Palestinian public has no advocate

Forgotten: The peace process includes the american public and the Israeli public--but does not include the Palestinian public.

June 11, 2000|By Sunni M. Khalid

THIS WEEK, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators are scheduled to arrive in Washington for another attempt to hammer out a framework for a permanent peace agreement. They hope to prepare the groundwork for a three-way summit this summer between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and President Clinton that will produce a treaty that concludes the Oslo peace process.

Much of the speculation over the meeting has dealt with either Clinton's hopes to win an agreement before the end of his term, or Barak's attempts to make concessions that will not topple his fragile coalition government.

Public support in both countries - both vibrant democracies - is considered crucial, since the American public will have to foot a multi-billion bill to ensure any peace agreement, and the Israeli public will be called upon to live next to a Palestinian state.

Virtually ignored in this rush to judgment, however, are the wishes and the will of the Palestinian public, whose support for any peace agreement is just as important. Leaders may sign treaties, but they cannot impose genuine peace. Peace is a social contract between respective peoples. Without Palestinian popular support, any peace agreement will lack credibility and durability.

Unfortunately, most of the focus is on Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority. It is assumed that Arafat has the unquestioned allegiance and support of his people and, thus, is the ultimate guarantor of any agreement. And while Arafat embodied the lofty hopes and national aspirations of Palestinian statehood during his long years in exile, his return has proved such a bitter disappointment that his own political legitimacy is in doubt.

"They [the United States and Israel] seem to think that they can use Arafat to do any amount of dirty work," said Rashid Khalidi, a University of Chicago professor. "They think they can squeeze him and squeeze him and he can put an infinite amount of pressure on the Palestinians. This is a major miscalculation. Just like Clinton has to deal with public opinion, just like Barak has public opinion, Arafat also has public opinion."

Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) overwhelmingly won Palestinian elections held five years ago, in elections the international community certified as free and fair. The PLO was virtually unopposed, because rival parties, such as the Islamic Resistance Movement or Hamas, refused to take part in the balloting and running the Palestinian Authority.

Since then, Arafat has ruled over his people with a heavy hand. The Palestinian Authority, by almost every account, has become a caricature of the most brutal, politically repressive and corrupt regimes in the Middle East.

In Palestinian-controlled areas in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, Arafat's bloated police state, with at least nine different security agencies, has routinely closed down newspapers, television and radio stations that run afoul of government censorship - not for inciting violence against Israel, but for criticizing the Palestinian Authority.

In its most recent report on the Palestinian Authority, "Human Rights Watch" reported:

"The Palestinian Authority [PA] failed to institutionalize important safeguards against human rights abuses that included patterns of arbitrary detention without charge or trial, torture and ill-treatment during interrogation, grossly unfair trials, and persecution of its critics. PA President [Yasser Arafat's] refusal to ratify Basic Law, passed by the Palestinian Legislative Council in October 1997, left Palestinians without any clear statement of the rights, or of the duties and responsibilities of the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of the government. Officials with specific responsibilities to safeguard human rights, like the attorney general, as well as judges, often found themselves under pressure to follow the executive's wishes, and unable to enforce their own rulings."

Amid this repression, Arafat has scandalously diverted huge sums of foreign aid and public money as patronage to his political cronies, or allowed them to establish economic monopolies, which charge more for basic commodities to the impoverished Palestinian majority than the Israeli occupiers. Even worse, the Palestinian leader has repeatedly ignored charges of corruption, despite evidence that as much as one-third of the PA's annual $800 million budget is lost through graft.

"People are at the boiling point," said Khalidi. "The people are angry... not so much at the Israelis, [but] because their main concern is that [Arafat] is selling them down the river. There is no rule of law in the [Palestinian Authority] areas. All decisions are arbitrary. It has everyone very worried."

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