Palestinian President Yasir Arafat came under increasing internal pressure this week to implement structural changes in the Palestinian Authority, but many Israeli leaders and analysts dismissed any chance that the kind of reforms demanded by the United States and Israel would be forthcoming.
The reforms were demanded as a precondition to resuming peace negotiations that would eventually lead to a Palestinian state. But on Sunday, Prime Minister Sharon’s Likud Party adopted a resolution over Sharon’s protests rejecting a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Sharon later said he would ignore the vote and the United States and the European Union issued statements reaffirming their belief that the best route to peace was through the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Israelis were skeptical that Arafat will implement the reforms many are clamoring for because historically Arab countries facing a crisis always call for reform but never carry it out, according to Hillel Frisch, a professor at Bar-Ilan University who is an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"It happens every six months to a year in Jordan and after every big scandal in Egypt," he said.
Although reformers in the Palestinian National Council and in Arafat’s own Fatah movement have called on him to root out corruption, Arafat failed to spell out how he would do that during a rambling address to a special session of the PNC Wednesday that generated only scattered applause.
"We have to rectify the mistakes, we have to reform," Arafat said. "We have to look into all the aspects of our lives, to rebuild our political system on a sound foundation. …We are now badly in need of re-evaluating our policies and our plans in order to repair the errors, and to correct our march and our struggle … for national independence.
"We have announced in the past, and we reiterate in our announcement today, our rejection of all kinds of operations that target Israeli civilians as well as what our Palestinian civilians are subjected to, like what happened in Jenin. Palestinian and Arab public opinion have now become convinced that these operations will not serve our interests and goals and yet they antagonize large segments of the international community."
Reformers expressed disappointment with his remarks, saying that he simply highlighted areas that needed to be reformed without detailing the changes would make or setting a timetable for change. For instance, he only vaguely spoke of elections and a separation of powers.
Proposed changes for reform have been drawn up by members of the legislative council but never implemented.
"I didn’t hear an agenda," Hanan Ashwari, a member of the legislative council, complained to the BBC. "What I heard was a broad framework and a statement of intent."
Dennis Ross, the former U.S. Middle East envoy, said there is a "strong impulse across the [Palestinian] spectrum to create reform and a different structure. If the outside world is going to invest in the Palestinians, it wants to see something different. It wants clear accounting principles and transparency and a new governmental authority. Anybody who thinks Arafat is going to disappear is kidding himself, but he should limit his arbitrary use of power. … They are moving in the right direction."
But Frisch expressed skepticism that real reform would materialize, however, pointing out that ìcorruption is a by-product of every non-democratic society … because you are rewarded for loyalty, not for efficiency."
Sunday’s Likud vote was seen as evidence of a power struggle in Likud between Sharon and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"It was a totally surrealist debate," said Naomi Chazzan, a Knesset member from the opposition Mercaz Party. "It was totally detached from the issues."
Colette Avital, a Knesset member from the Labor Party, said that although the vote sent a "bad message to the world," it does not have "too much importance in the long run."
But she said Sharon may come out the victor because he "pushed Netanyahu to the extreme right in the eyes of the public and without paying any price he looks like a moderate."
"That serves his purpose because he wants to get [the votes of] people from the center and the right," Avital added. "And if those who elect the next head of the Likud see polls showing that Sharon is much more acceptable to the public [than Netanyahu], Sharon will [will be chosen] and have turned a disadvantage into an advantage."
A member of the Likud Central Committee who voted for the resolution, Naomi Blumenthal, said a majority of those present were against the meeting because the party is already on record as being against a Palestinian state.
"We didnít want this quarrel," said Blumenthal. "We wanted a compromise between the two leaders. … The decision was the right decision, there is no doubt about that. A Palestinian state would be a nest for terror and killing and shooting. How could we support such an entity?"
David Newman, a professor at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev, pointed out that if the Palestinians make real reforms in an effort to enter into serious negotiations, Sharon would benefit. But if violence erupted again, Netanyahu and his hard-line stance would prove victorious.
Frisch pointed out that Arafat "rules by divide and rule" and that he always has two contenders "fight each other as opposed to the leader."
Signs of discord in Arafat’s balancing act surfaced this week when five masked men jumped a Palestinian cabinet member, Hassan Asfour, beat him with a club and broke a leg and an arm.
"It’s a disgusting act with the aim of inciting a civil war," Asfour said from his hospital bed.
He is an ally of Mohammad Dahlan, the head of Palestinian security in the Gaza Strip, who is locked in a power struggle with Jibril Rajoub, the head of Palestinian security in the West Bank. The U.S. is anxious to see all Palestinian security forces united and plans to send CIA Director George Tenet back to Israel in coming weeks to coordinate that effort.
Another key Palestinian leader, Mohammed Rashid, Arafat’s economic adviser, has been told to stay in Washington following an unsuccessful attack on his life last week. Fatah activists have put up posters accusing him of being a lackey of the U.S. and Israel.
Israel’s former ambassador to Washington, Zalman Shoval, said the power struggle is a result Operation Defensive Shield, Israel’s six-week incursion into Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank to "uproot terrorism."
"It has led to expressions of Palestinian self-doubt and self-examination and a weakening of Arafat’s own authority, as we saw this week by the lukewarm response he received in Bethlehem and Jenin," Shoval said. "Now that a great part of the Palestinian institutions have been destroyed or toppled, there is a feeling among many Palestinians that they should not be rebuilt but that something new should replace them. That is what Arafat was responding to in his speech. …
"Although his words are important, what really is important are deeds. All indicators are that there will not be any real deeds. Reform will remain in the air because if he goes through with the proposals, it will mean an end of his rule and he will not do that to himself."
But observers pointed out that Arafat on Tuesday took one long sought step: creating an independent judiciary.
One Israeli official, who asked to remain anonymous, said the very fact that there is a "sense of retrospection and a seriousness about [fixing] what went wrong in previous policy" was encouraging.
Nevertheless, the Israeli public is skeptical, according to Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University. He said Palestinian talk of reform and the statements this week from Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia after a meeting in Sharm el-Sheik that they wish to press ahead with efforts to achieve peace between Israel and the Arab world "have no credibility in Israel."
He pointed out that the final communique issued after the Sharm el-Sheik meeting was different in Arabic and English: more militant in the Arabic version and more moderate in the English version.
"So it’s hard for Israelis to take it seriously," Steinberg said. "And the Saudis have not made a fundamental shift in their attitudes towards Israel, which leaves more questions than answers."
One Israeli official said, in fact, that there has been a "meltdown" of the Saudi peace initiative, which called for a normalization of relations with the Arab world in return for an Israeli return to the 1967 borders and for a just settlement of the Palestinian refugee issue. Although there were reports that Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah was willing to compromise on the issue of borders, as long as the Palestinians agreed, Abdullah offered no wiggle room on either issue in an interview last week with a Saudi-owned London-based newspaper, Asharq al-Awsat. Neither did he mention normal relations with Israel, which was the groundbreaking centerpiece of his proposal.
"A withdrawal is not enough, there must be a return to the pre-1967 aggression lines and an end of the occupation of Jerusalem so that it becomes the capital of Palestine," he said. "The return of refugees is also a must."