Protecting the king

July 29, 2004

THEY'VE KISSED and made up. As though that's all it would take for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia to quash a rebellion and quiet protests over corruption in the Palestinian Authority. Mr. Qureia, who resigned over a weeklong spate of violence among Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip, is back on the job, "satisfied," he claims, that his boss is committed to reforms. But Mr. Arafat doesn't relinquish power willingly, and absent any evidence that change is afoot, Palestinians should reject this conciliatory buss.

Mr. Arafat's concessions don't signify much if reform is the goal. His planned restructuring of the Palestinian security forces and pledge to delegate some authority to the prime minister amount to a basic chess move to protect the king. And the king is none other than Yasser Arafat. The aging autocrat never followed through on giving Mr. Qureia's predecessor more power. Why would he start now?

Mr. Qureia resigned July 17 amid violent protests in Gaza over the corrupt, inefficient government headed by Mr. Arafat and his cronies. The violence was the first outward sign of discontent among Mr. Arafat's followers since the Israeli-Palestinian conflict returned to street fights four years ago.

That level of protest held out hope among some reformers that Mr. Arafat would have to respond - positively. But the Palestinian leader, who has been marooned in a battered West Bank compound for the last two years, survived the crisis. Palestinians are left with the same bankrupt leadership, the same dysfunctional bureaucracy, the same tired rhetoric. Mr. Qureia, the leading Palestinian negotiator in the historic but failed Oslo peace accords, should have stood his ground. He didn't, and now he must continue to press his boss for change.

The trouble in Gaza again reinforces the need for new leadership to bring the estimated 3.5 million Palestinians out from under Israeli occupation. Palestinians need to confront Mr. Arafat, not prop him up. They must demand their due, which at the very least should include honest, competent governance. Palestinian factions within Mr. Arafat's political organization must keep up the pressure for reforms if they are to be seen as a viable alternative to the militants of Hamas.

Because if and when Israel withdraws its troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian people will get another chance to govern themselves - and they will need able, forthright and industrious stewards to secure an independent state.

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