Dr. Barsalou is director of the grant program at the U.S. Institute of Peace. These views are her own and not necessarily those of USIP.
Elections. For several years, the PLC has requested that Arafat designate dates for municipal, presidential and legislative elections. Only after Arafat came under intense domestic and international pressure in May 2002 did he announce that elections would be held on January 20, 2003 – subsequently postponed indefinitely.Although Palestinian political reform lately has become the subject of intense discussion in Washington, the subject is hardly a new one. Reform has been an interest of the Palestinians dating from “Black September” and the eviction of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) from Jordan in 1970-71. Since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1994, it has also been the refrain of an increasingly vocal Palestinian opposition and the object of concern for ordinary Palestinians dismayed by PA inefficiency and corruption. By contrast, international interest in and support for Palestinian reform has been inconsistent and of shorter duration. The United States and Israel until recently turned a blind eye to Palestinian mismanagement and corruption, although they now insist on reform as a precondition to the resumption of negotiations and the establishment of a Palestinian state. The European Union, as the PA’s single largest donor, placed pressure on the PA during the Oslo period to create more effective and accountable governing institutions, but it too remained primarily interested in the successful conclusion of the Oslo process.
Significant obstacles, both internal and external, must be reduced or removed before reform can take hold. Internal obstacles stem from the fact that the Palestinians have no prior experience of self-governance and live in a semi-traditional society. Complicating matters, Palestinians from across the political spectrum now view international demands for reform not only as a delaying tactic while Israel builds new settlements and consolidates its hold on the occupied territories but also as a subversion of the internal Palestinian struggle for reform.
External obstacles include, most importantly, the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, which has weakened the Palestinian economy and impeded the development of political institutions.
This article addresses three main questions: Who is calling for Palestinian reform and why? What kinds of reforms are contemplated, and what has been accomplished to date? And, finally, what are the major obstacles to reform?
Voice for Reform
Pressures for reform have emanated from four main sources: first and foremost from within the Palestinian community, and, to a lesser extent, from the United States, Israel and the EU.
Defeat and adversity were the early wellsprings of Palestinian pressures to implement significant political and institutional reforms. Voices calling for reform could be heard after eviction of the PLO from Jordan in 1970-71 and from Lebanon in 1982. At the heart of Palestinian dissent were dissatisfaction with the authoritarian leadership style of Yasser Arafat and his close colleagues, and with the shortcomings of Palestinian political institutions, which had become centers of political cronyism, patronage and corruption.1 Advocates for change included individuals and groups from within the main Palestinian political structures – including the Fatah movement and other PLO groups – as well as political factions and leading Palestinian intellectuals outside the PLO.
Pressure for of the PLC (such as Ziad Abu Amr and Hanan Ashrawi), leading NGO activists (such as Mustapha Barghouthi), Palestinian intellectuals (such as Yezid Sayigh), and political activists operating in groups ranging from left-leaning parties to Islamic factions.2
By 1997, in the face of a growing list of serious human-rights violations committed against Palestinians by various PA security forces, the PLC had become more deeply engaged in the issues of not only financial reform but also respect for human rights. By this time, public-sector monopolies established by the Palestinian leadership were in operation and were contributing to the deterioration of the Palestinian economy. That same year, the Palestinian comptroller issued a report stating that fully two-thirds of the PA budget had been either misspent or reform resurfaced in the Oslo era shortly after the establishment of the PA in 1994.
Within a year, a report issued by the Palestinian comptroller stating that the PA had mismanaged approximately $250 million served to focus the attention of the newly formed Palestinian Legislative Council illegally diverted.3 A PLC committee issued its own report,4 and Arafat formed a cabinet-level commission to investigate the comptroller’s claims. Both the PLC and the commission confirmed the comptroller’s findings.
Concern about the pressing need for reform reemerged (PLC) on the need for stronger fiscal management and institutional reform. As the PA became more firmly established, polling data documented the increasing perception among Palestinians that the PA was corrupt and inefficient. In time, pressure for serious reform came primarily from four quarters – prominent members strongly in the Palestinian community following Israel’s “Operation Defensive Shield” in March 2002 and in subsequent months, during which Israel reoccupied most of the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinian frustration and anger, including from within the Fatah faction itself, were directed not only at Israel but also at the Palestinian leadership, which had failed to foresee and prevent the disastrous consequences of the renewal of violent conflict against Israel.
