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Panel Criticizes Extent of Arafat's Power

Author: Deborah Sontag
June 29, 1999
The New York Times

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Panel Criticizes Extent of Arafat's Power

by Deborah Sontag

Ramallah, West Bank — Yasir Arafat, president of the

Palestinian Authority, has concentrated executive power so completely in his own hands that he personally approves all senior officials’ vacations and their per diem expenses, an international study released here Monday found.

Arafat has used government jobs to ease unemployment and to reward political loyalty to such an extent, the report says, that the public sector is bloated, inefficient and risks incurring staggering debts to pay pensions.

The Palestinian Legislative Council is relatively impotent, the judiciary is in disarray, unregulated monopolies rule many industries, and the police force abuses its powers. Yet, compared with the governments of many infant countries, the Palestinian Authority, whose West Bank and Gaza territories are not even a state, is managing openly and spending well the billions of dollars in aid that it receives from international donors.

Those are some of the conclusions presented here Monday by an American-European panel sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and paid for by the European Commission and the government of Norway. The panel, led by former Prime Minister Michel Rocard of France, has spent a year evaluating Palestinian public institutions with the cooperation of the Palestinians.

On Tuesday, the group, a high-powered assembly of former European prime ministers and American legislators, is to present its recommendations formally to Arafat.

The committee leavened its critical findings with compassion for the Palestinian Authority. It is not easy to evolve overnight from a secretive authoritarian military organization in exile like the Palestine Liberation Organization into a pluralistic government whose financial records are accurate and open, Rocard said.

In its five years of life, the authority has gone further down the path toward building democratic institutions, securing public order and delivering services to its rapidly growing population than many comparable "post-conflict" governments, the group said.

"Have Africa in mind, please," Rocard said.

Palestinian journalists at a news conference here said the dynamic— wrapping harsh assessments in praise—reminded them of this Arabic saying: After hitting someone over the head, you must readjust his cap.

But the panel, which will continue to function as a consultant to the Palestinians, seemed determined to develop a critical-minded partnership with the authority and to goad it toward secular democracy.

That reflects, in part, the international community’s determination to make sure that its $3.3 billion in assistance, pledged for five years, is not spent on a government in training that is corrupt, inefficient and abusive toward its citizens.

The report also underscores the fact that the Palestinians now enjoy significant political good will around the world, particularly from the Europeans, who consider the emerging Palestinian society a pet project.

"The five-year-old story of the Palestinian Authority is a story of success," Terje Roed-Larsen, a special adviser to the Norwegian foreign minister, said. "Why? Because the Palestinian Authority has built its institutions under extremely difficult circumstances."

Roed-Larsen referred to the many impasses in the peace negotiations with Israel, which demanded that the Palestinians build "their new house" while traveling on a bumpy road to statehood. He noted that the Palestinians had been more closely scrutinized than any other "entity recipient of donor money on this globe."

That said, the committee’s report suggested that it was a matter of great urgency for the Palestinian Authority to "acknowledge its own shortcomings" and change.

"Not to reform is not an option," Henry Siegman, the project director and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said. "The World Bank and the IMF will participate in the next phase, and they will be looking closely at the trend lines, at whether there is movement toward reform."

The report recommended that the Palestinians carry out these activities, among others:

  • Establish a constitution, a move that Arafat has delayed.

  • Pare the president’s office by delegating added authority to the ministries and local governments.

  • Grant greater power to the Legislative Council, which, the report says, the president stifles.

  • Abolish the secretive state security courts and provide more support to an independent judicial system.

  • Establish more financial openness and accountability by, at the least, presenting a detailed and timely budget to the Legislature and disclosing public revenues.

  • Bring the police force under clear civilian authority, and, as the Israelis demand, reduce its size substantially.

When Arafat learned of the criticisms in an informal meeting, Siegman and others recounted, he suggested that he was being judged too harshly. For instance, what the Americans and Europeans see as a bloated payroll, he explained, he sees as a political management tool.

"He told us that if these people were not on the public payroll, they’d be in the streets causing problems for him, and then we’d be asking him to keep better control of the streets," Siegman said. "He argued that we overstated everything, that he’s not running Monaco, and that he has people inside and outside who want him to fail."

The report, at least in the executive summary released Monday, does not deeply examine two problems that the authority’s critics have considered paramount: financial corruption, which involves the revenues that the authority collects, not international money, and human rights violations.

One Palestinian official noted that the entire leadership of the European Commission, which financed the committee, had stepped down after accusations of cronyism and corruption had been made. "So what we are supposedly doing is perhaps not that remarkable," the official said.

At the news conference, the Palestinians’ planning and international cooperation minister, Nabil Shaath, said, "Questions about human rights have already been dealt with."

Open dissent is allowed in the West Bank and Gaza, Shaath said, adding that at a new police academy, which five European donors are financing, police are undergoing training in human rights and interrogations.

Shaath said Arafat declined to approve a constitution until the Palestinians had their own state.

Asked about the extent of Arafat’s authority, Shaath said the issue was Arafat’s tendency to micromanage rather than his abuse of power.

"Learning to delegate minor decisions is relevant for every leader," he said. "Our president works 18 hours a day, and he doesn’t feel the fatigue. Time management is not one of his big issues. But we can bring it up with him."