Vying for Authority

The mere fact of a new Palestinian cabinet is cause for hope.

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Most political developments in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are met with a strong dose of skepticism, not to say cynicism. And no wonder. But the approval this week of a new Palestinian cabinet, after months of stalemate, drew cautious optimism from most quarters.

On Wednesday members of the Palestinian Legislative Council approved and swore in new members of Prime Minister Ahmed Queria’s cabinet. At the inaugural ceremony both Queria and chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat, renewed their commitment to ending terrorist attacks against Israelis. Queria protested Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, and called for a cease-fire and peace talks.

“To the Israelis, we want peace and security and independence that will not be realized unless we work together…Let’s help each other stop this cycle of hell.”

For months, the question has been whether Arafat and Queria, let alone Palestinians and Israelis, could work together. A corner was turned last Sunday, when Queria conceded authority over Palestinian security services to Arafat, thus resolving a major impasse — one that was the undoing of the last prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas. But a number of Palestinian and Israeli politicians criticized Queria’s backdown, noting the new cabinet closely resembled the corrupt governments of the past. Yossi Alpher, who co-edits bitterlemons.org, condemns both Arafat and Sharon for their failure as national leaders. Alpher writes that instead of recreating a new Palestinian government, Arafat has insured that
needed reforms will not take place.

“Arafat’s most recent success at domestic political manipulation is to oblige Abu Alaa (Ahmed Qurei) to form a government that does not even aspire to control the Palestinian Authority’s security establishment. By retaining overall control, Arafat can ensure that violence continues and that the means for committing it continue to exist. Abu Alaa may or may not succeed in negotiating a new ceasefire, which could give us all a few weeks of relief. But he will not be a peacemaker as long as Arafat is his master.”

There’s something to this; but on the positive side, Queria has clearly learned from his predecessor, Abbas, that challenging Arafat is a nonstarter. He may have concluded that some power in his hands is better than none at all, at least for now.

Although Israel, as expected, responded to the cabinet approval with skepticism, Ariel Sharon’s administration expressed a surprising willingness to begin negotiations. Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said that if the Palestinian Authority was serious about dismantling terrorist groups, as called for under the U.S.-backed Road Map, then Israel would act as a negotiation partner. An unnamed source within the government told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, that the Sharon administration was ready to hold talks with Queria. “This is a tactical concession, not a strategic one, to enable us to begin a dialogue,” said the source.

A Ha’aretz editorial notes that Queria’s cabinet could be good for the Israelis, as well as the Palestinians. While the new P.M. has clearly learned from Abbas’ demise, Ha’aretz argues that the Sharon administration also needs to learn from its mistakes.

“The Israeli government also has to learn the right lessons. The repeated efforts to isolate and humiliate Arafat only encouraged him to demonstrate over and over that he is still powerful and to remind all that he makes the decisions in the PA. The proper way to strengthen the new Palestinian prime minister is not by constantly trying to weaken Arafat, but by strengthening Qureia. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz would do best to take seriously the criticism recently voiced by Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon about the Israeli government’s contribution to the collapse of the Abbas government, by not allowing him to present a single tangible achievement to the Palestinian public.”

It seems that this lesson applies equally to the United States, which has repeatedly tried and failed to sideline Arafat, succeeding only in making him more popular. Given the relative American silence regarding Queria’s government — in comparison to the hubub surrounding Abbas’ term as prime minister — it appears that the U.S. has learned that vocalizing its support for Abbas only de-legitimized him in the eyes of the Palestinian public.

Meanwhile, in Israel, Ariel Sharon is beginning to feel pressure from a public weary of the present violence. As the Washington Post reports, the despair in both Israeli and Palestinian societies has led to an upsurge in grassroots peace initiatives, namely the Geneva Accord and the People’s Voice petition. The Post cites a recent poll in the Israeli daily Maariv in which only a third of respondents were pleased with Sharon’s work, with less than a third saying they’d re-elect him if elections were held now. David Horowitz, editor of the Jerusalem Report summarized the Israeli public sentiment. “The mainstream is not as certain of Sharon as it was a few months ago…. Mainstream centrists in Israel want to get back to the peace table,” he said.

Some Israelis and Palestinians argue that it doesn’t matter who is in the Paletinian government because ultimately Israel calls the shots. Journalist Gideon Levy argues in Ha’aretz that the P.A.’s “authority” is a farce.

“If [the Palestinian Authority] were more concerned about the subjects they are supposed to be in charge of – the well-being of their nation – they would have resigned and thereby torn the mask from the false impression of the supposed government and the “state in the making.” They would have ceased to be the fig leaf that serves and perpetuates the Israeli occupation. Instead, they cling to the few honors and benefits that Israel continues to confer on a few of them, and they go on lending a hand to the great deception that a sovereign Palestinian Authority and a government with powers exist.

This deception in the form of a supposedly autonomous government and Authority serves the Israeli government above all. The Palestinian Authority’s existence allows Israel to accuse it and demand that it fight terrorism, and Israel can also tell the world that its occupation is not full.”

Levy’s condemnation has some bite. It’s true that the facts on the ground haven’t changed since before Abbas took office: Palestinians still live under strict military occupation, and Israelis are still under attack by terrorists. Also true, the lull in violence in the last few weeks won’t hold unless a genuine ceasefire is negotiated; one suicide bombing or casualty-heavy Israeli raid could set back the process for weeks and further undermine the Palestinian Authority.

And yet,the mere fact that a government has actually been formed is a step forward. That, together with the support for the Geneva Accord and the People’s Voice, offers some cause for hope. Whether it’s enough remains to be seen.


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