Israel and the United States
During the Oslo period, attention to the need for Palestinian reform was a hit-and-miss proposition for Israel and the United States, which were primarily focused on keeping the negotiations on track and on maintaining Israel’s security. According to Palestinian political scientist Khalil Shikaki,
The Israelis were . . . interested in fostering a Palestinian leadership that would negotiate acceptable final status terms . . . . Consequently, the Israeli government often looked favorably upon Palestinian elites who were amenable to Israeli needs – not just vital security needs, but the political needs of a given administration. As a result, the Israelis had a direct role in fostering corruption and mismanagement in the early days of the PA.
While the United States has invested some $75 million in democracy promotion in the West Bank and Gaza, it, too, strongly supported Arafat’s one-man rule until recently. Like Israel, it was anxious to maintain a Palestinian government that would take seriously Israel’s security and other needs. Vice President Al Gore famously called for the PA State Security Court, notorious for its summary trials and executions, to try Palestinians believed to present security risks to Israel. As Henry Siegman, the project director of a Council on Foreign Relations report on Palestinian reform, observed, “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.”9
For its part, Israel took up the call for reform in May 2002, when Ariel Sharon demanded wide-ranging reform as a precondition for a return to negotiations. In a speech to the Knesset on May 14, 2002, Sharon expanded on his previous insistence on total and prolonged cessation of Palestinian violence before negotiations could resume. He now specified that the PA “must undergo basic structural reforms in all areas – security, economic, legal and social,” followed by a lengthy period during which Palestinians prove to Israel “that they are for a true peace.”10 Sharon subsequently insisted that nothing less than Arafat’s removal would do.
The Bush administration quickly responded to Israel’s cue. In a statement delivered on June 24, 2002, President Bush called for major reform of the PA, an end to Palestinian terrorism, economic reforms, free elections, and the removal of Arafat from power before the United States would support Palestinian statehood.
Paradoxically, the Bush administration appears to be ready to overturn the outcome of Palestinian elections if Arafat is returned to power through the ballot box.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration has announced a new initiative to encourage democratization throughout the broader Arab region. In December 2002, Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered a major address to announce the creation of the “Middle East Partnership Initiative” based on reforms in three areas: the promotion of economic and private-sector reform, the strengthening of civil-society organizations and political participation, and the encouragement of educational reforms to close the “knowledge gap.” These large ambitions are not matched, however, by a significant financial commitment. Powell indicated that only $29 million has been set aside for the program, with the possibility of a more substantial commitment when Congress convenes in early 2003.
The EU has taken a somewhat different view. In addition to wanting the Oslo negotiating process to conclude successfully, the EU was more strongly committed to Palestinian reform than the United States or Israel because of its status as the single largest donor to the PA.11
In June 1999, the Norwegian government financed a report released by a high level commission led by former French Prime Minister Michel Rocard and published by the Council on Foreign Relations.12 Written principally by Palestinians, the report reviewed the performance of PA institutions and recommended a number of changes, to no substantial effect.
Yet, despite the lack of serious progress on not only passing but implementing reforms, the EU remains committed to keeping the PA afloat. It currently spends some $20 million a month propping up Palestinian institutions and infrastructure. In December 2002, the EU approved an additional $8.1 million earmarked to fund an observer mission for Palestinian elections originally scheduled for January 2002, and to aid the Palestinian reform effort.13 This follows a pattern established over the years, in which Europe has become the weaker member of a partnership in which the United States provides military aid and political support to Israel and the EU underwrites the PA. The EU is deeply frustrated that this partnership has not yielded it greater influence over developments in Israel, the Palestinian territories or Washington, DC.
A conference convened in January 2003 by the British government on Palestinian reform fell flat. Although attended by mediators form the “Quartet,” (the United States, the United Nations, the EU and Russia), Palestinian leaders were absent because Israel refused to issue the necessary travel permits. One Israeli observer concluded, “The British, no doubt in consultation with the Americans, organized the London conference to send a message to the Arab states: We in the West may be dealing with Iraq, but we definitely have not forgotten the Palestinian problem and won’t neglect it.”14
The EU, the United States and Israel all appear to have reconsidered their earlier positions on elections. The EU has stood behind the PA’s decision to postpone elections indefinitely. Responding to the PA announcement, Christopher Patten, the EU commissioner of internal relations, argued, “You can’t have free elections if there is no free movement in the territories and if there are tanks in the street.”15 Raanan Gissin, adviser to Ariel Sharon, immediately accused Arafat of trying to cling to power by postponing the elections. Yet, both the United States and Israel in recent months have indicated that they think the PA should implement political reforms first – by which they essentially mean the removal of Arafat from operational control of the government – to be followed by elections.
