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Turmoil Continues Among Palestinian Leadership

July 21, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Today’s parliamentary call for President Yasser Arafat to accept the resignations of his prime minister and cabinet was a rare show of independence by the Palestinian Legislature.

(CHANTING)

It came on the heels of a violent and politically chaotic week in Gaza and the West Bank.

Last week, masked militants abducted two top Palestinian officials and four French aid workers. They were released after several hours, but the kidnappings prompted Arafat to fire his security chief and replace him with his cousin, Moussa Arafat.

MOUSSA ARAFAT (translated): I’ve been asked through presidential decree to take charge of the security. I’ll do my utmost to change things with the help of my colleagues in order to have a stable and secure homeland.

MARGARET WARNER: Arafat’s move set off angry demonstrations by Palestinian militants, who ransacked and burned Palestinian Authority offices within Gaza. Arafat backed down, restoring the previous security chief to his job.

In the midst of all the turmoil, Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei tendered his resignation saying he had no authority over the security forces. Arafat refused to accept it but Qurei, also known as Abu Allah, stood by his decision.

AHMED QUREI (translated ): Concerning my resignation as prime minister, I want to affirm here that I have submitted my resignation in writing to President Arafat for various reasons which I made clear in my resignation, mainly the state of chaos and the loss of control over the security situation. I have not received a written response to my written resignation to the president, but it is still valid.

MARGARET WARNER: Then last night, former cabinet minister Nabil Amr, a frequent critic of Arafat, was shot and wounded as he returned home from a television interview. Palestinian cabinet members called for an end to the violence.

SAEB EREKAT, Senior Palestinian Cabinet Minister: I believe restoring public order and the rule of law is the priority for all Palestinians at this critical moment.

MARGARET WARNER: Late today, Arafat issued a decree, condensing at least a dozen security branches into three agencies, a longstanding demand of Palestinian reformers. But he and Qurei remain deadlocked over the prime minister’s resignation.

MARGARET WARNER: So what’s behind the latest turmoil and what does it mean for Arafat’s leadership and the prospects for democratic reform in the Palestinian Authority?

To explore that, we’re joined by Martin Indyk, former secretary of state for Near East affairs and ambassador to Israel in the Clinton administration. He’s now director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. And Khalil Jahshan, former president of the National Association of Arab-Americans and now a private consultant on Middle East issues.

Welcome to you both. Martin Indyk, explain. What’s behind, just take today’s news — the Palestinian parliament calling on Arafat to let his prime minister resign.

MARTIN INDYK: I think that this is now a pent-up expression of something that’s developed over a long period of time. At the beginning of the intifada three years ago it was not just a rebellion against Israel’s occupation; it was also against Arafat’s corrupt, arbitrary and tyrannical rule.

But it’s now reached a head, and I think that the reason it has reached a head is partly because of Arafat’s refusal to go through with reforms which have been demanded not only by his own people but by the international community, and by the fact that Israel is going to be pulling out of Gaza in the near future, and that is a forcing act which has got people in Gaza in particular focused on who is going to take over afterwards.

So you have the kind of combination of this pressure for reform, the feeling of the Palestinian people that they’ve had enough of this chaotic rule and anarchy spreading in the streets of Gaza and the West Bank, and the forcing act that requires something to happen in Gaza, somebody to take over there.

MARGARET WARNER: But Khalil Jahshan, what would you add to that, and if so, why do they want Qurei to go, or don’t they?

KHALIL JAHSHAN: Because basically Arafat has managed to manipulate the legal structure in place to neutralize, if you will, politically the resignation of his prime minister in the sense that according to current bylaws, if the prime minister resigns and the president doesn’t accept the resignation, he is stuck in there. He is technically or de facto becomes a caretaker government and that’s it.

So what the legislative assembly is trying to do is put Arafat on the spot, add a little bit more pressure, twist his arm, if you will, accept the resignation or give the man the power to govern as a prime minister.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, do you agree with Martin Indyk’s assessment of the underlying reasons? What’s forcing this?

KHALIL JAHSHAN: Well, undoubtedly I think Martin is correct. This has been going on for several years in terms of since, as a matter of fact since the beginning of the PA, the Palestinian Authority. There has been an underlying kind of growing public opinion for reform. The majority of Palestinians, most recently 92 percent, said that reform is necessary and only 40 percent said that Arafat is even trying to reform.

So there is a solid public opinion for a variety of reasons by the way because some of it is from the opposition, some of it is from within Fatah, which is “the ruling party” of Yasser Arafat. So there are all kinds of political reasons for these calls for reform, but still there is a huge constituency out there that has been kind of lobbying and expressing the sentiment for reform.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. We’ve all used this term for reform. But what does it mean in this context? In other words, who is pushing for it? What are they talking about as reforms — is it democratic reform, letting other people share power? Is it an end to corruption? What is it?

MARTIN INDYK: Well, the most important thing is it’s a call for an end to the corrupt and tyrannical rule of Yasser Arafat and his cronies that he’s brought in and imposed on the West Bank and Gaza and Palestinians, the people that came in from Tunis.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean, in other words, the people who were in exile with Arafat and came back after the Oslo Accords were signed?

