A time for change

Print edition : June 08, 2002

While Yasser Arafat steers the Palestinian Authority toward reforms and consolidation, in Israel a window of opportunity seems to have opened up with Ariel Sharon coming to occupy the centre-Right political space.

YASSER ARAFAT is turning himself into a democrat. If the process continues until the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) and its institutions become more open and efficient, it will be just about the only piece of good news to come out of the region. Otherwise the Israeli-Palestinian face-off continues to be marked by targeted killings, raids and house demolitions from the one side and suicide bombings from the other.

Towards the end of May, Arafat finally set about implementing democratisation measures that have been on the anvil for quite a while. He approved the Basic Law, the constitution of the P.A., which had been passed by the Palestinian National Council in 1997, but had been gathering dust since then. The Basic Law sets out the powers and responsibilities of the executive and legislative branches of the Authority. A week or so earlier, Arafat had signed an ordinance that provided for the independence of the judiciary. Arafat had also promised that by the end of the month he would re-group and re-organise his security forces.

Four security organisations will replace the dozen that have been operating in the Palestinian-controlled territories. But the vexatious question of the leadership of these organisations has not been settled. A long-standing rivalry between the Preventive Security chief of the West Bank, Jibril Rahoub, and his Gaza Strip counterpart Mohammed Dahlan, could deepen, thus complicating matters.

Arafat has also promised to hold presidential, parliamentary and local body elections. He made the promise after the Palestinian legislature passed a resolution to this effect. However, the time-frame for the holding of the various polls has fluctuated. As originally promised, elections to local bodies were to be held within a few months, to be followed by parliamentary polls at the end of the year and the presidential vote early next year. But Arafat subsequently clarified that no elections can be held so long as Israel does not withdraw its troops to their positions before September 28, 2000, the date on which the intifada broke out.

The demand for an Israeli withdrawal to pre-September 2000 positions was no doubt a ploy to turn around the demands that Israel has been making of the P.A. Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has maintained that he saw little point in opening any negotiations with the P.A. until it had reformed into a transparent and accountable body.

Arafat's argument was that such reforms were impossible so long as Israel had its military so deeply entrenched in Palestinian territory and that the military incursions had to end if reforms were to be carried out. But the Palestinians do have a solid argument when they say that any kind of reform is impossible in a situation where their officials are not able to travel freely throughout the territories for even normal administrative work.

It is unlikely that Arafat would have discovered his democratic instincts if it was Israel alone that was applying pressure. For the first time since he returned to the Palestinian territories, Arafat found himself unable to ignore the pressure from the streets. Arafat's popularity had soared during the months when he was trapped inside his Ramallah headquarters compound (the muqata). But it evaporated almost as soon as he stepped out of it. One of the most immediate reasons for this turnaround in Palestinian public opinion was that the lifting of the siege on Arafat was co-terminous with the measures taken in respect of the fighters trapped with him inside the muqata and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Six men who had been trapped in the muqata were transferred to a Jericho jail where their imprisonment would be monitored by British officials. Thirteen of the fighters in the Bethlehem church were sent into exile in Europe.

To ordinary Palestinians, these deals appeared to be further confirmation of Arafat's proclivity to save himself at the expense of others. Anger at this perceived perfidy was compounded by resentment at the fact that the Palestinian security forces had not been able to put up much of a resistance against the invading Israeli forces. This resentment was, in turn, linked to the long-standing irritation with the plethora of security forces and the manner in which the P.A. had mixed up its priorities while ignoring urgently-required welfare measures. Palestinians who have been envious of Israel's democratic and relatively corruption-free methods of functioning, have long been uneasy with the despotic and corrupt form of rule that Arafat and his aides brought with them from their period of exile in Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia. The Israeli invasion and re-occupation of the territories appeared as confirmation that Arafat's policies had failed.

The perception that the P.A. is a totally dysfunctional entity is not entirely true. Despite the severe pressures under which it operates, the Palestinian bureaucracy has been able to provide education and health services to its people. But the Palestinian public is well aware that some of Arafat's close associates have prospered while the economic conditions of the people as a whole had deteriorated even before the intifada started and more sharply afterwards. More significantly, Palestinians who had been wont to blame Israel for all their ills had started re-directing their anger at Arafat himself.

Displaying a temerity that has not been seen in the territories till date, a Nablus University Professor, who has been jailed by both Israel and the Authority, declared that he would stand against Arafat in the presidential elections whenever they were held. Marwan Barghouti, the West Bank Fatah leader who campaigned against the Authority's corruption till he re-directed his anger at Israel during the intifada, was running up numbers on the popularity charts second only to Arafat. These polls show that Arafat still remains numero uno, but his approval rate registers only in the high thirties.

