A Great Revolution is dawning: a change in the Palestinian government, a marvelous rearrangement. For years Yasser Arafat single-handedly managed all proceedings of the Palestinian Authority. But now the government will become more democratic and will initiate a march in seven-mile steps towards a dawning peace.
What will bring about these breathtaking happenings, you may ask? Apparently, creating the position of Prime Minister in the PLO. The job of this prime minister will be to call and oversee meetings of the Cabinet and to supervise the work of the other ministers. The president, Arafat, will retain the power to command the PLO’s security forces (also known as the police, or the militia, depending on one’s viewpoint) and to conduct negotiations. The first man to be appointed to this post will be Mohammed Abbas, an old companion of Arafat’s, who founded the Fatah organization with him and had been actively involved in negotiations with Israel. Western leaders who have insisted on this move seem to think that distributing the power between Arafat and another political leader will somehow increase democracy – perhaps by slowly weaning the Palestinian people off tyranny.
Disregarding for a minute the (necessary) absurdity of having people like president and prime-minister in a place that’s not a country, let’s take a closer look at this development. Arafat was forced to consent to the change in his government’s structure by pressure from the United States, the UN, Russia, and the European Union (generally referred to as the Quartet), and was rather unwilling to give the new government official any real power. A Palestinian official was quoted a few weeks ago as saying that Arafat was hoping to appoint a puppet, but the Palestinian legislature pushed through the candidature of Abbas, who is claimed to have independent authority and some following.
It is rather unclear why the Quartet invested politically to exert pressure the way it did. Sure, the appearance of another important character in the Palestinian government might have some psychological effect on promoting democracy. But ultimately, if the objective is to weaken Arafat’s real power, a prime minister who will handle Palestine’s meager domestic issues, and who must report directly to Arafat, while Arafat himself remains in charge of the military and the negotiations, will not do much. Note also that the post of prime minister is appointed – appointed by the same man whose powers are to be curbed. Where is the enhancement to democracy? The whole thing sounds no more effective than attempting to contain a greedy corporation leader by forcing him to hire a manager.
Unfortunately, this cannot be dismissed as an innocuous and inefficient act of forced generosity towards the Palestinian people: the outcome may – in fact, is likely to – be destructive. One of the goals of this decision on behalf of the Quartet is to facilitate Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Besides the fact that Arafat is still heading Palestinian diplomacy, the PLO’s agreement to create the new post threatens to become a powerful excuse for doing nothing in the way of improving the relationship with Israel. Back in mid- February, when Arafat had just agreed to the creation of the post, his chief negotiator, Saeb Erakat, was quoted by CNN as saying: “Today we have done our part, now it’s up to [Israeli] Prime Minister [Ariel] Sharon, and also the Quartet and above all to the American side, to adopt, declare, and begin the process of implementing the road map.” Nothing had been done yet, but Palestinian officials were already clearing a way to use the establishment of the prime minister post as an excuse for dodging responsibility.
And now that the man has been appointed, Arafat is asking for his “reward.” The Jerusalem Post reported on March 13th: “ ‘The ball is now in Israel’s court,’ a senior Palestinian official said. ‘We are already being criticized by the Palestinian street for caving in to American and Israeli pressure on the issue of appointing a prime minister. The people are demanding to know what kind of compensation we are going to get after President Arafat agreed to give up some of his power.’ “
Quite a situation, isn’t it? According to this quote, the Palestinian people, instead of feeling grateful for the efforts to democratize their country, are angry at having had to give up the pleasures of Arafat’s tyranny and won’t be at peace until they get something in return. Their lack of gratitude may also be illustrated by the fact that a poll in late March – a poll that, like all polls, may not be worthy of trust – shows that 70% of Palestinians continue to support suicide bombings against Israeli citizens. But more likely, the quoted official is using “the people” as a cover. We may never know how the people really feel; but what we do know is that the Palestinian government will manipulate their feelings, true or false, to blackmail the West.
So, to summarize: a prime minister is appointed, yet the change has no relevant effect since Arafat retains power over all affairs directly relevant to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It does, however, have the effect of increasing pressure on Israel – and the United States – and diminishing even further the effort expected of, and exerted by, Arafat and his government. Arafat is already calling on the United States and Britain to send in troops to “protect the Israelis and Palestinians from each other.” Whether or not his plea is granted, his attitude seems clear: the noble sacrifice of appointing a prime minister is reason enough to have high demands.
This makes a pretty bitter comedy out of the Western effort to install democracy in Palestine: clearly, the political change itself means nothing to them. How unfortunate that the United States and the UN should fall to such a dirty trick, playing right into Arafat’s hand!
The ultimate lesson seems pretty simple, though certainly not simple to enforce: if it looks like you need to remove a man from power, remove him from power. Getting him a prime minister instead might seem like a gentler first step, but can easily become a political minefield.
Perhaps Bush – who has stopped negotiating with the man and, as can be seen from a few articles, would like to see him removed – needs to ask himself a simple question: who is Arafat, anyway? He is impotent, a nothing. He is a corrupt, incompetent leader of a tiny nonnation. These traits of his, along with his hunger for control, are a major obstacle on this nonnation’s way to becoming a true state with development potential. If it is possible to pressure Arafat into giving up some power, it is just a little bit more difficult to force him to step down altogether and to install a true democratic process in the Palestinian territory. Yet all these people, the Quartets and other world leaders, continue to work around this undeserving man – perhaps under the pretext that no better leader for the Palestinians is to be found as of today. Would it not be a better investment to find and support a future leader among the Palestinian population?
It’s not that a prime minister in the PLO is an evil element. But however helpful he may turn out to be to the Palestinian Authority’s growth and the raising of its quality of life, he is not a solution to the problem of peace – or to the problem of democracy. The amount of trust regarding these issues that the West wants to put in him, and, more importantly, that Arafat wants the West to put in him, is going to create serious problems.
Which brings us dangerously close to other affairs in the Middle East – where, as we saw recently with Saddam’s lastminute cleaning up of weapon caches, every concession to the West is not a step in the right direction but a bargaining weapon of the lowliest kind.
Lea Oksman is a freshman in Trumbull College.