From the late 1990s onward, six major concerns have dominated the efforts of would-be Palestinian reformers:16
- Constitutional reform, notably the signing and implementation of the Basic Law. The Basic Law outlines the constitutional framework governing the PA as it exercises authority during the transitional period between the signing of the Oslo agreements and the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state. Passed by the PLC in 1997, the Basic Law was not signed into law by Arafat until May 2002, when siege conditions that suspended the normal operation of the PA rendered it stillborn.
- The PLO-PA relationship. Since the inception of the PA in 1994 and the return of the PLO leadership from exile in Tunis, the overlapping jurisdictions of PLO and PA functions and powers have created a highly confusing situation. The problem is embodied in Arafat himself, who continues to wear multiple hats, the most important of which include the chairmanship of the Executive Committee of the PLO, the presidency of the PA, and the presidency of the Fatah Central Committee. Reformers have called for a clear separation between the PLO and a Palestinian state that may eventually be established.
- Judicial independence and the rule of law. In December 1998, the PLC passed the Judicial System Law guaranteeing judicial independence, but Arafat did not ratify it until May 2002. Implementation of the law is another matter. Almost immediately after the law was ratified, and under pressure from the United States and Israel, the Palestinian cabinet overturned a Palestinian High Court decision to release Ahmad Sadat, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who was being held without charge by the PA. Further evidence of the emptiness of judicial reform under Arafat was provided in late October, when the Palestinian State Security Court imposed death sentences on two Palestinians accused of collaborating with Israel. This court should have ceased functioning when Arafat ratified the Basic Law and the Judicial System Law in May, because neither law mentions the existence of a State Security Court.17
- Elections. For several years, the PLC has requested that Arafat designate dates for municipal, presidential and legislative elections. Only after Arafat came under intense domestic and international pressure in May 2002 did he announce that elections would be held on January 20, 2003 – subsequently postponed indefinitely.
- Corruption, accountability and leaner government. Widespread evidence of corruption – visible, among other ways, in the building of palatial homes by government ministers – has become a significant concern of Palestinians. PLC member Ziad Abu Amr has commented that “during the first eight years of the PA’s operation not one senior PA office was questioned, tried or held accountable for ineptitude, misuse of public funds, abuses of public office or any other violations of law.”18 Merit based civil-service recruitment, standardization of pay, and more effective management of scarce public financial resources are a few of the additional reforms needed to make government more efficient and accountable.
- Reform of the PA security forces. Until March 2002, an astonishingly large number of separate security forces – 22 according to some counts – were in operation. Reformers in the Palestinian territories and abroad have called for a reduction in the number of security forces, the removal of leaders notorious for the violation of human rights, and the creation of a hierarchical chain of command. Although Arafat has replaced some security-force leaders, he has shown little inclination to undertake the complete reform that is needed, and is unable to do so as long as the siege-like conditions under which the PA has operated since March 2002 continue.
Obstacles to Reform
Impediments to Palestinian reform are of two types: internal and external.
Palestinian political culture has been shaped by divisions within Palestinian society and by the dispersion of the Palestinian people. Throughout the early years of the Palestinian national movement, the Palestinians failed to develop strong, centralized leadership to bridge these divisions, and, as a result, multiple political and military factions vied with the emergent Palestinian Liberation Organization for preeminence. Driven out of Jordan and Lebanon, the PLO regained some of its strength in exile in Tunis in the 1980s. Following the signing of the Declaration of Principles in September 1993, the PLO leadership returned from exile in 1994 to dominate newly created Palestinian Authority institutions that coexisted in an uncertain relationship with PLO institutions.
Yet, even before the reemergence of the PLO leadership in Gaza and the West Bank, Arafat and his PLO colleagues found themselves in constant competition with a highly educated, independent Palestinian leadership composed primarily of civil-society leaders who had cut their teeth under Israeli occupation between 1967 and 1993, and who insisted on more democratic, accountable and transparent government. At odds with what Khalil Shikaki has termed the “old guard” leadership, this younger generation of grass-roots leaders has fought against a traditional Palestinian political culture in which corruption, anti-institutionalism and personalistic rule comfortably coexist.19
While it is true that open criticism of Arafat and the PLO leadership was tolerated throughout the formative years of the PLO, Palestinian society itself remains semi-traditional and neo-patriarchal in character. Having lived previously under the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate and Israeli occupation, Palestinians have no prior experience of self-governance, let alone democratic rule. The political culture and leadership style of the PLO reflects these antecedents, and tensions between the “old guard” and “young guard” are likely to be a continuing theme in internal Palestinian politics for some time to come.
Two hard realities also pose external impediments to Palestinian reform: continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, including the associated collapse of the Palestinian economy and the PA administrative institutions; and unrealistic time frames and expectations for reform held by outside actors.
