An out for Arafat?

July 28, 2002

PRESIDENT YASSER Arafat is talking about a Palestinian prime minister, an appointment he would make after the January 2003 elections and once a Palestinian state is declared.

Is that the Yasser Arafat talking? Has the old revolutionary turned dictator come around to the idea that his days of running the Palestinian Authority as a fiefdom won't survive demands for political reform?

Don't bet on it. And yet the fact that Mr. Arafat has acknowledged the need for a day-to-day manager to operate a Palestinian state is intriguing. He must realize that neither the White House, his European allies, Arab leaders nor his people would accept another loyalist from Tunis in such a position, a prime minister from whom the president would demand complete fealty.

But Mr. Arafat also understands that the only way to stay in the game is to play it. The idea of a parliamentary system of government for an independent Palestine has been bandied about recently. Renewed violence between Israel and the Palestinians last week eclipsed such talk, but the proposal shouldn't be forgotten.

Palestinian reformers view the proposal as a way to replace the old guard and ensure accountability in a system rife with corruption. The United States, the chief power-broker in the Middle East conflict, has not publicly backed such a plan; President Bush wants to see democratic reforms and new leadership (not Mr. Arafat) before the declaration of a Palestinian state.

A parliamentary system could solve the Arafat problem - by providing a mechanism to install a new, competent leader without necessitating the politically tricky removal of Mr. Arafat.

The outcome of the Palestinian elections in January can't - and shouldn't - be dictated. The Palestinian people, despite their contempt for Mr. Arafat's stewardship, won't oust him simply on the United States' say-so. But a parliamentary system could lead to new leadership if they supported the concept. It would give the elected Palestinian legislative council, shamelessly ignored by Mr. Arafat, greater standing.

Disparate, often contentious, political groups in Palestinian society would have to come to some accommodation to form a government. Installing a prime minister at the state's helm could enable Mr. Arafat to remain as a ceremonial head of state.

That scenario would depend on Mr. Arafat's cooperation and, more important, on the presence of competent, independent-minded candidates for the prime minister's post. As the Bush administration pursues an overhaul of Palestinian security forces and an Israeli withdrawal from the territories, it has to be careful how it promotes reform efforts. Palestinians tend to view with suspicion any U.S.-engineered move because of America's strong ties to Israel.

A new generation of leaders should be encouraged to stand up and speak out. But Israel will have to end its siege of Palestinian cities and conditions in the territories will have to improve before Palestinians will feel free to change the status quo.

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