The recent explosion of international demands that the Palestinian Authority (PA) become more democratic, transparent and accountable is a phenomenon rich with irony. Palestinian activists have long maintained that the PA's failure to establish democratic governance and the rule of law diminishes not only their personal freedom but also the Palestinian struggle for statehood. But it is a complaint that, until the past two weeks, has received precious little support from the governments of Israel or the United States.
Both Israel and the United States have tended to see Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's authoritarian rule as consistent with their desire for him to suppress terrorism and political opposition to the Oslo accords. The late Yitzhak Rabin once said that the Oslo accords provided him with a surrogate security force that would fight Palestinian terrorism without having to answer to Israel's Supreme Court or B'tzelem, the prominent Israeli human rights organization. And Clinton administration officials seemed to believe that pressing Arafat on the issue of reform would distract from their efforts to press him on issues of peace. Instead, concern about good governance has come largely from Palestinians themselves. For example, the first documented accusation of misappropriation of funds by the PA in 1997 was leveled by a Palestinian Legislative Council oversight committee, which at the time -- speaking of ironies -- was headed by Marwan Barghouti, now in prison in Israel on charges of coordinating armed attacks by the Tanzim, the paramilitary wing of Arafat's Fatah movement. So while the PA urgently needs reform, it is not a subject on which Palestinian activists need lectures. Their reaction to the sudden passion for reform among countries previously indifferent to the absence of the rule of law in the PA -- as long as it was arresting terrorists -- is "where have you guys been until now?"
Some members of the international community have been paying attention. European countries pressed for transparency and accountability as soon as the Oslo accords created the PA. The European Commission and the government of Norway funded an independent task force that I coordinated at the Council on Foreign Relations, which issued a report entitled "Strengthening Palestinian Public Institutions" in June 1999. The report recommended far-reaching reforms based on research by a 30-person panel of experts, composed overwhelmingly of Palestinians. Praised and largely unimplemented at the time, these recommendations -- which I discussed last week with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, then with Israeli cabinet members, as well as with Arafat and his senior aides -- would still provide a good foundation for reform.
The task force found that even with the PA's many shortcomings, its abuse of public office, excessive bureaucracy and restrictions on individual freedoms are less egregious than that of most Arab countries, which are not being pressured to reform. Despite prevailing myths about the corruption and incompetence of the PA, the diversion of development funds from donor countries has been marginal, albeit largely because of the strict controls put in place by those countries.
Nevertheless, the 1999 study found that the changes needed were formidable. They included:
- Adopting a formal constitution that would reduce the power of the PA president and delegate greater authority to ministries and local governments.
- Providing for a truly independent judiciary and abolishing state security courts. The PA set up a separate extra-judicial system, the security courts, which operate without due process or representation. At its own discretion, the PA leadership routes cases to these courts, where the accused can be punished by summary execution.
- Establishing financial openness and accountability by presenting to the Palestinian Legislative Council a detailed, timely budget that fully discloses public revenues and expenses, including those of quasi-state monopolies. These monopolies control the import of items such as cigarettes, fuel and cement, but did not report their income, assets or expenditures.
- Consolidating police and security forces and bringing them under clear civilian authority. The proliferation of security forces is a violation of the Oslo accords and, more important, diminishes security because of rivalries between them.
- Reducing the public payroll to ease the financial burden and to make services more effective. Arafat has bought loyalty by putting people on the PA payroll even if they had no clearly defined jobs or qualifications. This strained current budgets, and incurred massive long-term obligations because those people were granted extensive social and retirement benefits.
The systemic weaknesses of the PA's public institutions were confirmed by the events that followed the collapse of the Camp David talks and the onset of the al-Aqsa intifada. Within days of the onset of Palestinian violence and the devastating military response by Israeli forces, the PA's government reached a state of near collapse. Ministries and agencies ceased to function or proved unable to deliver services or guidance to the public. The executive and legislative branches failed to formulate policies or take measures to deal with the enveloping political, economic and social crisis. Palestinian society and politics have become militarized, threatening the reassertion of civilian rule and values once the violence subsides.
Sadly, two PA ministries that didn't fail -- and which had earlier established standards envied in much of the Arab world -- were reduced to rubble by Israeli attacks. Despite Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's professed concern about Palestinian education reform, Israeli Defense Forces engaged in gratuitous vandalism, destroying school buildings, school records, computers and lab equipment that will take the PA years to replace.
Overhauling the PA's institutions will be no small challenge judging from our earlier experience. In response to the task force's original recommendations, Arafat established a cabinet-level committee in late 1999 to develop priorities for the implementation of the recommended reforms, in consultation with the task force and international agencies, including the World Bank, European Union, International Monetary Fund and United Nations.
The committee began its work with great enthusiasm but soon ran into a stone wall. The only significant reforms were implemented in the finance ministry, primarily a consolidation of the PA's budget and an independent audit of its various monopolies, but there has been backsliding even in this area. There has been no progress whatever in establishing an independent judiciary; the courts remain in a state of catastrophic disrepair, and the Palestinian Legislative Council has been largely marginalized.
Last week Arafat finally signed the Judiciary Law and the Basic Law adopted by the council several years ago, but their implementation remains highly uncertain. With the exception of the ministries of education and health, most departments are dysfunctional, unclear about their tasks and unprepared to perform them effectively. The special committee formed by Arafat to implement the task force's recommendations ceased functioning within its first year. Arafat disregarded the group's urgings to let an independent team of professionals oversee the entire reform process.
Arafat's speech before the Palestinian Legislative Council on May 15, in which he admitted past mistakes and promised a new era of reform, was not much of a departure from his previous pronouncements on the subject. But given the intensity of domestic clamor and international pressures for change, Arafat may have finally concluded that he must assume ownership of the reform process as the only way to regain the confidence of his people, not to mention the international community. The next day, the legislative council president, Abu Ala, handed Arafat a short list of proposed reforms that closely tracked our task force's plan.
But linking demands for domestic reform with calls for Arafat's removal from leadership, as Sharon and others have done, will bring what may be an incipient reform process to a dead halt. Palestinians are none too happy with their leader these days. Disappointed with the PA, many of them also believe that Arafat was too submissive to Sharon's demands in order to end his imprisonment in Ramallah and the siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. They also blame him for failing to stop the growth of Jewish settlements, which according to a new report issued by B'tzelem, now places 42 percent of the West Bank under Israel's control.
But even the most outspoken Palestinian critics of the Palestinian leader will rise to his defense if they see evidence that the mantra of reform has become a tool for removing Arafat and delaying the peace process. Palestinians know that Sharon could not care less if Attila the Hun were the head of the PA, and that his newfound fervor for Palestinian democracy and accountability is a pretext to avoid a peace process and the creation of a Palestinian state.
President Bush has wisely disassociated himself from Sharon's calls for the replacement of Arafat, as well as from Sharon's demand that reform of the PA be a precondition for the resumption of a peace process. The more firmly Bush distances himself from Sharon's exploitation of the reform agenda, and insists that the agenda be pursued in parallel with political negotiations, the better the chances that both goals -- reform and peace -- will be achieved.
Henry Siegman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, is director of the Independent Task Force on Palestinian Institution
Building. He was in Israel for consultations last week.