Palestinian President Yasser Arafat has sworn in new Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia along with a new Cabinet, and just some friendly advice to President Bush and Administration officials: Please stay out of Palestinian domestic affairs.
‘Mister Arafat has failed as a leader,’ the President harshly said at a recent press conference. Bush went on to say, ‘The people of the Palestinian territory must understand that, if they want peace, they must have leadership that is absolutely 100 percent committed to fighting off terror.’
Bush may have thought that Palestinians would heed the ‘advice’ and cast off their President but the lecture has had the opposite effect. Palestinians who were not among Arafat’s supporters have become more protective of Arafat. After all, Palestinian elections are a matter for Palestinians, just as the upcoming American elections are our sole business.
The reality is that nothing illustrates democracy more than free and fair elections. Amidst American observers, Arafat became the first democratically-elected leader in the Arab World in 1996. Instead of embracing the people’s choice, the current Bush Administration has sought to disrespect its own encouragement of democracy and freedom in the Middle East because it doesn’t like Arafat.
Interestingly, many people dislike Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and there is a possibility that he may still face war crimes charges in Belgium for his role in the Sabra and Chatila massacre of Palestinians in 1982. Nonetheless, Sharon was democratically-elected by the Israelis and that choice needs to be respected however screwed up the choice has seemed to others.
The argument given by our government for isolating Arafat is that he supports and encourages militant groups, like Hamas. And who can argue with this line of thinking during a war on terror? There’s just one little problem: Secular Arafat and religious Hamas do not even like each other, and they never have. It’s been a delicate balancing act to prevent civil war but Hamas is hardly in Arafat’s circle of advisors.
Then there’s former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who resigned a few weeks ago. Abbas, who was never a favorite of everyday Palestinians with his $1.5 million villa in Gaza, seemed to be the pick of the US. The more President Bush talked Abbas up, the more likely Abbas’s popularity sunk and the more Arafat’s popularity increased.
An Arafat-Abbas power struggle seemed like the plausible explanation for the resignation. But Abbas’s words were crystal clear in his resignation letter: he could not serve while Israeli violations of the Road Map were being ignored by the US. How could he or anyone else sell a flawed deal with the continuation of settlement building and the erection of the new Berlin Wall in the West Bank, under Bush’s watchful eye?
There is also the theory in political circles that were it not for Arafat, the current uprising or intifadah for freedom would never have been launched in 2000. But the first uprising took place in 1987 and Arafat was not even in the Occupied Territories. The desire for freedom is a human issue, not an Arafat issue. Israel and the US government seem to be missing this important point with support for policies that are bringing Palestinians and Israelis to an abyss.
Will new Prime Minister Qureia succeed? Or will he face the same suspicions among the Palestinian populace the Abbas did? According to Shibley Telhami, Middle East expert and Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development, at the University of Maryland East recently told the National Public Radio: Arafat ‘was very bluntly told by the US that only two men were seen to be acceptable, and that is Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmed Qureia.’ Prime Minister Qureia does enjoy popularity at home, and that is something Abbas didn’t have, but if President Bush vocalizes his support for Ahmed Qureia the way he did Abbas, that popularity will go down.
Qureia will also need tangible concessions from the Israeli government. Talking peace while erecting illegal structures and conducting almost-daily killings of Palestinians will paralyze Qureia from signing any peace deal.
Ultimately, there’s still recognition among most Palestinians that a new leadership must arise in Palestine. But that is a decision for the Palestinians to make, not President Bush.