With a little help from their friends?

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There appear to be no fewer than six different categories of advocates of regime reform in the Palestinian Authority. The diverse advocates are less interesting for what they propose–their commendable ideas range from “kicking Arafat upstairs” to a ceremonial position, via new democracy and transparency provisions, to uniting all Palestinian security forces under a single command–than for why they have gotten into the business of reforming Arafat’s regime in the first place.

First are those Israeli right wingers who seek to install a more moderate and friendly Palestinian regime largely because they believe that it will then accept reduced Israeli territorial offers and ongoing Israeli security dominance. Ostensibly Prime Minister Ariel Sharon belongs to this group; after all, he already tried in the past to install and manipulate pro-Israel proxies in the West Bank and Gaza (the Village Leagues, 1981) and in Lebanon (1982). These attempts failed miserably, and Israel paid a heavy price, particularly in Lebanon.

Precisely for this reason it appears that Sharon himself may understand that his advocacy of Palestinian regime reform is a nonstarter. In fact, he probably views the demands as a convenient excuse for avoiding entering a peace process in which he will be called upon to offer serious territorial concessions. This second category of advocates of change, then, are counting on Arafat to scuttle the reforms.

A third category of Israeli advocates are ideological conservatives who believe that democratic regime reform imposed from without on the Palestinians will truly benefit Palestinian society, and that it constitutes a genuine prerequisite for peace. Israeli Minister Natan Sharansky represents this group. If and when a democratic Palestine emerges, at least some of these conservatives will be prepared to discuss far-reaching peace compromises, because they will have confidence in the other side.

The American advocates of Palestinian regime reform, represented at the highest ranks of the Bush administration, appear to parallel this third group of ideological conservatives, both in the sincerity of their demands and in their willingness to seek a fair peace deal once they confront an improved Palestinian state.

How realistic are these sincere outside advocates of reform? White House spokesman Ari Fleischer sought in early May to impose on the Palestinians nothing less than “transparency, democracy, market economy, good governance, lack of corruption.” Where in the entire Arab world does such a regime exist?

Finally, there are the advocates from within the Arab-Muslim camp. They range from such Palestinian leaders as Abu Maazen (Mahmoud Abbas), who rejects outside advice–“We do not listen to what the West is demanding. However, we say that reform is the right thing to do”–to former Indonesian President Abd a-Rahman Wahid: “I recommend to my Palestinian brothers to get rid of Arafat’s regime…But I don’t see how the Palestinian people can do so peacefully.” Most Arab rulers are more circumspect than Wahid, lest their demands on the Palestinians be seized upon by their own constituencies and applied to themselves. Still, they apparently recognize the need for the Arab world to take some initiative in pressuring Arafat on reform.

The Israeli-Palestinian relationship has come a long way since former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin reassured Israelis that Arafat’s regime would be able to “deliver the goods” and apprehend Palestinian terrorists better than Israel, precisely because Arafat would not be encumbered by Israel’s meddlesome High Court of Justice and human rights advocacy organizations. Israel winked at Arafat’s methods initially, reminding itself that in any case it was fated to make peace with dictatorial neighbor regimes. Now there is a growing awareness in many circles– Israeli, Arab, American, European–that Arafat’s tolerance of corruption and indiscriminate violence is a major part of the problem. Perhaps Ariel Sharon’s only success in 15 months in office has been to place Arafat’s unsavory role on the international agenda.

Midst the talk of Arafat’s many faults, we should also remind ourselves that he and the Palestinian legislative council were elected in 1996 in one of the freest elections the Arab world has ever witnessed; and that the Palestinian press, alongside fierce anti-Israel incitement and restrictions on Palestinian freedom of expression, also prints daily translations of a variety of critical op-eds from the Israeli press. If there is any Arab society with the motivation to build a working democracy it is the Palestinians. The inside advocates deserve our encouragement.

But not our intervention. An Israeli or American attempt to remove Arafat by force, or “kick him upstairs” to a ceremonial position, is almost certain to repeat the Lebanon fiasco and produce more, not less violence. It would also set a dangerous example to the Middle East, where the Arab masses in any case long ago concluded that the US has no interest in instilling real democracy. In any case, Arafat can probably be counted on in the short term to thwart all the schemes being hatched in Washington and Jerusalem to democratize his regime and centralize security control.

Those who are sincere about Palestinian regime reform must step back, let Palestinians do it, and hope they succeed. Palestinians need to sweep out the ills of Arafat’s mafia rule because it serves their own interests–not ours.

Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”

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