Al-Ahram Weekly – 4 July 2002
It was presumably not what US President George W Bush had in mind last week when he proclaimed in his Middle East speech that a new Palestinian leadership must emerge before talks could begin on the shape of an interim Palestinian state.
Hossam Nazzal, a 41-year-old political unknown, faxed a letter to the Palestinian Authority on Monday declaring his candidacy against Yasser Arafat for the presidential elections due next January. Nazzal, a psychiatrist from the West Bank town of Jenin, has been living in France for the past 16 years.
His name will be added to a very short list: so far the only other contender is Abdel-Sattar Qassem, a 54-year- old dissident academic from Al-Najah University in Nablus.
Serious political rivals to Arafat lost no time in lining up behind him. Even Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who is under house arrest in Gaza City, was allowed out last Friday by Palestinian security officials to attend a rally protesting US attempts to oust Arafat.
The latest polls of Palestinian public opinion also suggest blanket support: according to reports nine out of 10 voters say they will vote for Arafat. The succession battle engineered by Bush, it seems, is already blowing up in his face.
Early collateral damage (at least in the view of the White House) was Mohamed Dahlan, the former head of security in Gaza. He was widely assumed to be preparing a political challenge to Arafat but, like other Palestinian leaders, quickly realised no one will beat the president in an election instigated by Washington.
Writing in Britain’s daily newspaper The Guardian on Tuesday, he said: “As long as the Israelis are against Arafat, I’m with him, whatever reservations I have about some of the decisions that have been made.” He reiterated the point in interviews with the Times and the BBC.
Dahlan, a pragmatist who much respected by his former counterparts in Israeli security, is one of the few senior Palestinians admired by the White House, a taint that will be hard for him to brush off.
He accused the US of “demanding a coup d’état” against Arafat and added that should either America or Israel try to expel or kill him “they will come to regret it bitterly”.
Dahlan’s words were carefully weighed to distance himself from the Americans and to leave the door ajar for a challenge if more favourable circumstances arise.
Arafat, who was said to be pleased with the Guardian article, later sacked one of Dahlan’s main rivals, Jibril Rajoub, the head of West Bank security, and Ghazi Jibali, Gaza’s police chief. The shakeup follows intense pressure from the US to reform the PA’s unwieldy security services.
The popular Palestinian rejection of Bush’s dictate, however, did nothing to curb White House enthusiasm for Arafat’s removal.
Bush himself, realising he had only one stick with which to beat the Palestinian people, started drumming it noisily on the table. He announced at the G8 summit in Calgary last week that he was sure the Palestinians would “make the right decisions”, adding: “We won’t be putting money into a society which is not transparent and [is] corrupt.”
Although the US does not give money directly to the PA, it is estimated that it contributes some $200 million a year in aid through organisations like the World Bank and the UN.
The harshest blow to the Palestinian leader was delivered by the US administration’s lonely dove, Secretary-of-State Colin Powell. In a humiliating U-turn, he was forced to renounce Arafat in two US television interviews on Sunday.
“At the moment we are not dealing with him,” he told Fox News. Asked if the US would resume contacts with Arafat, Powell said: “I don’t expect so because his leadership is flawed.”
Some diplomats privately expressed fears that, if current US policy continues, the Palestinian leadership may be forced underground, allowing even freer rein to militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
The consensus in Washington on Arafat’s removal is not mirrored in the Arab states or Europe. Both prefer to stress their support for Bush’s insistence on general reforms of the PA rather than leadership change.
A usually compliant ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, even risked Bush’s ire by approving a meeting between a Foreign Office minister, Mike O’Brien, and Arafat in Ramallah on Tuesday. Blair repeated his view that “it’s for the Palestinians to elect the people that they choose to elect.”
The Americans were also rebuked by one of their closest regional allies, Saudi Arabia. Prince Nawaf Bin Abdel-Aziz, the head of the intelligence services, told the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper: “The kingdom is against any intervention in the internal affairs of the Palestinians.”
In a sign of Washington’s discomfort, a senior US state department official, William Burns, hurried to London on Tuesday to meet with other Quartet officials. He was reported to have told them that the US decision to sever ties with Arafat was final. But he had a rough ride shoring up support for US policy and the other parties insisted they would maintain contacts.
Everyone, apart from the White House, is concerned with the problem of who will fill the vacuum at the head of the PA that was created by the Bush speech. Even if a credible challenger to Arafat can be found and is elected, both highly improbable scenarios, there will be no leadership change until elections in January. That is, of course, unless Israel and Washington know otherwise.