Yasser, No Sir

No one knows what the road to Middle East peace might look like, but one thing is becoming increasingly clear: It won’t be traveled with Yasser Arafat. Over and over, Ariel Sharon has said, with overwhelming support from the Israeli public, that he will never negotiate with the chairman of the Palestinian Authority. And after all that’s happened in the past couple of years, few believe that Arafat is capable of closing a deal, anyway.

“Arafat lives in a world of mythology,” says Dennis Ross, who has spent more than fifteen years as one of America’s lead negotiators in the Middle East, first as director of policy planning for Bush senior and then as special Middle East coordinator during both Clinton terms. “Arafat’s been driven throughout his career by this self-image that he was struggling for the Palestinian people. Fundamentally, he couldn’t end the conflict despite everything he was offered because, in a way, ending the conflict would have meant ending himself.

“Arafat,” Ross says with finality, “is not able to redefine himself in a way that would make a permanent deal possible.”

Ross’s perception is shared by a wide array of analysts and politicians. Ariel Sharon has taken to euphemistically referring to “reform of the Palestinian Authority.” He repeats it like a mantra whenever he talks about dealing with the Palestinians – and to him it’s code for no more Arafat.

Washington has joined the chorus, too. At a recent press conference, Ari Fleischer said President Bush would like to see “transparency, democracy, and fighting against corruption” in a reformed Palestinian Authority. (The fact that not one Arab regime in the Middle East meets these criteria is, I guess, beside the point.)

Momentum for reform of the Palestinian Authority has even begun to build in the Arab world. Abdurrahman Wahid, the former president of Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population, told an Israeli reporter, “I recommend to my Palestinian brothers to get rid of Arafat’s regime … But I do not see how the Palestinian people can do so peacefully.”

Most surprising, however, is the movement for reform among the Palestinians themselves. At Arafat’s first Cabinet meeting after the Israelis ended the siege at his compound in Ramallah, he was, according to Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian political commentator who teaches at Birzeit University, confronted by his own people on the question of reform. In a piece written for bitterlemons.org, a kind of online Middle Eastern version of Crossfire that gives Israelis and Palestinians the opportunity to debate explosive issues, Khatib notes that calls for reform are coming from all quarters of the Palestinian population, including “nonofficial circles of thinkers, academics, political parties, and civil-society players.”

Arafat himself, always able to recognize which way the political winds are blowing, has lent his own voice to the campaign, although don’t expect him to call for his own removal anytime soon. Last week, he gave a rambling speech before the Palestinian Legislative Council in which he embraced the need for reform. Aides later said he’s agreed to elections within six months – an outcome that at the moment seems unlikely.

“The pressure for reform was there even before the intifada,” says Ross. “So it’s not surprising that it’s emerging now across the spectrum of Palestinian society. The real question is whether it’s going to be a genuine effort or one controlled by Arafat that creates only the veneer of change.”

It is no secret that the Palestinian Authority is at best inept and at worst corrupt and brutal. Through the seven years of the Oslo process, despite promises of change and vast infusions of foreign money, the Palestinian economy continued to shrink. One reason enthusiasm for the peace process never took hold among average Palestinians was that they never saw their lives improve. What they did see was high-ranking members of the Palestinian Authority driving expensive cars and building themselves big houses.

The lowest common denominator of reform is accountability: fiscal, civil, and political. Someone has to be responsible for where the money goes, someone has to ensure basic services are provided, and someone has to deal effectively with the Israelis and the rest of the world. Israel and the U.S. have also called for a consolidation of the fragmented security agencies under one roof. Elections, of course, are a given.

Ross believes reform is possible, ironically, because of all the destruction that’s taken place. “There’s a tremendous need to rebuild the Palestinian Authority and the infrastructure. I think the international community, which will provide the funds, needs to make it clear they’re not prepared to re-create what was there. If the ground rules are very specific, you could succeed in building some new institutions.”

One thing that is still most definitely there is Yasser Arafat. Sharon’s eagerness to marginalize him is shared by American conservatives and large segments of the Bush administration, particularly those aligned with Donald Rumsfeld, who has made it clear he views Arafat as a terrorist.

The scenario currently most fashionable among Israelis and Americans is one in which Arafat assumes a ceremonial position, say, Palestinian president, enabling the election of a prime minister who would have responsibility for running the Palestinian Authority’s affairs. No one has publicly proposed a mechanism by which this could occur, but privately, people speak in terms of an offer Arafat can’t refuse.

“Keep in mind,” says Yossi Alpher, an Israeli political analyst and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, “that Arafat is a survivor. And Egypt has a prime minister, too. But how many people even know his name? President Mubarak is the real power, and the prime minister the figurehead.”

Some Israelis – not to mention Arabs or Palestinians, of course – see Sharon’s lust for Palestinian reform as a cynical ploy, another rationale for not negotiating. But Sharon actually may be sincere, in a way; he has a history of attempting to engineer and control the representation of another people. He tried it in the West Bank in 1981 with the Village Leagues and again in Lebanon in 1982.

“He still believes that if you can somehow put more reasonable people in place, they’ll make a deal on your terms,” says Alpher. “A more amenable Palestinian leadership, he thinks, will, let’s say, accept only 50 percent of the West Bank and an ongoing Israeli military presence.”

While this notion is probably a pipe dream, there are those on Israel’s right who would go even further. Natan Sharansky wrote in a piece in the Jerusalem Post several weeks ago that Arafat and the Palestinian Authority ought to be replaced by an interim administration chosen, put in place, and essentially controlled by the international community.

“Arafat is being bombarded now on all sides,” says Alpher. “But he still has this aura about him as the father of his country. He will undoubtedly fend off most of these pressures and maneuver his way out of all of this by implementing cosmetic reforms.”

Nevertheless, Alpher believes this is still a productive exercise: “Sharon has only had one real success in his fifteen months in office. He hasn’t brought peace and he hasn’t brought security. But he has succeeded in getting onto the international agenda the notion that Arafat is unfit to lead the Palestinian people. You can’t deal with him. He’s a liar and a cheat, he has a weakness for violence, and he’s not ready to make peace. It’s been very useful to have him discredited. But for Israel or America or anyone else to try and impose a different form of government or different leaders on the Palestinians is a huge mistake that will backfire and produce worse leaders or even anarchy.”

Dennis Ross thinks that keeping the pressure on now will yield dividends down the road. “The real issue here is, can you build institutions that will constrain Arafat’s arbitrary use of power?” says Ross, who has just been named chairman of a new think tank, based in Jerusalem, called the Institute for Jewish People Policy Planning.

“If elections are included in this push for Palestinian reform,” Ross says, “then you begin to create and build a constituency of people who have some legitimate authority. You also need to produce a political process now that makes at least some change possible in the near term and shows promise so that the Palestinians have hope and a sense of possibility again. And that in turn enables the Israelis to begin to believe they have a partner again who is prepared to live up to their responsibility on security.”

Ross is actually an optimist. He believes the near-miss of Oslo and Camp David, coupled with the suffering of the past twenty months, has produced credible hope that once you get beyond the anger, a deal will be possible down the road.

There were, Ross says, many on the Palestinian side during the Oslo and Camp David negotiations who were as surprised as everyone else that when crunch time came, Arafat was not prepared to get it done.

“When Arafat is finally gone, his successors need to take over in an environment where negotiating an agreement is possible,” Ross says. “If they don’t, they’re likely to adopt pretty extreme positions to show they’re not prepared to concede things he wasn’t.”

In other words, Palestinian reform actually has to work. Or it will end up on the intellectual junk pile of the Middle East with all the other promising ideas that were never connected to reality.

Yasser, No Sir