June 27, 2002
Palestinians Spin Speech
Arafat rejects demands for ouster, and focuses on statehood promise. Will the president's remarks backfire on him and Israel?
Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat chose to view President George W. Bush's speech in the most positive light, rejecting the call for his ouster and focussing instead on the promise for a state.
On Wednesday, the Palestinian Authority announced plans to hold presidential and legislative elections in January, municipal elections next March, and to overhaul the Palestinian Finance Ministry.
Yet even before President Bush called for replacing the Palestinian Authority leadership, there were growing indications that Palestinians were doing some soul-searching.
One indication was a June 19 petition against suicide bombings, signed by Sari Nusseibeh, the PLO's top official for Jerusalem; Hanan Ashrawi, Palestinian legislator; and other Palestinian intellectuals. The petition, which was published twice as an advertisement in eastern Jerusalem's Arab press, was the most impressive public move against the current wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks in recent months.
"We would like to believe that those who stand behind the military operations, whose targets are civilians in Israel, will reconsider their acts, because we do not see that they lead to any results, except for more hatred and animosity between the two peoples," the petition read. The petition was signed by 55 Palestinian personalities. It was followed by another advertisement a few days later with even more signatures.
To be sure, the writers of the petition carefully chose their words to stay within the Palestinian consensus. They did not call suicide bombings "terrorist attacks," for example, but "military operations." In addition, they did not say that the attacks against civilians were immoral per se, simply that they weren't useful to the Palestinian cause.
In any case, the petition coincided with a rally in the Gaza Strip in which hundreds protested over deteriorating economic conditions, demanding work and food rather than armed struggle. Some demonstrators told reporters that they wanted to know what had happened to relief money from overseas, little of which had made its way from the Palestinian Authority to the people.
With outside pressure mounting to overthrow Arafat, he may understand that his only chance for continued popular support will be an improvement in the Palestinians' economic situation.
Israel is unlikely to reopen its gates to Palestinian workers in the foreseeable future, and significant economic aid from the United States will depend on a cessation of violence -- as Bush indicated in his speech this week.
Now, with Bush having come out strongly against the Palestinian leader -- on Monday he called "on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror" -- Arafat is likely to intensify his efforts to hang on to his image as the only leader able to rally the Palestinian people behind him.
Indeed, for nearly a decade of the Oslo peace process, even as evidence mounted that he was in gross violation of his peace commitments, Arafat maneuvered to stay in power by presenting himself as indispensable.
Curiously, in his initial reaction, Arafat described Bush's speech as "a serious effort to push the peace process."
The next day, however, he joined other Palestinian officials in saying that only the Palestinians would choose their own leaders. Bush's call for new leadership was "not acceptable," said Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat. Indeed, the present Palestinian Authority leadership is well aware that Arafat's removal may also mean the end of their political careers.
"Yasser Arafat was elected in democratic elections, and President Bush and others must respect this," Erekat said. Israeli legislator Ahmed Tibi, who previously served as a top adviser to Arafat, said Bush had surpassed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as the person Palestinians hated most.
"Arafat will remain head of the Palestinian Authority, and American pressure to replace him will only increase the violence," Tibi warned. Sensing the writing on the wall, Arafat will try to drive a wedge among the United States, the European Union and the Arab world by adopting a seemingly "peaceful" strategy and warning against "renewed Israeli occupation" of the territories, analysts said.
He also will take actions that appear to restrain Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as he began to do this week. In an interview last week with the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, Arafat sounded too good to be true. During an interview in Arafat's battered Ramallah headquarters, he accepted former President Clinton's outline for a peace settlement, complimented Sharon and said he could make peace with him, adopted the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's declaration of "no more war" and quoted Bush that "enough is enough," regarding violence.
He also criticized Israel for targeting the Palestinian Authority, rather than Hamas or Islamic Jihad -- and announced that he was putting the leader of Hamas, Sheik Ahmad Yassin, under house arrest.
Indeed, Palestinian police encircled Yassin's residence in Gaza early this week and arrested at least 17 low-level Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists.
The arrests were followed by intensive contacts between Palestinian police and leaders of Hamas, raising suspicions that the seemingly tough hand was yet another case of the Palestinian Authority's "revolving door" security policy, in which suspects are arrested and, when pressure eases, quickly released. Few in Israel took Arafat's purported moderation seriously. Indeed, Arafat's best displays of verbal moderation come when he feels the screws tightening. One example was the aftermath of the June 2001 terrorist attack at Tel Aviv's Dolphinarium disco that killed 21 Israeli teenagers.
Arafat quickly announced a cease-fire to forestall Israeli retaliation. But violence resumed once enough time had passed that an Israeli attack would seem less like retaliation than provocation.
Now, following the Bush speech, Arafat has even more reason to appear moderate.
However, it was clear that the speech could speed up local pressure on Arafat to step down.
Last week, Edward Said, a former Arafat crony and one of the most influential Palestinian intellectuals in the United States, issued a call for "elections now."
Writing in the Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram, Said wrote, "A new basis of legitimacy has to be created by the only and ultimate source of authority, namely, the people itself."
Said stressed that this should not be done in response to outside pressure, but rather because of internal Palestinian demand for accountable and responsible government.
Said criticized Arafat for having "made a deal with the occupation through Oslo," the same argument that led to a rift between the two men several years ago. Some Palestinians believe the Oslo accords were unfair because they obligated the Palestinians to cease violence against Israel -- an obligation that was ignored, in any case -- while not assuring them that Israel would meet all their demands in negotiations.
Yet in a roundabout way, Said also recognized that the Palestinians needed to abandon terrorism.
"Who else but the Palestinian people can construct the legitimacy they need to rule themselves, and fight the occupation with weapons that don't kill innocents and lose us more support than ever before?" Said asked. "A just cause can easily be subverted by evil or inadequate or corrupt means. The sooner this is realized, the better the chance we have to lead ourselves out of the present impasse."