If he was unable to ignore the pressure from the base, neither was Arafat able to resist the influence of his allies in the Arab world. It is a rich irony that the leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan should press Arafat to institute reform. But unlike Arafat, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the two Abdullahs who are rulers of Saudi Arabia and Iran are not the targets of the United States' displeasure. A slew of mixed messages has been emanating from Washington. But the one point that seemed clear was that Arafat must reform his Authority before he can expect more sympathetic treatment from the Bush administration. The U.S. insists that reform in the Authority is not a precondition for restarting negotiations towards a final settlement. But its plans to restart such negotiations, whether through a fresh West Asia Conference or otherwise, are so nebulous that before any real negotiations begin, reform in the P.A. will probably be well-advanced.

While the P.A. was moving towards reform and consolidation, a process that was not dissimilar was under way in Israel as well. This happened against Sharon's wishes, although in the long run his country, and perhaps even Sharon himself, might be the beneficiaries. The first development was a revolt within Sharon's Likud Party that was instigated by his foremost rival - former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. At a meeting of the Likud Party central committee, which Netanyahu had packed with his loyalists, a resolution was passed prohibiting Likud leaders from ever conceding a Palestinian state. This resolution was passed despite Sharon's appeal to the committee to postpone its consideration. The Prime Minister was booed as he walked out after being soundly beaten in the vote.

The defeat turned out to be a very sweet one for Sharon. The next day, opinion polls showed that he enjoyed an approval rating much higher than that of his rival. Israeli political analysts were of the near-unanimous opinion that Netanyahu had painted himself into a corner. By positioning himself on the far Right, Netanyahu had left the centre-Right as Sharon's exclusive domain. Since the centre-Right is the ideological position on which the majority of Israelis are consolidating, Sharon had willy-nilly become the epitome of the majoritarian view. Sharon was to get another unintended boost a few days later.

While the Palestinian economy has been crippled, Israel has also taken a financial battering with foreign investments and tourist revenues plummeting. Military operations are placing a huge burden on the public exchequer. The Israeli Cabinet desperately needed to re-order its finances, but when an economy-consolidating package was brought before the Knesset, two religious parties in the coalition revolted. Secular Israelis have long resented the orthodox parties which scrounge for all sorts of financial concessions for their followers while refusing to let their followers perform their share of public service. Sharon took the two religious parties - Shas and United Torah Judaism - head on and threw their Ministers out of the Cabinet. The reform package was passed in the Knesset as the secular parties rallied behind Sharon. His approach won a thumping endorsement from the public as well.

Following these two developments, Sharon, who had been the secular champion of the religious right, probably unwittingly became the pre-eminent figure in the centre space of Israeli politics. This is an opportunity that Sharon has never had in his political career. But Israeli analysts have long maintained that Sharon could be very adaptable and pragmatic when he thought that the conditions demanded it. But what is the opportunity, and will Sharon seize it?

Roughly put, the centre-Right position in Israel politics demands that the Palestinian militancy be dealt with in a hard and uncompromising fashion and yet recognises that a long-term solution to the conflict will necessitate an end to Israel's colonial occupation of Palestinian territory. Even after one and a half years of the intifada, a majority of Israelis still support a withdrawal from the territories in exchange for full peace. Full peace is what the Arab states have placed on offer through the Saudi-Arab League plan. Also, the U.S. administration appears to have firmed up its support for the idea of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. But Sharon has not given up his publicly unworkable dream of a long-term interim agreement. But some of the conditions for a viable final settlement are clicking into place and it is too soon to gainsay that Sharon will squander the opportunity.

But if some conditions for enduring peace are falling into place, some others that will ensure long-term the continuance of confrontation also persist. Despite the stringent security measures that Israel has been putting in place, Palestinian suicide bombers have managed to slip through the cordons and explode themselves amongst Israeli civilians. The recourse to suicide bombing has once again begun to turn international opinion against the Palestinians. And Israel has used every incident to indict Arafat further as the main instigator of these civilian killing missions. Arafat's condemnation of these operations have become ever more categorical, but despite Israel's protestations to the contrary, it is doubtful whether he has the means or the influence to put an end to the horrifying practice.

Provocation from the Israeli side continues. The Israeli Army rings all major centres of Palestinian population in the West Bank and enters these areas at will - sometimes as part of operations that last for days at a time - to impose curfews and arrest Palestinians. Deaths of innocent Palestinian civilians continue to occur during the course of these invasions and houses are regularly demolished. Jewish settlements, or more appropriately colonies as they are beginning to be called, continue to expand as does the network of roads, fences and blocked-off areas that are intended to enhance the security of these colonies. Measures have been put in place to make travel and transport of goods among the West Bank towns more difficult.

The present represents a lull after the storms of March and April. Indications are that the situation will get worse before it gets better. But there are a few stray signs to show that the situation can be turned around if there is will.

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