Middle East Analysts Discuss the Political Climate in a Post-Arafat Palestinian
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RAY SUAREZ: As Arafat lay gravely ill in a Paris hospital, Palestinians faced questions of how to rule themselves without their long-term leader at the helm.
NABIL SHAATH: He is in a critical condition, he is not improving, and that is really what is causing our anxiety
RAY SUAREZ: Arafat concentrated power in himself; he never designated a successor or even a second-in-command. For the moment, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Queria and his predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas, have been named to share Arafat’s duties. Arafat has been the symbol of Palestinian nationalism and leader of the resistance to Israel since the late 1960s. Twenty years later, he renounced terrorism and turned to diplomacy to work toward a Palestinian state.
The signing of the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn, in September 1993, brought limited self-rule for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and Arafat became head of the governing body, the Palestinian National Authority. But after the collapse of the Camp David negotiations in 2000, Palestinians launched another armed uprising against Israel, and the Israelis blamed Arafat for the violence. In the four years since, more than 3,000 Palestinians and nearly 1,000 Israelis have been killed in armed clashes and by suicide bombers. Israelis have expanded settlements and tightened their occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, including building a barrier through the West Bank.
Arafat had been isolated for three years in his compound in Ramallah, and it was from there that he was flown to Paris earlier this week for medical treatment. As rumors circulate about Arafat’s condition, the Israelis have stepped-up security measures around the al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem. Arafat has long said he wants to be buried there, but Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his cabinet have vowed that will not happen.
YOSEF LAPID, Justice Minister, Israel: Jerusalem is a city where Jewish kings are buried, and not Arab terrorists.
RAY SUAREZ: Israeli forces are on high alert in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
For more on the Palestinians without Arafat, we turn to: Khalil Jahshan, a former president of the National Association of Arab-Americans, now affiliated with Pepperdine University, and Amgad Atallah, a former legal adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization.
And, Amjad, in the last couple of days, it’s been pointed out that Arafat’s duties have been moved on to two leaders of the old guard, Ahmed Queria and Mahmoud Abbas. But it wasn’t — it may not be clear to a lot of people what jobs, what titles, what roles Yasser Arafat still held. His duties have been passed on to others, what are we talking about?
AMJAD ATALLAH: Well, what’s basically happened is that Palestinians have defaulted to the institutions that existed prior to the personalization of power in the hands of the president, President Arafat. The PLO was the organization created to liberate Palestine. It’s the organization that has the legal mandate to negotiate with Israel an end of the occupation. The Palestinian Authority was a body created in agreement between the PLO and Israel to administer Palestinian areas during the occupation until the end of occupation.
And so you have two organizations that effectively overlap in function during the last ten years primarily because the president was the chairman of the PLO and the president of the Palestinian Authority. Now you have Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, who’s the secretary general of the PLO effectively taking over that position in the Palestine Liberation Organization and being responsible now for diplomacy and negotiation; whereas the Palestinian Authority is defaulting back to its responsibilities to administer the territories under occupation.
RAY SUAREZ: And, Khalil Jahshan, today it was announced that Yasser Arafat is stable and one aide put it “somewhere between life and death.” If he stays that way for a while, is the situation calm enough, stable enough so that it can withstand institutionally a long waiting period?
KHALIL JAHSHAN: Absolutely not, because the transition that Amjad described is not being done as a permanent and decisive step to replace Yasser Arafat. It’s basically a transitional arrangement while he is ill. Yasser Arafat clearly is seriously ill. We do not know yet and even his doctors apparently do not know exactly nature of his illness but it doesn’t seem like he is supposed to recover from this ordeal, according to Palestinian, American and European sources who are familiar with the details of his health situation.
So the Palestinians right now are… have taken basically a half measure simply to calm public opinion and basically to show that Palestinian institutions are functional and could be functional should the absence of president Arafat be a lengthy one or a permanent one. But that’s not the status you want to have in a situation under occupation, a situation that’s not stable to start with. Should it last, like, for months or maybe I year, I mean, we’ve had people who were comatose for that length of time in the past, but should that happen, I don’t think that would create a very stable situation in Palestine.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, isn’t there a constitution, Amjad? Wasn’t somebody supposed to legally have powers devolved to them, the speaker of the Palestinian assembly?
AMJAD ATALLAH: The way it works is that the speaker of the parliament would become president; however, he doesn’t necessarily… he’s not a well- known political figure in Palestine. He has 60 days to call elections in order for a new president. What’s really important in this set-up, I think– and I agree with Khalil that this is, in effect, being viewed as a transition by Palestinians and the Palestinian leadership– none of the Palestinian leaders today have a popular mandate to pursue peace the way that President Arafat did or still does. And the only way that they’re going to be able to develop that popular mandate is through elections.
KHALIL JAHSHAN: I think there’s… I mean, it’s not enough to kind of look at these institutions in a static way, just simply describe them. But we have to understand, I think, that the PA is really an offshoot of the PLO It’s not just like two parallel entities, the way they tend to be viewed in Washington, particularly by decision makers. The legitimacy of the PA stems from its relationship to the PLO and therefore it’s not a matter of just putting one person here and one person here and these two institutions will continue to function.
