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David Miller: Has Yasser Arafat Had His Time?

David Miller Online

Has Yasser Arafat Had His Time?

It is not surprising that the announcement made by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat that he has trimmed down his cabinet has been treated with scepticism. The Palestinian leadership is heralding the reduction, claiming that it paves the way for reform and increased democratisation. In this move, the Palestinian cabinet is reduced in size from 31 to 21 and most significantly General Abdel-Razzaq al-Yahya has replaced Mr Arafat as Interior Minister and will head a newly reconstituted security force that is made up of three divisions instead of the nine main security services that exist now. It is not surprising that Mr. Arafat has taken this step. Ever since the conflict in the Middle East broke out, he has been under constant pressure from Israel and the US to not only try and halt the suicide attacks but also to reform the Palestinian Authority. Until now he has proven reluctant to do so and therefore many see this move as nothing more than cosmetic. If this is the case then Mr. Arafat is clearly going to do all he can to hold power and even if it is not what is happening, maybe it is time for Mr. Arafat to step aside and allow a new governing body take charge.

Any changes to the political structure of the Palestinian Authority will directly affect Mr. Arafat’s hold on power and therefore he has been reluctant to embrace change. Mr. Arafat has been the most prominent Palestinian leader ever since the PLO was founded in the 1960’s and it was through this position that he was able to take charge of the Authority in the West Bank and Gaza Strip following the Oslo Peace Accords of 1994. The Palestinian Authority was to have served as the basis for a Palestinian state and was to have been replaced with a constitution that the framers of the Oslo agreement believed would happen by 1999. Mr. Arafat was elected as head of this body in 1996 with a mandate that was to have expired in 1999.

The conflict between the two parties has meant that this agreement and any moves towards the final status agreement as laid down in the Oslo Treaty have been frozen, meaning Mr. Arafat has been able to retain his hold on power and rule through a kind of presidential decree. As the cabinet is appointed and controlled by Mr. Arafat, he has been able to ignore the legislature and even overrule the judiciary leading some commentators to claim that he is running the Palestinian Authority as his personal fiefdom. There have also been allegations of corruption and questionable financial practises within the PA itself and that much of the aid delivered by the US and European Union has not found its way to the people but has been diverted into funds controlled by the Palestinian leadership.

Both Mr. Sharon and Mr. Bush have made it clear that they do not believe they can do business with Mr. Arafat and the focus of Mr. Bush’s policy towards the Middle East has increasingly focused on Palestinian reforms. Whether this emphasis in policy is simply a ploy to direct attention and criticism away from Israel’s military action or not, the spotlight is shining on Mr. Arafat and his position to the point where any negotiations on trying to reach a settlement will depend on reform of the Palestinian Authority. Mr. Bush has reiterated this stance in his recent meetings with President Mubarak of Egypt and by sending CIA Director George Tenet to the region to re-organise the Palestinian security forces. So where does this leave Mr. Arafat?

As long as he can fend off calls for reform, especially of the security apparatus and the political system, Mr. Arafat will remain in a strong position. Currently there are 12 different Palestinian security agencies and this lack of unity allows Mr. Arafat to maintain control by shifting his influence from one to the other. There is also the challenge posed by groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, however they remain splinter groups and as long as they maintain their policy of violent action have little chance of influencing the political outcome.

It is not the US or the Israelis that will drive such reform but the Palestinian people themselves. They are increasing their demands for more democracy in their areas and with much of the Palestinian areas and political system in ruin after the recent Israeli attacks they now see the opportunity for this to happen. Mr. Arafat is faced with strong local leadership that has emerged among Palestinian communities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and who may feel little allegiance to the leadership that was forged in exile in Tunisia. If they feel that Mr. Arafat is not delivering the political outcomes they want then they will begin to mount their challenge.

If there is to be peace in the Middle East, then there must be serious and concrete reform of the Palestinian Authority or a new Palestinian leadership must take the reins of power. Over the years Mr. Arafat has built a strong power-base and cult of leadership over the Palestinians and this has allowed him to take control of the PA. However his grip on the PA and the people of the occupied territories has meant that progress has not been forthcoming. Not only must Israel begin to pull back its forces and halt the building of settlements but also, the PA must demonstrate that it has the capability to lead and operate in the democratic manner that a state needs. So far Mr. Arafat has shown that he is either incapable or reluctant to do so and therefore perhaps his time has come.

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