When Palestinian President Yasser Arafat was released from his confinement to his Ramallah compound, he was probably expecting different challenges than those that have emerged. He was probably expecting challenges resulting from Israel’s effective cancellation of Palestinian security control over areas designated as such under the Oslo agreements. He might have also been thinking of the trials of rebuilding his security and civil institutions and other infrastructure damaged in the Israeli reoccupation of his country.
Instead, he emerged facing the test presented by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and United States President George W. Bush: demands that he alter the structure of the Palestinian Authority. Further, Arafat’s own people confronted him angrily on the issue of reform in the very first cabinet meeting after his Ramallah release.
The Palestinian public and leadership view with great suspicion and hostility demands that come from “the enemy” for changes in the Palestinian leadership structure. These impositions are perceived as a way for Israel to influence the Palestinian people’s choice of governance as they live under a foreign military occupation. They are also seen as one way for Sharon to realize the political objectives of his military campaign. Palestinians have not forgotten the previous decades of occupation in which the Israeli government tried repeatedly to impose an alternative, collaborative leadership against the will of the Palestinian public.
But Sharon is probably not even that serious in his calls for reform. His motive is likely the implementation of another excuse for avoiding any serious Palestinian-Israeli political process. Sharon has said that no political discussion or resumption of talks can take place without changes in the structure of the Palestinian Authority. He certainly knows that this condition will never be met because the occupied Palestinian people will never allow their foe to force them to change their leadership structure. And so Sharon is maneuvering to avoid entering a political process that will unmask the contradictions between his political and ideological positions, on one hand, and the terms of reference of the peace process, on the other. He wants to avoid the yawning chasm that will subsequently be exposed between his political positions and those of the United States in the Middle East.
Palestinian demands for reform have different roots, but are no more likely to reap results. Non-official circles of thinkers, academics, political parties and civil society players are sincere about reform and have done many studies on what is really required to overhaul the Palestinian political system. But these groups are powerless in the absence of regular, free and democratic elections.
On the other hand, powerful officials, especially members of the cabinet and leadership of the Palestinian Authority and Palestine Liberation Organization, launched a campaign in the first meeting of the presidential cabinet after the Israeli invasion. Their demands are notably not sincere and are rather part of a current power struggle. Sometimes, they are intended to cover up individuals’ own involvement in political and fiscal corruption.
The hidden story of Palestinian official calls for reform is that during the siege on President Arafat, there was suddenly an imbalance in roles played by different people and groups in the Palestinian leadership. Elements in the leadership began to have a very prominent media and political role at the expense of others. All this was very threatening to the majority, which appears to have expressed opposition to the change by pressuring Arafat for reforms.
The litmus test for any calls for reforming the Palestinian political system and their significance or seriousness is whether they include calls for regular, free and democratic elections that will empower the public and enforce accountability, transparency and efficiency. Otherwise, any changes are going to be the flawed product of the same people that are responsible for the current situation.
The means of judging demands for reform, whether they emanate from Washington or Tel Aviv or come from Jerusalem, Ramallah and Gaza, is how they incorporate the Palestinian demand for comprehensive and free elections.
Mr. Ghassan Khatib is a Palestinian political analyst and director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.