Even at its high point at the end of the Oslo period, the Palestinians exercised complete administrative and security control over only 19 percent of the West Bank (Area A). Israel continued to exercise both administrative and security control over 59 percent (Area C), while the PA and Israel extended joint control over the remaining 22 percent (Area B).
PA sovereignty even over Area A narrowed dramatically following Operation Defensive Shield in March 2002, when Israel reoccupied all but one Palestinian city. During that military operation and in subsequent forays, Israeli troops systematically targeted PA government offices, destroying files and computers in some cases and carrying them off for further inspection in others. Many police stations, courthouses, schools and offices were also damaged or destroyed. Strict closures further reduced the ability of Palestinians to travel within their own cities and villages, let alone between cities. Arafat himself was confined to his Ramallah headquarters, which was largely destroyed around him. PA capacity to govern has reached an all-time low.
The weakening of the PA has been accompanied by the dramatic decline of the Palestinian economy. Already undermined by decades of occupation, the economic crisis has achieved emergency proportions, arousing concern even within Israel itself that Palestinian society is edging closer to collapse. According to a briefing in October 2002 provided by Major General Amos Gilad – the Israeli government’s coordinator in the occupied territories – more than 60 percent of West Bank residents and 80 percent of Gaza residents live below the World Bank poverty line on less than $2 per day. Two out of three Palestinians now depend on external humanitarian aid to survive.20 A health survey of the West Bank and Gaza completed by the Johns Hopkins University in late summer 2002 indicated that malnutrition is rampant. Such conditions make the achievement of PA reform significantly more difficult.
Concerned about the situation, the United States in December increased its pressure on Israel to release tax revenue collected on behalf of the PA but withheld since the beginning of the intifada in September 2000. Israel, which claims that the revenues were being used, in part, to pay the salaries of PA security officers involved in terrorism attacks, has urged the Bush administration to create a “monitoring mechanism” overseen by foreign accountants to prevent the use of PA funds to support terrorism.21 In January 2003, Israel finally signed an agreement with the PA to resume monthly transfers of PA tax revenues.
Lessons Learned About Democratization
Despite the economic and political crisis in the occupied territories, Israel and the United States continue to demand that, before final-status negotiations resume, the Palestinians must achieve significant reforms. Such demands fly in the face of experience gleaned from a decade or so of democracy-building efforts by the United States and its Western allies in a variety of conflict-plagued countries around the world, such as Bosnia and East Timor.22 Past experience shows the following:
- Reform of political and judicial systems is a laborious process that takes years to complete. Moreover, the reform process can begin only after basic security is first in place.
- The creation of democracy usually follows the establishment of a state, not the other way around. Yet the “road map” laid out by the “Quartet” outlines a three-year, three-phase process that begins with the cessation of violence and creation of Palestinian democracy and ends with Palestinian statehood.
- Democracy is not created by elections alone, and elections will only be credible if they are held in a strong civil society and open political system.
- Credible elections cannot take place unless freedom of speech, assembly and movement, access to the media by candidates, and the ability to register voters are present first. Candidates must be able to meet with the electorate to seek support, and voters must be able to travel to city and village centers to cast their ballots. None of these conditions fully exist in the Palestinian territories. Most notably, severely restricted freedom of movement and weeks-long curfews have prevented hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from engaging in travel, even within or between their own cities or villages.
- Credible elections also depend on prior consensus about the nature and structure of the political system in which they occur. No such consensus currently exists, as Palestinians continue to debate the relative virtues of presidential versus prime ministerial forms of government.
- Agreement must also be reached about who has the right to vote and what parties have the right to sponsor candidates to compete for political office. Reform that does not involve substantial political negotiations may actually have a destabilizing effect by bringing more violent elements into power. In this regard, it remains unclear whether the PA would allow Islamic groups, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to field candidates if they so desired. Moreover, Israel and the PA continue to disagree about whether some 200,000 Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem can participate in Palestinian elections. Complicating matters further, it appears certain that the United States and Israel will not accept the outcome of Palestinian elections if they return Arafat to power, as most likely would be the case. Indeed, the most popular Palestinian political figures – among them Yasser Arafat, Marwan Barghouti (currently being tried by Israel on murder and terrorism charges), and Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin – are all politically unacceptable to Israel and the United States.
A Road Leading Nowhere?
