When happy endings don't convince
So, Arafat and Qurei have embraced. It hardly matters, writes Samir Ghattas*
Last week's reconciliation between President Arafat and Prime Minister Qurei before international television cameras surpassed Hollywood's most heartwarming happy endings. Unfortunately, poignant drama and Oscar-winning performances are one thing, political realities another. In politics happy endings, regardless of how magnificently staged, do not resolve complex problems, especially ones as severe and endemic as those that plague the PA.
As though to drive this point home, and forcefully at that, hardly had the cameras stopped filming the scene in Ramallah than the West Bank became the backdrop to scenes straight out of Iraq. In Nablus several foreigners were kidnapped, although they were released several hours after their capture, and in Jenin the governorate building and intelligence headquarters were burned down. Contrary to expectations, the horror of the assassination attempt against former Deputy Prime Minister Nabil Omar and the moving reconciliation between the PA president and his prime minister failed to keep the fire from spreading from Gaza to the West Bank.
It appears that the PA is still not taking the current crisis seriously enough. It is amazing how many mistakes the PA has managed to make in such a short period of time, the most tragic and ongoing being its inability to appreciate the nature and magnitude of its crisis. Former Prime Minister Saeb Erekat epitomised this shortsightedness in his analysis of the problem as a security matter. As a former political science professor at Al-Najah University in Nablus he should have known better. Violence, like a skin rash, is a visible symptom of an ailment and cannot be remedied without a careful diagnosis of the root causes.
Because of the lack of a proper diagnosis, the crisis has been treated as though it were restricted to Fatah and, specifically, infighting in that organisation between the generation born in the occupied territories and the historical leadership that returned to the territories from Tunisia after signing the Oslo accords. While this is perhaps the most obvious manifestation of the problem, it goes much deeper. In spite of the decline in its status, Fatah still represents the largest and most influential entity on the Palestinian political map. In addition, it also functions in the manner of a ruling party, from which the PA has derived both its membership and support. In diagnosing the crisis, therefore, we cannot draw some arbitrary line between Fatah and the PA.
Nor, for that matter, should we perceive it as a crisis afflicting the PA and Fatah alone, for to do so blinds us to the greater crisis looming on the horizon, which will spiral out of control when other factions join the fray. Happy endings designed for the camera will not keep this crisis at bay. What is needed is a radical remedy before the crisis engulfs everyone.
Nevertheless, we must grant that Arafat has some difficult and unpalatable decisions to make. This is not only because, after four decades of having dexterously manoeuvered his way to becoming the uncontested king of the Palestinian cause, he now lacks the will. It is also because the current crisis is deeply rooted and complex, embedded in the chaotic terms of reference and slogans that are being bandied about with reckless abandon. A notable example can be found in the reform banners that everyone is brandishing against everyone else, and under the cover of which contending parties indulge in the time- honoured practice of mudslinging as barrages of accusations, ranging from financial corruption to treason, are hurled backwards and forwards. The only possible outcome of such a battle is to confuse things further and to widen divides.
As though to increase the general bafflement, Hamas recently seemed to side with Arafat on the outbreak of kidnappings and violence in the West Bank. "This is sedition taking place on the pretext of reform," the resistance organisation declared in a recent statement, adding, "The method and timing [of these actions] raises a number of questions. They serve Sharon's project." Although one can now understand why Hamas and Arafat would converge on this issue, there is good reason to fear that this convergence is transient and that Hamas and the PA are in fact readying themselves for a more comprehensive face-off than ever.
Still, beneath the flotsam on the surface, it is still possible to discern the deeper causes behind the current Palestinian crisis. The collapse of the roadmap either triggered or precipitated the crisis. It was clear from the outset that this plan would flounder, even if one could not have predicted how quickly it would crumble before Israel's apartheid wall in the West Bank and Bush's reneging on his commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state by the end of 2005. With the pathway to a settlement closed off, it was only natural that the Palestinians would turn inward and begin to sort through accumulated problems on the home front.
