The lifting of the siege on the headquarters of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in Ramallah has coincided with an intensification of calls for reform of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). These calls have not been confined to Palestinian quarters but came also from top United States leaders, including President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell and Israeli leaders, namely Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In recent weeks, the discourse of reform has become so crowded with strains of ideas and aims that it is easy to lose one’s way over who wants what and why.
One thing can be quickly cleared up: Sharon, who has spent most of his energy since his election as prime minister last year on demonizing and dehumanizing Arafat and attempting to weaken, marginalize and possibly destroy the PNA, cannot be said to be genuinely concerned with reforming something he loathes so much. Sharon and his government have raised the issue of PNA reform only after they failed to rid themselves of Arafat and dismantle the PNA in their use of siege, blockade, assassinations of Palestinian militants, and military invasion of towns, camps and villages. Hence the current Israeli leadership is trying, as second best, this new tactic aimed using the issue of reform to delay as much as possible the rejuvenation of a process of political negotiations over a final settlement.
What Sharon means by “reform” is a process of neutralizing Arafat. What follows is the demand to allocate him only a symbolic role and leave the real task of governing to other, perhaps more agreeable administrators, as well as the unification of the several Palestinian security branches into one. In other words, for Sharon and his right-wing Likud party and many old guards of the Labor party, “PNA reform” means Palestinians guaranteeing the security of Israel, including its occupying soldiers and colonial settlers, before the reaching of a final settlement.
The United States is also demanding the unification of Palestinian security forces, as well as a more financially transparent government that is less centralized in the hands of Arafat. That is, the US administration, in the best colonial tradition, is using reform as a precondition for accepting the graduation of the PNA into statehood (and, of course, without specifying borders and other characteristics of statehood).
For Palestinians, the idea of reform is as old as the PNA, although new advocates have emerged in the arena following the military reoccupation of the West Bank. The newcomers to the reform platform are mostly from the upper echelons of the PNA bureaucracy who are now on the bandwagon for more than one reason; some have been recently genuinely shaken by the price paid by Palestinians in the second Intifada. This group would like to be part of the Palestinian decision-making process, and not simply a cover for autocracy that is apportioned responsibility for policies it has no hand in making, including the creation of a situation that permitted the coexistence of a number of political centers with their own autonomous strategies and tactics that have dramatically effected the lives of large sectors of the population.
The main concern here has been the character of the confrontation with the Israeli military occupation and colonial settlements. It has centered on whether to develop and strengthen the popular character of resistance, or to use armed struggle against the occupying Israeli army and Israeli settlers, and whether to use suicide bombing of civilians inside Israel, or a mixture of these. Each of these strategies has its own impact on the Palestinian cause and society, as well as on the Israeli political scene. The leadership of the PNA has no clear vision for defining the limits of the competing strategies of Palestinian political factions, which have resulted in a kind of chaos that has negatively impacted most Palestinians.
It is difficult to clearly identify those Palestinian leaders who genuinely stand for reform within the PNA hierarchy, since many of these have other motives for calling publicly for reform. They have, no doubt, benefited from existing PNA structures in terms of status, material rewards and other privileges. By riding the reform wagon, a group of upper PNA bureaucrats seeks to keep these privileges. They know that reform is a winning internal and external ticket, but they are limiting their program of reform to issues that do not threaten their interests, for example, the unification or reduction in number of security agencies, the reduction of the number of ministers from 30 to 15 or 18 and even the formation of a “unity government” or leadership. This is an opportunistic position that plays to internal demands for reform and simultaneously sends signals to the external sponsors of “reform.”
For most Palestinians, on the other hand, reform of the Palestinian political system is absolutely necessary for motives contrary to those of Israel and the United States. Reform for them is envisaged as the separation of powers, the promulgation of a modern constitution or basic law and the holding of presidential, legislative and local elections. A slimmer and more effective government with credible ministers also finds strong support. In other words, reform is envisaged as an enabling factor for better and more effective, as well as responsible resistance to the Israeli occupation. Palestinians, as shown regularly by public opinion polls, want democracy, transparency and an end to mismanagement and corruption. But they also seek first of all an independent, sovereign and democratic state of Palestine on all Palestinian territory occupied by Israel in 1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital and a just and fair solution to the refugee problem in accordance with international legitimacy.
Jamil Hilal is author of several books in Arabic and English, including “The Formation of the Palestinian Elite” and “The Palestinian Political System Since Oslo.” He is also a member of the Palestinian National Council.