streamline the Israeli government, get rid of about half of his ministers and deputy ministers and do the people of Israel a great service at the same time by calling for new elections.

Gershon Baskin, Ph.D., is Co-Director of Israel / Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI), a joint Palestinian-Israeli public policy think-tank, founded in Jerusalem in 1988.