WASHINGTON — With the last-minute breaking of a deadlock in Ramallah over the formation of a new Palestinian Cabinet, the Bush administration appears once again to have been vindicated in its “vision” of Palestinian reforms leading to a renewed peace process.
The deadlock ended Wednesday when Yasser Arafat accepted the Cabinet presented by his prime minister-designate, Abu Mazen, including the choice of former Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan
as security chief. Abu Mazen had staked his Cabinet on the selection of Dahlan, who is seen as the one Palestinian capable of taking on Islamic terrorist groups and imposing a cease-fire.
Administration officials have consistently insisted that the successful implementation of Bush’s “vision” of Middle East peace, which he outlined in a landmark speech last June, depended on a change in Palestinian leadership. They point to radical reforms in spheres that have been removed from Arafat’s direct control, particularly finance, as proof that change can work.
With Dahlan heading up security under Abu Mazen’s leadership, some say, the Palestinian security apparatus could be transformed into an effective, accountable anti-terrorism force. That fuels hope that Bush’s vision — which includes a cessation of terrorism, a freeze on Israeli settlement construction and the creation of a Palestinian state — remains attainable.
Administration officials had been maintaining a cautious optimism up to the last minute, insisting that Palestinian reforms were attainable and that Arafat’s obstructionism would not stop the progress.
“Arafat will go on doing what he does so well: fighting for political survival and missing opportunities,” said a ranking administration official, speaking shortly before the deal was reached. “But,” the official asked rhetorically, “would we and the Palestinian people let him stand in the way?”
Abu Mazen had been insisting that he be granted sole authority over the disarming of militias. Arafat rejected the demand, reportedly fearing that disarming the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militia linked to his own Fatah, would lead to a civil war. The two also had not reached agreement as to how to deal with the other armed factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
The public face of the dispute centered on Abu Mazen’s insistence on tapping Dahlan, former head of Palestinian Preventive Security Services in Gaza, to head the new government’s security services. Dahlan, who resigned his Gaza post last year over disagreements with Arafat, is viewed as representing the next generation of Palestinian leaders, eager to supplant Arafat and his generation of Fatah founders. Arafat had flatly refused to let Dahlan run security.
European officials, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, put enormous pressure on Arafat this week to compromise with Abu Mazen, a member of the founding generation who appears to have cast his lot in with the insurgents. The final pressure came from Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who traveled to Ramallah on Wednesday to pressure Arafat personally.
Bush administration officials reportedly applied pressure of their own — urging Israel to do its share to prop up Abu Mazen and “help the reformers succeed” by easing off on closures, manhunts and killings of militants. An Egyptian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Wednesday that in exchange for backing down on the Cabinet appointments, Arafat was given guarantees regarding his personal safety and was told his personal isolation would end. Israel has enforced a travel ban on Arafat since December 2001.
Certain reforms in the Palestinian Authority have already drawn an enthusiastic response from the administration. The most striking developments, say American officials and representatives of international agencies in the West Bank and Gaza, are steps taken by the new Palestinian minister of finance, Salam Fayyad, toward achieving financial transparency, accountability and efficiency.
An American-educated econo-mist who previously represented the International Monetary Fund in the West Bank and Gaza, Fayyad is now cooperating with Ernst & Young and Deloitte & Touche, the two financial consulting giants hired by the United Nations and the United States government, respectively, to audit the P.A.’s finances.
In less than a year in office, Fayyad has done more to remove Arafat from positions of power than Israeli tanks and attack helicopters have, said a senior official with one of the international organizations operating in the West Bank and Gaza. Arafat used to oversee all the incoming funds to the P.A., including more than $5 billion of foreign aid that the P.A. received since the Oslo agreements were first implemented in 1994 and more than $1 billion since November 2000. Arafat is widely known to have mismanaged these funds. According to the Israeli government, he also diverted considerable amounts of money to support anti-Israeli terrorism.
Now, however, Fayyad controls the three main sources of P.A. income — foreign aid, Israeli tax transfers and income tax levied inside the territories — and has opened them to international auditors. The new finance minister has also reformed the way in which the P.A.’s 125,000 civil servants, including 53,000 members of the various security services, receive their salaries. These salaries, totaling $660 million a year, constitute half of the P.A.’s annual budget.
Before Fayyad came in, the money was handed out in cash in infamous “brown envelopes,” which had become synonymous with the financial corruption plaguing the P.A. This free flow of cash opened numerous cracks for opportunists to siphon money on its way to bureaucrats. Fayyad has spackled many of the cracks by directly depositing the payments into employees’ bank accounts.
He has also prepared a budget and submitted it on time for ratification by the Palestinian Legislative Council. He has worked with the council’s finance committee to prepare the budget, thus helping reinvigorate the Palestinian parliament, which has been all but dormant since the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000. Fayyad’s decisive actions helped Washington persuade Israel to resume transfer to the P.A. of income tax revenues levied in Israel on Palestinian workers, and of Palestinian customs excise on products bought from or through Israel.
“Fayyad’s success is a model” for what can be done in other realms, including security, said the deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, David Satterfield, in a recent address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
But some hawks dismiss such optimism, warning that Arafat will not be so quick to relinquish control over the Palestinian security forces.
“You don’t have to be an expert on Palestinian affairs to know that that has very little chance of materializing,” said Meyrav Wurmser, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Hudson Institute, a conservative Washington think-tank. “With all due respect to the financial reforms, which are largely cosmetic, what you need is changes that would shift power away from Arafat and make the Palestinian society more democratic and less violent. That is not that easy.”
Arafat, who has always resisted giving up power, “is not going to sign his political execution order,” Wurmser argued. Besides, she added, while financial reforms are very popular in the Palestinian public, security reform — which entails a crackdown on organizations that fight Israel, such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad — would be much less popular and therefore much harder to carry out.
Still, observers are pointing to other significant signs of reform, including the preparation of a Palestinian draft constitution, which a panel of Palestinian legal experts last month submitted to the PLO’s Central Committee for ratification.
American officials say the constitution is encouraging, but they have refrained from saluting it publicly because of misgivings on the part of the Israeli government, which views enacting a constitution as a step toward statehood.
Along with preparing a constitution, Palestinian reformers are also gearing up for restructuring their court system, which “seems like a real priority for reformers,” said George Washington University political scientist Nathan Brown, an expert in Palestinian legal affairs.
In one dramatic step toward legal reform, the Palestinian interior minister, Hani al-Hasan, last week announced the dissolution of the State Security Court, a tribunal in which Palestinian civilians were tried under emergency military laws by senior security officers for crimes against the P.A.
But, tellingly, some experts cautioned that the move could boomerang.
Abolishing the security court might weaken Arafat’s grip over the legal system, but it could also hamper efforts to fight Islamic groups that oppose any permanent agreement with Israel: Most of those tried in the security courts were suspected members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Administration officials acknowledge the spotty record, but remain hopeful.
“To date, the record on Palestinian reforms has been mixed, but there are some successes,” Satterfield told AIPAC last month, adding that the main tasks would be up to the new Palestinian prime minister.
If he succeeds, another senior administration official told the Forward, “we hope he will start the process of changing hearts and minds of Palestinians away from violence and terrorism and toward a negotiated peace with Israel.”
— ORI NIR with reporting by Ha’aretz.