The PLO represents all of the Palestinian people, all 8.5 million of them inside the West Bank and Gaza and outside of Palestine and Israel living in the Diaspora, while the PA basically is a functional institution as a result of the agreements with Israel, as a result of the ten-year peace process in the 90s that produced that entity to manage the affairs of the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. But the legitimacy of that entity stems from its relationship to the PLO. So the two are not necessarily divorced or parallel with each other; they are one and the same. They are intertwined. So therefore they have to be taken in totality, if you will, as this hybrid form of government under which the Palestinians find themselves governed today.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, is it really a government? I mean, are there civil servants, civil service exams?
AMJAD ATALLAH: Yes.
RAY SUAREZ: Do they collect taxes? Check on the water meters? I mean, what kind of a government is this and does Arafat’s absence change the way life is lived, at least in the near term?
AMJAD ATALLAH: It’s a quasi-government. It doesn’t actually have the full functions of a government and since… in the three years of the Intifada it’s actually– four years now– it’s actually become not so much a government as an idea. The Palestinian Authority has the ability to maybe pass rules and laws that will be implemented in Ramallah, but they may not necessarily be implemented in Nablus or they may not be implemented in Jenin. The Israeli occupation has done a remarkable job of dismantling the governmental infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority.
The question now will be whether on the one hand Israel will allow Palestinians to begin to reformulate a political entity that can represent the national movement or whether it will continue to keep it bifurcated and divided. I mean, there was a reason that they did it in the first place, which was because this Israeli government obviously didn’t want to negotiate final status parameters. And if it still doesn’t want to negotiate final status parameters, if it still doesn’t want a two-state solution, then it will continue to support the idea of keeping the national movement divided into local groups, into city-by-city structures. Sometimes in some places it’s refugee camp by refugee camp.
RAY SUAREZ: Does the absence of Arafat, Khalil, create possibilities with the involvement of the United States which wouldn’t talk to Yasser Arafat, the UK wouldn’t talk to Yasser Arafat?
KHALIL JAHSHAN: Well, frankly, not talking to Yasser Arafat was not necessarily Arafat’s problem. It was really… I think it ended up handicapping U.S. policy more than handicapping Palestinian politics in the sense that, by personalizing the conflict, I think the U.S. deprived itself, or the Bush administration deprived itself, of the ability to deal with the legitimately elected — after all, Yasser Arafat was not imposed on the Palestinians.
The last time I remember, we worked out with… we worked with the Palestinians to establish national elections designed by the United States and the international community and supervised by the United States. We had even a former president, President Carter, go out there and head a delegation to supervise that. These were the elections that elected Arafat. To simply dismiss him, you know, I mean, just the coverage of the past two or three days. The reason that you and I are talking right now is evidence of the importance of Arafat, not necessarily the insignificance of Mr. Arafat.
One could agree or disagree about his weaknesses, his strengths, his failures, what have you. I mean, these are legitimate topics to discuss. But the fact of the matter, he is a necessary figure; he is a “founding father” for the Palestinian people. And his absence is going to be very important. And the last thing the Palestinians need right now is to have that empty chair, as we have seen on television footage the past few days, continue to exist for a lengthy period of time, thus undermining the Palestinian Authority more than it’s already undermined because, with all due respect, what we have heard is kind of a legal description– and Amjad is a great lawyer– of both the PLO and the PA and the interaction between them. So on paper, they look great, but they are both basically dysfunctional organizations right now.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Amjad Atallah, what happens now with the empty chair? Is that a vacuum that gets filled by somebody, by Hamas, by a new leader? Is this a time that you can see real disorder in the territories?
AMJAD ATALLAH: The president… President Arafat’s primary function and ability in the last several months has been primarily as the unifying symbol among Palestinians. In terms of governance, whether a governance of the PLO or governance of the Palestinian Authority, it was severely diminished by his inability to actually implement policy, even policy that he wanted or didn’t want.
He had the ability to act as spoiler to particular policies, but he didn’t necessarily have the ability to implement. The chair has been empty, in other words, for a while. What needs to be done now is to… for Palestinians to create a popular mandate that can match the legal mandates that these institutions have. You’re right, it’s one thing for institutions to exist on paper, it’s another for the people to feel that the representatives in these organizations actually represent them.
KHALIL JAHSHAN: So in that sense, Ray, I think his absence, Arafat’s absence would probably create an opportunity for the Palestinian people to activate effectively their institutions. Because he really… I mean, one of his main weaknesses has been his disrespect for institutions. He really never respected institutions nor did he understand how to operate institutions in an effective way. Now the Palestinians have a chance to have an effective prime minister, an effective president of the PA, an effective chairman of the executive committee of the PLO and to see if they can implement the reforms that 90 percent of the Palestinian people have been asking for.
RAY SUAREZ: Khalil Jashan, Amjad Atallah, good to see you both.
KHALIL JAHSHAN: Thank you.
AMJAD ATALLAH: Thank you.