Al-Ahram Weekly – 23 May 2002
Palestinian President Yasser Arafat plunged himself deeper into his promised institutional reforms by agreeing, under pressure from the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), to a six-month deadline for parliamentary and presidential ballots. His pledge, though, has failed to silence critics, domestic and foreign, largely because of the conditions attached. Elections, it was announced, will be held only if Israel withdraws to its September 2000 lines.
Dissatisfaction with Arafat’s handling of the 20- month uprising has been increasingly voiced by Palestinians since he emerged from his besieged Ramallah compound. According to a poll published on Tuesday, popular support for Arafat has dropped from 46 per cent before the Intifada to 35 per cent. Khalil Shikaki, of the Centre for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, which conducted the poll, reported it was the Palestinian leader’s lowest rating in four decades. Arafat’s one consolation is that his nearest rival, Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti, currently imprisoned by Israel, enjoys only 19 per cent support.
The Palestinian president’s attention, though, is currently far more focused on strenuous attempts to rehabilitate his image abroad, particularly in the face of Israel’s relentless campaign to link him to attacks by militant groups.
On Monday Israel claimed documents found during raids last month on PA buildings in the West Bank proved the Palestinian leadership had syphoned money from the EU’s monthly $9 million donations to pay for attacks by the Tanzim and Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, raising fears among the Palestinian leadership that Europe may decide to withdraw its aid, about the only thing propping up Arafat’s ravaged Palestinian Authority.
Meanwhile, the deteriorating situation in the West Bank and Gaza was underlined by the UN World Food Programme which on Tuesday launched an emergency appeal to feed 500,000 of the poorest Palestinians for the rest of the year.
A recent World Bank report found almost half the Palestinian population is living below the official poverty line of $2 a day.
In Israel the vulnerability of Ariel Sharon’s unity government was highlighted on Monday when one of his most powerful coalition partners, the religious Shas Party, voted against proposed budget cuts that would have reduced benefits for large families. Austerity measures are needed to reduce a budget deficit bloated by the cost of the army’s recent invasion of the West Bank.
Sharon dismissed the four Shas cabinet ministers, giving them 48 hours to reconsider. A second vote on the budget passed comfortably yesterday after Shas members absented themselves from the Knesset.
Should Shas exit the coalition, and take the religious United Torah Judaism Party with it, Sharon will control just 60 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. And while some commentators have argued that Sharon could limp on for months in such a situation, others suggest he might risk calling an early election while his personal poll ratings are high and the Labour Party in disarray.
Whatever happens, the dire state of the Israeli economy will remain a running sore. Drastic cuts have to be made and are certain to provoke further feuding within the coalition.
“What smells like elections and looks like elections could end up being elections,” predicted political analyst Yaron Deckel.
The chances of Arafat being forced into early elections are slimmer. His insistence, both on an Israeli withdrawal and on the participation of voters in east Jerusalem, means Israel must end its closure policy and dismantle roadblocks throughout the occupied territories before elections can be held.
There is not much hope Sharon will oblige. This week the army tightened restrictions on movement in the West Bank by introducing special permits needed for travel between towns. Nor does Sharon have any interest in ending Arafat’s “irrelevance” and bolstering his image as a legitimate partner in a peace process to which Sharon has never subscribed.
For Arafat the risks of losing a presidential election — were it to take place — are small. The only declared challenger so far is 54-year-old social science professor from Nablus, Abdul-Sattar Qasem, a dissident veteran of both Palestinian and Israeli jails. Arafat is far more likely to fear any popular demand for elections to be extended to local councils, for that would open the door for Hamas and Islamic Jihad to contest seats.