Can the Leopard Change His Spots? Israel Says Arafat Incapable of Reform

Three weeks ago, shortly after Israel lifted its siege on Yasser Arafat’s compound in Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority president hinted that he was ready to turn over a new leaf in Palestinian history.

Assailed by critics at home and abroad, with his popularity at just 35 percent in the polls, Arafat told the Palestinian Legislative Council that he intended to reform the Palestinian Authority and hold elections.

Israel, the United States and Europe were demanding reforms that would lead to greater democratization, an end to corruption, a separation of governmental powers and the unification of the myriad Palestinian security forces.

This last component was seen as the most important by Israel and the Americans. Reducing the number of Palestinian security organs from more than a dozen to just a few, and centralizing their control, would lead to more effective oversight and reduce anti-Israel violence, it was believed.

Yet skeptics said that after nearly 40 years of terrorism and misrule, Arafat could not change his spots. What he would do, they warned, was to offer lip service to reform, winning praise from the international community; wait for the storm of criticism to pass while gutting the reforms of real content; and then demand Israeli concessions in exchange for his declarations.

So far, the jury is out: After three weeks there is still a lot of talk of reform, but very little progress.

No date has been set for elections, no significant action has been taken to change the structure of the Palestinian Authority, and terrorism once again is escalating — primarily at the hands of the Al-Aksa Brigade of Arafat’s own Fatah Party.

Arafat reportedly has decided to shrink the number of ministries in his Cabinet from 30 to 18. Yet the housecleaning is not exactly what Israel had in mind: Among those offered Cabinet posts were four terrorist groups — Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine — though all rebuffed Arafat’s offer.

It is still unclear who will head the new centralized security apparatus. Three on the short list are Mohammad Dahlan, head of the Preventive Security Service in the Gaza Strip; Gen. Abdul Razek Yihya, who has been involved in negotiations with Israel in the past; and Abdul Razek Majaideh, a Palestinian security commander.

After much speculation that Dahlan would get the job, the Al-Jazeera television network reported Monday that Arafat had opted for Razek Yihya. The report could not be confirmed.

In any case, Arafat has refused to give up overall control of the security services, saying that he must serve as interior minister, with the new security commander as his deputy.

Arafat likewise refuses to give up control of Palestinian Authority finances. He also is refusing to appoint a prime minister, continuing a pattern he has followed throughout his career of blocking other Palestinian officials from accumulating too much power.

The result, Israeli officials warn, is a continuation of Arafat’s absolute rule under the guise of reform. With no prime minister running the day-to-day affairs of government, and with his control of armed forces and money assured, Arafat will retain the tools to continue a terrorist onslaught that Israel says is coordinated and financed by the Palestinian Authority.

In other words, Israeli officials warn, it will be business as usual for Arafat. Thus, when CIA Director George Tenet met Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon this week, he heard Sharon’s familiar tune: There will be no real reform as long as Arafat is in power. The solution, according to Sharon, is that Arafat must go.

The problem is that Arafat has no intention of going anywhere. He may have railed against the restrictions on his movement during the Israeli siege of Ramallah, but since his release Arafat has refrained from leaving the Palestinian areas. For the time being he sticks to another favorite hobby — keeping everyone guessing.

When Operation Protective Wall ended a month ago, there was a general feeling in Israel and the Palestinian Authority that something had changed. Surveying the destruction that the intifada had brought on them, many Palestinians called openly for a re-evaluation of P.A. policy and criticized the use of terror.

For a while it seemed as if there was a rare meeting of the minds between Israel and Palestinian reformers. But that illusion was shattered when it became clear that Arafat had no intention of relinquishing or diluting his power.

For Israel, the contradictions can be illustrated by the demand that the Palestinians institute a more transparent democracy. Israel is not interested in Palestinian elections that will strengthen Arafat — yet Arafat will only hold elections if he knows he will win.

It took only a few days after Operation Protective Wall for Israelis to realize that there would be no change in the situation: Terrorist attacks resumed and Arafat condemned them, even while they were being carried out by his party loyalists.

Brig. Gen. Yehiam Sasson, the outgoing head of the anti-terror headquarters in Sharon’s office, said over the weekend that the Palestinian Authority is doing nothing to prevent terror attacks. Avi Dichter, head of the Shin Bet, told the Security Cabinet that it was only thanks to Israeli efforts that as many as 40 suicide attacks had been prevented in the past few weeks.

So what motivates Arafat? First, experts say, is the need to win back the support of his people. Arafat came under particularly fierce criticism for his willingness to allow six Palestinian militants to be jailed under British and American supervision in Jericho — in return for Israel lifting its siege on his compound — and to allow the exile of 13 Palestinians from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Second, Arafat wants to show Israelis that Operation Protective Wall, which so deeply humiliated him, has not ended terrorism.

Third, Arafat continues to believe that violence and terror are the most effective means of achieving Palestinian goals, analysts say.

Another factor seems to be Palestinian mistrust of Sharon. As Israel’s anti-terror incursions into Palestinian areas have become a matter of daily routine, and as a new Jewish neighborhood is planned for eastern Jerusalem, Palestinian trust in Israeli leaders also has fallen to new lows.

NEXT STORY