Two things remain clear: First, the push for Palestinian reform by the United States remains intimately linked to larger developments in the region and to the “war on terrorism.” Palestinians are now convinced that the call for reform by Israel and the United States is meant to keep the Israeli occupation in a holding pattern until after the crisis in Iraq is resolved. International pressure, particularly from Muslims around the world, on the United States to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict will mount as the crisis in Iraq deepens, and as the United States struggles to convince Arab and Muslim countries and the international community that it has the Palestinians’ best interests at heart. This pressure is counterbalanced by the growing strength of domestic constituencies in the United States that will make the Bush administration pay a high price for deviation from unwavering support for Israel’s vision of Palestinian reform and the final settlement of the conflict. Moreover, as the “war on terrorism” widens – including containment of the North Korean nuclear threat – U.S. attention is likely to be distracted from Palestinian reform.
Second, the concepts of what constitutes Palestinian reform and how it is to be achieved remain deeply contested. If carried out to its logical conclusion by the Palestinians, reform may widen the arena of legitimate political participation in Palestinian society to include groups that advocate terrorist attacks against Israelis or call for the overthrow of Israel. Israel and the United States, on the other hand, appear likely to support only those reforms that they view as consistent with Israel’s security. Regarding the process by which reform is achieved, a broad spectrum of Palestinian reformers insist that reforms can only be pushed through if they are conceived of, and initiated by, the Palestinians themselves. Israel’s success in linking its conception of Palestinian reform to the resumption of negotiations has hamstrung Palestinian reform efforts and blocked the return to negotiations. With both parties remaining immediately concerned about their own security, and with external pressures reducing the maneuverability of Palestinians determined to carry out reform on their own terms, the prospects for reform remain dim.
1 See Edward Said, The Question of Palestine (New York: Random House, 1980).
2 Nathan J. Brown, “The Palestinian Reform Agenda,” Peace works, No. 48, United States Institute of Peace, December 2002, pp. 17-18.
3 International Crisis Group, “The Meanings of Palestinian Reform,” Amman/Washington, November 12, 2002, p. 5.
4 The report can be found at www.jmcc.org/politics/pna/plc/plccorup.htm.
5 James Bennet, “Mideast Turmoil: The Election, Palestinian Authority Sets a January Vote,” The New York Times, June 27, 2002.
6 Arnon Regular, “Barghouti: PA Leaders Must Go,” Haaretz, December 4, 2002.
7 John Ward Anderson, “Many Palestinians Want Reform, but on Their Own Terms,” The Washington Post, July 15, 2002.
8 Khalil Shikaki, “Unrealized Reform: Learning from Past Mistakes,” in Dennis Ross, ed., “Reforming the Palestinian Authority: Requirements for Change,” Policy Focus, Special Studies on Palestinian Politics and the Peace Process, Research Memorandum No. 43, September 2002, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, p. 9.
9 Henry Siegman, “Yes, It’s Broken. Now fix It; The Palestinian Authority Needs to Change – and Knows Where to Start,” The Washington Post, May 19, 2002.
10 Lee Hockstader, “Sharon Says Reform Must Precede Talks; Palestinians Reject New Israeli Terms,” The Washington Post, May 15, 2002.
11 Glenn Frankel, “U.S., Europe Divided over Middle East Strategy,” The Washington Post, November 10, 2002.
12 The report can be found at http://www.mafhoum.com/press3/99P54.htm.
13 Aluf Benn and Arnon Regular, “EU Approves Funds to Monitor PA Elections, Reform Support,” Haaretz, December 17, 2002.
14 Danny Rubinstein, “More to Do with Iraq than Palestinian Reforms,” Haaretz, January 15, 2003.
15 Ian Fisher, “Blaming Israel, Palestinians Postpone Election Indefinitely,” The New York Times, December 23, 2002.
16 Nathan Brown outlines seven areas of concerns in his monograph, op. cit., p. 18.
17 Amira Hass, “As PA State Security Court Sentences Two to Death, Some Question the Court’s Legality,” Haaretz, October 21, 2002.
18 Ziad Abu Amr, “Political Reforms: Prospects and Obstacles,” in Dennis Ross, op. cit., p. 17.
19 Khalil Shikaki, “Palestinians Divided,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2002.
20 Haaretz, October 14, 2002.
21 Aluf Benn, “Sharon Asked U.S. for a ‘Diplomatic Recess’ Until After Primaries in Likud,” Haaretz, December 18, 2002.
22 The following observations about democracy building are based on remarks made by Amy Hawthorne, Tom Carothers and Marina Ottaway on July 10, 2002 at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. A transcript of the event can be found at http://www.ceip.org/files/events/2002-07-10-democracy-palestine.asp. Also see Thomas Carothers, Aiding Democracy Abroad: The Learning Curve (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1999).