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Is the Palestinian Authority significant?

by Ephraim Inbar

The premise of the Oslo process was that, since the Israelis have failed to govern the territories successfully (Jews seem to be unfit for an occupying role), they should find a suitable Palestinian to do it effectively, someone who, in the words of the late Yitzhak Rabin, can act "without the High Court and without B'Tselem" (i.e., would not be troubled by its citizens having recourse to the High Court and civil rights organizations). Israelis were led to believe that Arafat suited the role of leader who could establish a Palestinian entity that would have good neighborly relations with Israel.

This did not work very well, primarily because of Arafat's governing style and political ambitions. He was unwilling to suppress the armed opposition groups (Hamas and Islamic Jihad) that continued to engage in terrorism against Israel. Moreover, the Palestinian Authority (PA) expanded its own military capabilities by an increase in the number of armed soldiers and by equipping them with mortars, anti-tank weapons and man portable anti-aircraft missiles, all in flagrant violation of signed agreements with Israel. In fact, Arafat allowed the PA and its security organs to turn into what Israel Defense Force Chief of General Staff Shaul Mofaz called "a terrorist entity," which holds radical aspirations such as the relocation of numerous Palestinian refugees to Israel.

Arafat seems unable to rule, i.e., to maintain a modicum of law and order in the territories under his control. We are witnessing the beginning of the "Lebanonization" of the PA, which is indicated by the emergence of a myriad of armed groups displaying only partial loyalty to Arafat. In addition, the deteriorating economic situation generated by limited access to the Israeli market creates demands upon the PA, which it is unable to meet, furthering the erosion in its authority and legitimacy.

Such challenges are reinforced by widespread Palestinian perceptions of the ruling elite as corrupt and authoritarian. The PA increasingly fails to provide basic needs, such as personal security and a minimum standard of living for its citizens. We may soon see the breakdown of the PA into several cantons effectively ruled by new barons, who have almost full monopoly over arms in their fiefdoms. The PA may well turn into a failed state.

The desire to prevent the anarchical characteristic of failed states is understandable and this is the main motivation for the attempts to save and strengthen Arafat. Yet the belief that Arafat can change and behave reasonably, or that a strong PA is beneficial for Israel, is questionable.

In short, Arafat and his coterie are part of the problem and not of the solution. Therefore, we should think about a third option (in addition to Israeli occupation and Arafat's rule)--chaos. This is not a pleasant thought. Chaos in the territories poses a security problem to Israel. Such a problem is less acute if the fragmented Palestinian armed groups do not coordinate their low-intensity conflict against Israel. Anarchy in the territories may allow Israel a freer hand in dealing with the terrorists.

Indeed, a situation of chaos might ultimately yield positive results. The collapse of the PA will weaken the young Palestinian national movement. Palestinian nationalism has been a source of endemic violence in the past and is a recipe for regional instability in the future. It threatens at least two "nice" states--Israel and Jordan--and has continuously supported policies of radical regimes such as Iraq and Libya. It is also thoroughly anti-American.

The collapse of the PA and the failure of the Palestinian national movement to establish a successful state might reduce the appetite of the Palestinians for an independent entity. Although failures rarely affect the political fortunes of Arab leaders (as with Egyptian President Gamel Abdul Nasser or Iraqi President Saddam Hussein), Arafat as a symbol of the Palestinian national movement might be seriously tainted in the case of the PA falling apart, and this could bring to the forefront a more realistic and conciliatory leadership.

It is misleading to portray Hamas as the only alternative to Arafat. It is his current ally. Moreover, the disintegration of the PA would be a public relations debacle for the Palestinians and would elicit greater understanding in the world for Israeli fears of its destructive implications.

Disorder in the territories could be the incentive for fresh thinking on the Palestinian issue on the part of the Palestinians, as well as elsewhere. More chaos in the Palestinian-ruled territories might open up new opportunities to stabilize the situation. The internecine violence of the previous Intifada led to acceptance of the Madrid conference formula--a clear indication of growing political realism among the Palestinians. The failed PA experiment could be a sobering experience leading to a more politically mature body politic.

Chaos as an interim situation is not necessarily the worst-case scenario. Therefore, Israel might have an interest in Arafat taking a fall.- Published 19/11/01 (c) bitterlemons.org

Efraim Inbar is Professor of Political Studies at Bar- Ilan University and the Director of its Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies.


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