As important as such a process of introspection is it will not solve the current predicament unless it is closely combined with an examination of the crisis of the peace process. The Palestinians can no longer allow Israel or others to dictate their options. At the same time, they will never be able to solve their domestic crises without reaching a consensus on a strategy with regard to the peace process. The PA had agreed to the roadmap though it later, and perhaps correctly, refused to meet its obligations once it became clear that Israel would not hold up its end of the bargain and that the US was not interested in compelling it to do so. The Palestinian opposition, and not without reason, opposed the roadmap, as it did the Geneva Agreement. But such difficulties and differences do not exonerate either Hamas or the PA from the onus of formulating and committing themselves to a Palestinian initiative for a possible and acceptable settlement, for without such an opening on the horizon internal tensions perpetually threaten to boil over.
A major component of the overall crisis is the predicament of representation within the PA. This problem has grown steadily worse over the past decade in the absence of a united national front capable of bringing on board opposition movements. While the current PA leadership clings to its legitimacy on the grounds of the internationally sponsored elections that brought it to power, the opposition had adamantly refused to take part in the PA on the grounds that it was a product of the Oslo accords. Although Cairo has hosted three rounds of dialogue between the Palestinian factions, these have failed not only to produce a common political agenda but also a consensus over a formula for restructuring the PA. If the Palestinians have been able to muddle through in the past without addressing these fundamental requirements, it is difficult to perceive how they can continue to do so.
Rampant corruption is another major component. Regardless of the confusion in this domain, it is impossible and unacceptable under any circumstances to postpone any longer a serious reform programme. It cannot be overstated how urgent it is for the Palestinian parliament, the judiciary and the relevant organs of civil society to assume the responsibility of putting into effect the long-deferred charter for reform formulated two years ago.
It is pointless to deny, and it is nothing to be proud of, that the resistance has come to be plagued by what we might term a surplus of violence, which constitutes another integral aspect of the overall crisis. Four years down the line from the outbreak of the Intifada and a curious discrepancy has appeared in the recourse to armed resistance. While operations targeting the Israeli occupation are down by 75 per cent this year from 2002 and 2003, Palestinian armed groups have steadily proliferated. With the avenues of armed resistance against Israel being closed off, there is an ever-present and increasing danger that this store of potential violence turn inward and erupt both inside and against Palestinian society.
Because of the weakness and decay of the PA, another aggravating factor, the growth of outside intervention was inevitable. This phenomenon is not restricted to the security domain, where intervention has so far led to the death of more than 200 key members of the various Palestinian leaderships and factions. But other forms of intervention are no less pernicious. Not least of these is the systematic channelling of money from assorted governments and other parties abroad to finance the needs of the armed groups for everything from arms and ammunition, to salaries, homes and cars. Nor has it escaped the financers that these groups are increasingly desperate for funds both because of a disastrous economic situation that has left more than 60 per cent of young Palestinians unemployed and because of the feverish power struggle between the Palestinian factions. There can be no overestimating the degree to which such widespread and diverse attempts to intervene in Palestinian affairs have contributed to eroding the cohesion of Palestinian society, leaving it increasingly vulnerable to crisis.
It is a great pity that none of the Palestinian factions has tackled, or even mentioned, these underlying factors head on. Meanwhile, President Arafat appears to be playing the waiting game, thinking that it is only a matter of time before Sharon and Bush are replaced, after which his own crisis will pass. Perhaps it would be wise for one of those many people who whisper in his ears to tell him that Netanyahu is the most likely candidate to succeed Sharon and that Kerry, if he beats Bush, will not rush to invite him to the White House. No matter how much Arafat might yearn to become one of the American president's most frequent guests, those days are over.
Given Arafat's own predicament and the dire situation of the PA and Palestinian society in general, playing for time will almost certainly backfire. The longer the PA and other Palestinian factions put off resolving their internal difficulties the greater the chances are that these difficulties will devour those who created them or were complicit through their silence.
* The writer is director of the Maqdis Centre for Political Studies.