Reform, not bickering

Israel’s offensive against the Palestinians, their civil society and administrative structure, has set in motion a process of internal change. This could be either a blessing, however disguised, or a disaster. The Palestinians could certainly use some institutional refitting. In particular, they need a unified national leadership operating within a clearly defined political programme. There is a lot to be learned from the past weeks and months, and much room for improvement. Unless the current process of change is channelled correctly (which happened neither in Jordan in 1970, nor Lebanon in 1982), the Palestinians will be looking at a period of disunity and fruitless bickering.

Already, there are signs of friction between politicians and the security chiefs. The squabbles have become evident since Arafat left his besieged Ramallah headquarters, and they have left the Palestinian public aghast. Is this really the time for power struggle?

At the heart of the current verbal exchanges is the issue of succession. The infighting is less about replacing Arafat as it is about which group will really be calling the shots while Arafat serves as a symbolic leader. The Americans, who have voiced impatience with Arafat on more than one occasion, are watching the power struggle with interest. The worst thing, however, is that the bickering, coming in the aftermath of the near devastation of Palestinian administrative structures, could all too easily take the wind out of Palestinian sails at a time when the nation needs unity more than at any time in its history.

What will happen if the political and administrative vacuum leads to the emergence of small-scale armed groups in every neighbourhood? What will happen when these armed groups start asserting their independence from the existing political and military leadership? Such a Somalian-style scenario is unlikely — Palestinian society has enough inherent strength to prevent it from happening. But less chaotic scenarios could prove equally capable of undermining the Palestinians’ ability to resist the occupation or formulate coherent policies. The Palestinians cannot allow this to happen, not at a time when Israel is imposing virtual apartheid on their towns and villages, not when it is storming residential neighbourhoods and killing them at random.

The Palestinians still live under siege. They face a humiliating gauntlet of restrictions at Israeli roadblocks. Their villages (Beit Forik, Beit Dajan, etc.) are repeatedly deprived of drinking water. Their economy is paralysed. Their officials are routinely, and quietly, assassinated. Israel is employing a wide range of individual and collective punishment on the Palestinians to confound their ranks. It is manipulating the Palestinian scene in the hope of changing the course and agenda of the negotiations. Ultimately, Israel wants to impose on the Palestinians the type of leaders and negotiators who would agree to Sharon’s (or Bush’s) idea of a Palestinian state.

During its latest offensive against the Palestinian people Israel denied Palestinian officials any access to its official media. Then it lifted the ban, and an array of Palestinian leaders began appearing on Israeli radio and television to exchange accusations as if they were speaking to their own, and not the enemy’s, media. These leaders did not seem to be worried by the sudden shift in Israel’s media policy. This is something I find worrying. One does not need extraordinary insight to sense Israel’s interest in fuelling inter- Palestinian squabbles at this juncture. Palestinian democratic reform cannot evolve through debate in Israeli’s official media.

Reform cannot be conducted outside legitimate national institutions, and the latter are still smarting from Israel’s last wave of assaults. The Palestinian Authority needs to conduct a broad dialogue with the opposition and within its own ranks. This dialogue should lead to the formulation of a cohesive leadership with an integrated national programme. The Palestinians need a national strategy that defines their stand on matters of policy and resistance.

A unified national leadership will not emerge unless all Palestinian groups place national interests above their factional concerns. For this to happen, the Palestinians should broaden their field of political participation. They should conduct an overall national dialogue leading to the establishment of popular committees in Palestinian towns, villages, and camps. A popular national base is needed to anchor the policies and strategy of the Palestinian leadership.

I am not belittling the differences that may surface between the public mood and the requisites of officialdom. This is why the debate should provide an answer to the questions concerning politics and struggle. Once these questions are settled the matter of formulating policy will become less cumbersome, and the possibility of friction between the Authority and the opposition will be narrowed.

The Palestinian Authority needs to cooperate in full with the local popular committees and to interact more actively with the Palestinian Legislative Council. The Legislative Council should be a central part of this debate. It should take the lead in deciding the nature of the emerging leadership. Once this is done the Palestinian leadership will be in a position to act with the backing of public consensus.

Elections should be used as a tool of change, as a way of expressing the nation’s right to self- determination. I have no doubt that the outcome of the elections will embarrass Israel. It would be particularly helpful if the elections led to a broad-based coalition, but this requires the participation of all opposition and independent Palestinian groups in the elections. For this to happen the opposition should refrain from the dramatic gestures of boycotting the elections, and all groups — particularly those labelled terrorist by the Americans and Israelis –should take part. These are the battles worth focusing on. Democracy and self-determination are an integral part of the Palestinian struggle against occupation.

The writer is a Palestinian Israeli and member of the Knesset.