Opposition to Arafat?

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It is lucky that the Palestinian representatives did not vote against Arafat himself. If the schedule for presidential and legislative elections is retained (January 20), the Cabinet the PA leader sought to make a deal over was being simply dismissed. Thus, 21 ministers resigned before the parliament.

Some observers saw in this open opposition the indication of more important grass-roots dissatisfaction with Arafat’s administration. In this context, it is noteworthy that the old leader resisted attempts aiming at limiting his authority, amidst which a proposition to have a Prime Minister elected by the new parliament that would emerge from the 20 January’s elections. Thus, if Arafat were to be re-elected, the PA’s structure of governance would go on unchanged. Which is not to meet the expectances of the Bush administration as proclaimed by the officials, so far. The result on the diplomatic level, mainly in all what concerns the resumption of the peace process, under the guidance of Washington, may be very frustrating for the Palestinian people.

When the Palestinians admitted the intervention of the American administration in the peace process, it was altogether understood that they were admitting also to enter the game on the terms pronounced by Washington. That was the reason why the negotiations had been conducted in the State Department, between Palestinians and Israelis. And even when the two parties reached an accord through the secret Channel in Oslo, they seemed almost unable to carry out their principles’ agreement, without the blessing of Washington. That was the reason why the signing ceremony took place in the garden of the White House, not in any other location.

Indubitably, that was not only a matter of symbols, but also of authority. Thus, it was acknowledged that the USA é not Europe where the secret negotiations actually happened- would be the leader of the peace process. If the ceremony and all the rest of the procedure took then an international aspect, where we saw representatives from the UN’s community attending, it did not mask the fact that, neither the UN headquarters, nor Oslo, and still much less Moscow or Paris or London or even Tel Aviv, have been chosen to host such an important event. Indeed, Mr Yasser Arafat kept since saying that he had actually signed an international agreement with Israel, – otherwise not a bilateral one that may be easily transgressed without important consequences- but the point is that he knows é as he always did é that without the assent of the White House, his agreement with Rabin would not amount to something really credible. That’s why he had been so appalled by the refusal of Mr Bush to meet him, at a time the latter kept welcoming Mr Ariel Sharon in Washington.

That there was in the new administration some prejudices against Arafat is perhaps true, although in the light of what is reproached to him, it sounds pointless. From the point of view of the American administration, Arafat in effect failed to respond positively to what was required. He had been charged not only of willingly sinking the negotiations é particularly what was called “Barak’s generous offer”-, but also of triggering the second Intifada in order to force his way on both Israel and the USA. These were indeed grave accusations directed to him by the Clinton administration. But it would be naive not to see in the hard position of Mr Bush as regards Arafat the pure and simple result of the previous analyse.

We are not here arguing about the rightness or the faultiness of such analyse, but only pointing at the problem.

Subsequently, it seems that Arafat’s difficulties in handling the situation stem not only of the pressures on the field, but also of his own conceptions. To fall back onto the old rhetoric is not of much help to him. Obviously, in his own camp people are wondering whether he did not actually bypass his prerogatives. What is for example the wisdom of rejecting the idea of getting a Prime Minister elected by the next parliament?

If the price the Palestinian people would have to pay for maintaining the structure of the PA unchanged- or with superficial changes, – is to be neglected by Washington, is it then worthwhile to continue with the same line of thought?

And if the Palestinians in their majority do not want to compromise é which is the sine qua non condition for any agreement -, then why should they claim the necessity of resuming any negotiations at all?

Everybody knows it: the negotiations are the mirror of the balance of power on the field. If they are to be resumed, there will be é like it or not é a compromise. Now, if the Palestinians think that they are able to reach an agreement with the Israelis without accepting Washington’s conditions, let them try. But they know they cannot play Sharon against Bush.

Today, it is said that the challenge to Arafat é as expressed lately by the parliament é was the most serious since his return from exile in 1994. The PA chairman would be much inspired if he does not misinterpret the message. It was neither his choice that has been put in defiance nor his person, but I am afraid something more important. Something that is in tight and direct connection with the future of the Palestinian people and its next evolution either toward peace and appeasement or toward more violent confrontation with Israel.

Hichem Karoui is a writer and journalist living in Paris, France.

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