MARTIN INDYK: They came back in 1994 first to Gaza and then to the West Bank. And they imposed their rule on a population that had been exposed to Israel’s democratic processes and had learned a lot about that even though they were under occupation and were not prepared to have same old Arab-style rule as other Arab rulers, the arbitrary rules that Arafat had learned about in Beirut, having imposed on them. And yet it was. And as long as the peace process was moving forward, they had little choice but to accept it. They became increasingly upset about it.

And that was the heart of the reform process, an anti-corruption effort. But it was also tied up with the whole idea of establishing legitimate, accountable transparent institutions and government that would form the basis for the Palestinian state that was the basic demand of all Palestinians.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Khalil Jahshan, who or what is behind the violence? I’m talking about the kidnappings, the demonstrations, the burnings of the PA offices in Gaza, the shooting last night of that critic of Arafat’s.

KHALIL JAHSHAN: If you are talking about the general pattern, I think there has been a collapse of law and order over the past four or five years, particularly the last three and a half to four years. Therefore, basically power moved from legitimate political institutions to the street whereby anybody carrying a gun has been able to kind of enforce law and order on the street as they wish.

So in that sense, you had a variety of groups ranging from, for example, the Islamist opposition that is sitting out the current violence because from the perspective of the Islamist opposition, you know, let Fatah kill Fatah right now because they would weaken Arafat and Arafat’s rule and then we will take over after that.

So they’re not intervening in this particular crisis but right now what you have is basically the armed faction within Fatah asserting itself. These are basically younger generation people who work for the security apparatuses of the PA, they have been both subjected — the Palestinian Authority — and they have been subjected to both, if you will, the mismanagement of the PLO plus the targeting by the Israelis. So they are rebelling, in a way, against both as was implied earlier and they are asserting themselves.

And one of their assertions is we need reform. And again, reform is in the eye of the beholder in the sense that it’s not all, you know, uniform. You have the outside world, the U.S. and European community, that have helped the Palestinians and would like to help a little bit more financially, are asking maybe for reform in terms of the infrastructure of governance, in terms of the fiscal responsibility, and in terms of transparency, while people at the grassroots level are basically asking for the right to participate, in other words they’re asking for democratic participatory reform and while the opposition is asking for a piece of the cake. So each one has his own or her own definition of what reform constitutes or includes.

MARGARET WARNER: So how much of a threat really is this to Yasser Arafat? I mean, does this level of challenge have the ability to force change?

MARTIN INDYK: I think it does, although we shouldn’t expect it to happen very quickly. The reason for that is that Arafat enjoys a certain legitimacy amongst his people as the icon of the struggle for independence. He’s the old man. And he has respect because of that. And because he is being humiliated by Ariel Sharon being stuck in those two rooms of his headquarters in Ramallah, there is a tendency to support him. And he plays on that even though they want him to be rid of his powers and that being invested in capable, uncorrupt people.

Now the question is whether at this point Arafat is really ready to seek power. He has said and I’ve said before on this program, that there are only two kinds of Arab leaders: Those who have all power concentrated in their hands and those who are dead. And he is not about to go quietly into the night. He has said recently to a friend of mine that he is not about to become a dead man walking. And that’s how he sees it.

So to concede power, particularly over security services, which is the primary demand now of the international community, is something he is going to be very reluctant to do. The question will be: how much of this pent-up feeling from the people that Khalil and I have been talking about will manifest itself.

Will they come out into the streets and demand the kind of changes that the reformers are now asking for?

MARGARET WARNER: What do you see as the prospect for this being a forcing event?

KHALIL JAHSHAN: The prospect is good, but I’m guarded in my optimism in the sense that the circumstances in which the Palestinians find themselves in — in other words, the nature of the occupation, the way things have deteriorated over the past four years, the specific policies that the Israeli government is pursuing right now in terms of isolating Arafat, in terms of cornering the Palestinian people, in terms of assassinating political leaders in the opposition and pitting Palestinians against each other, that is not an environment conducive for a genuine reform.

So even if Arafat converts all of a sudden tonight to a genuine reformist, he is going to have some difficulty implementing that reform because the chaos is not all emanating from his office.

MARGARET WARNER: And a very brief final question. What do you think are the prospects that on the other hand, rather than triggering reform, this could actually really degenerate or escalate into real civil war?

KHALIL JAHSHAN: It’s 50/50, it’s possible because the situation has been so vulnerable that even one incident by mistake from this side or that side could trigger, I think, a scenario where we will all regret.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think we could see real Palestinian-on-Palestinian civil war?

MARTIN INDYK: Well, I think the place to see that unfolding is perhaps in Gaza where the struggle for power is going to be particularly intense because of the expectation that Israel is going to withdraw. And there you not only have this young guard-old guard friction within Fatah, you also have Hamas as Khalil has spoken about, and these warlords who run things in different parts of Gaza. And they’re all going to be vying for power. So there is a great potential there, I think, for things to explode.

MARGARET WARNER: Martin Indyk and Khalil Jahshan, thank you both.