Al-Ahram Weekly – 19 September 2002
It was the final nail in Yasser Arafat’s coffin, or so some observers in Israel confidently asserted. The forced resignation of all 21 members of Arafat’s cabinet, effectively the collapse of his government, was the dramatic climax to the three- day meeting of the Palestinian Parliament, the Legislative Council, in Ramallah last week.
Arafat had suspected that he would face grievances from the delegates, who have had to endure enforced impotence during most of the Intifada, unable to meet or voice growing complaints about Arafat’s autocratic style, the widespread corruption among his ministers and the Palestinian failure to stop or challenge Israel’s reoccupation of West Bank cities.
In fact Arafat worked hard to prevent the Parliament from convening at all. When MPs first insisted on their constitutional right to vote on his new cabinet — a hasty reshuffle he made in June in response to President Bush’s Middle East speech decrying the regime’s corruption — his officials tried to argue that these were not changes but “corrections”.
But finally Arafat acknowledged the mounting dissatisfaction and agreed to the meeting, hoping to allow the Parliament the freedom to discuss the goals of the Intifada without compromising unity. He expected to use his familiar horse- trading to push through a vote on the cabinet.
But he was caught off-guard by the strength of the mood, even among his own Fatah movement MPs.
As he tried to navigate a difficult course between the demands of the Parliament for greater and speedier reforms and the dictates of the American and Israeli governments, his plans started to unravel.
In a rambling 58-minute speech to the Parliament on the opening day, he repeatedly denounced “attacks against Israeli civilians” saying they drew attention away from Palestinian suffering. The following day his Fatah movement issued a statement pledging to stop attacks inside Israel both because they created world sympathy for Israel and undermined “our moral values”.
Arafat’s remarks were mainly addressed to a foreign audience but he was also replying to recent harsh criticism of his leadership. The most outspoken voice has been that of Nabil Amr, a one-time Arafat loyalist who recently resigned from the cabinet.
In an open letter to the president this month in the Palestinian Authority’s official mouthpiece Al- Hayat Al-Jadida, he wrote that Palestinian institutions were “going through the darkest days in their history”, adding: “We failed to established the rule of law in a manner that would order the relations between the government and the people.”
With little else to offer the delegates, Arafat made only one key concession: he promised that presidential and municipal elections would take place on 20 January. Presenting the current cabinet as a temporary one until the elections, Arafat hoped that the Parliament would be deterred from exercising its right to vote on his ministers.
Most delegates, however, feared that Arafat would later cancel the elections, in effect reneging on the promise.
They were also aware that the Americans and Israelis are unlikely to agree to elections in January. With only three minor candidates declared against Arafat, the US does not want to provide the Palestinian leader with the chance to renew his popular mandate. And Israel opposes an early election because Arafat would be able to use it to harness international pressure to end the occupation of the West Bank so that the vote can be conducted fairly.
Facing a growing rebellion, Speaker Ahmed Qure’ (Abu Alaa) tried various compromises, including offering a vote on only the five new ministers appointed in the June reshuffle.
But one after another the delegates stood up to complain that Arafat had not seriously changed his advisers and had failed to oust most members of the cabinet since their appointment in 1996. As the Parliament planned to press on with a vote of no confidence, Arafat preempted the poll by forcing the ministers to resign en masse.
The Palestinian president now faces the arduous task of forming another cabinet by next week which will win the Parliament’s approval.
There was much glee at Arafat’s alleged “humiliation” in the Israeli media. While Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s officials held to the line that nothing that happened to Arafat was of interest because he was irrelevant, Defence Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer called the events “a struggle between the old and the new order. Maybe a new era has begun.”
One of his ministers was quoted in the daily Maariv newspaper as saying: “We are witnessing the end of (Arafat’s) power against which there is an open rebellion.”
But the Israeli reading was probably optimistic. There were several reasons why parliament members stood up to Arafat, and not all of them are likely to be comforting to Israel.
First, there is a genuine demand for reform, greater openness and more decentralisation, and anger at Arafat’s stubborn refusal to make more concessions. Although there is resentment at US- dictated reforms, they are seen as an opportunity to shake up the regime. One of the most pressing demands made by the Parliament was for the appointment of a prime minister, as a counter- balance to Arafat.
But the Palestinian leader was never likely to yield on this point. He is only too aware that his main use for a prime minister, as a way to deflect criticism away from himself, would scarcely outweigh the disadvantage: the prime minister would provide a public channel for the Israelis and Americas to bypass him. Arafat suspects he would be signing his own death warrant.
Second, the current crop of ministers, both new and old, satisfy no one and offend many of the delegates for different reasons. The old cabinet members are widely seen as Arafat cronies too many of whom have used their positions to line their pockets.
The new appointments, on the other hand, are seen by some MPs as US and Israeli puppets. A comment by the new interior minister, Abdel- Razak Yehiyeh, that “throwing rocks is also a form of terrorism” did not go down well with delegates. There are also suspicions that Yehiyeh and the new finance minister, Salam Fayad, are too cozy with their Israeli counterparts.
Third, many delegates hold either personal grudges or party grievances they wanted to vent publicly and this was their first real opportunity. Jibril Rajoub, who was recently fired as West Bank security chief, bitterly commented after Arafat’s defeat: “I hope he will learn a lesson from what has happened today.”
And as veteran Israeli commentator Danny Rubinstein pointed out, many of the Fatah grouping were angry at having lost their control of the security apparatus in the recent reforms.
Fourth, there is an issue of self-preservation. Most of the delegates will be candidates in the coming elections and they recognise that to be re- elected they need to show they can assert their authority against the government, particularly when so many Palestinians feel they are being let down by the Intifada.
There is little doubt that Arafat has realised that his ability to control the various levers of Palestinian power are slipping. A new responsiveness on his part is required. But this is far from the end for him. Most Palestinians still accept that Arafat is the only individual capable of holding together what is left of their national institutions.
Israelis are tempted to ignore this reality. For most of the Intifada they have believed that Arafat alone has organised and directed the uprising. His latest misfortune has therefore been widely interpreted as a consequence of the sustained Israeli military assault.
As Zvi Barel sardonically commented in the Haaretz daily newspaper, Israelis desperately want to believe that: “Not only did we occupy them, we also fashioned their democracy: a straight line leads from the cannon of the tank to the vote in the Palestinian Parliament.”
But the Parliament is not baring its teeth on Israel’s behalf. It is flexing its democratic muscles on behalf of an increasingly disillusioned Palestinian public. That public shows no signs of resigning itself to the Israeli occupation or losing its appetite for a state with full Palestinian sovereignty.
Al-Ahram Weekly – 19 September 2002