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The Meanings of Palestinian Reform

 PDF version of The Meanings of Palestinian Reform

OVERVIEW

Since U.S. President George W. Bush’s 24 June 2002 statement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Palestinian reform has emerged as a key ingredient in Middle East diplomacy. In his statement, the president publicly identified “a new and different Palestinian leadership” and “entirely new political and economic institutions” as preconditions for the establishment of a Palestinian state. In early July, the Quartet of Middle East mediators (the European Union, Russian Federation, United Nations, and United States) established an International Task Force for Palestinian Reform “to develop and implement a comprehensive reform action plan” for the Palestinian Authority (PA). The September 2002 statement by the Quartet underscored reform of Palestinian political, civil, and security institutions as an integral component of peacemaking. The three phase-implementation roadmap, a U.S. draft of which was presented to Israel and the Palestinians by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns in October, provided details on this reform component.

During the same period, domestic Palestinian demands for change were no less evident. Senior officials and legislators, political leaders and activists, civic organisations, and citizens from across the spectrum demanded that the PA improve its performance and transform itself into an effective institution capable of meeting its people’s basic needs. Responding to the combination of local and international pressure, Chairman Yasser Arafat approved a series of measures contained in the “100 Days Plan” formulated by the PA’s Ministerial Reform Committee and formally adopted on 23 June. It proved too little too late. In an unprecedented development, the entire cabinet was on 11 September compelled to tender its resignation in order to avoid a parliamentary no-confidence motion whose passage was a virtual certainty.

While there has been an apparent convergence of international and domestic calls for reform, there is a distinct gulf between international and indigenous perceptions of the process. For example, U.S. officials and the American press have made much of the seeming coincidence between President Bush’s demands and indigenous Palestinian pressure, leading many to conclude that Washington’s insistence on a reform-first sequence was having its desired effect. Similarly, reform is viewed by many in the West as synonymous both with Arafat’s marginalisation and eventual replacement and with the emergence of a more peace-minded Palestinian leadership. A corollary to this view is that the reform movement is largely spurred by dissatisfaction with Arafat’s failure to conclude a peace deal with Prime Minister Barak, his perceived decision to launch the armed uprising, or intifada, and his inability to terminate it. Taken together, these assumptions lead many to the notion that the lack of Palestinian reform has been a major impediment to a successful peace process and that proceeding with the current reform efforts therefore is a key ingredient of (and important pre-requisite for) a re-energized peace process. Under such reasoning, reform will come first, discussion of final status issues will come later, and any earlier talk of final status issues will actually detract from reform. 

Many of these assertions do not withstand closer scrutiny, and often reflect a misunderstanding of domestic Palestinian dynamics:

  • The Palestinian reform movement has an old pedigree; it preceded President Bush’s call and will almost certainly outlast it.

  • The very notion of a Palestinian reform movement – as if it consists of a unified coalition of forces sharing broadly similar interests and objectives – is misleading. There are a number of reform agendas sponsored by a host of forces for a variety of motives that have little in common with one another and even less in common with the vision that the U.S. or Israel has of it. The most widely used depiction of the domestic Palestinian reform debate – Old Guard versus Young Guard – fails to do justice to the complexity of the alliances, constituencies, and agendas involved.

  • Far from believing that Arafat adopted an excessively hard line in his dealings with Israel, many in the so-called reform movement fault the Palestinian leadership for having been too responsive to U.S. and Israeli demands and, more importantly, for lacking a clear and effective strategy for resisting Israel’s occupation. Perhaps the greatest impetus behind the reform movement is the widely shared perception among Palestinians not that the intifada was a mistake, but that the Palestinian Authority (PA) failed to both properly manage the conflict and withstand Israeli attacks and international pressure. As a result, many Palestinians currently support transforming the PA into a technocratic/administrative body, with political decision-making power residing elsewhere – or even disbanding the PA altogether.

  • For a large number of Palestinians, the idea of modernising the PA and instruments of governance – while under military occupation is either impossible or meaningless; to them, the primary goal of institutional transformation therefore should be to strengthen the Palestinian capacity to challenge the Israeli occupation.

  • Although U.S. intervention initially may have given the reform efforts a boost, there is a consensus among virtually all Palestinians that U.S. – not to mention Israeli – pressure is impairing rather than improving their chances.

Reform of Palestinian institutions and politics is a domestic issue, and one that has wide support within the Palestinian community. Ultimately, Palestinians may well welcome international assistance in this overall endeavour. But today, the international community’s insistence on reform as precondition for a peace settlement is both harming its version of reform and delaying everyone’s notion of peace.

Amman/Washington, 12 November 2002

 PDF version of The Meanings of Palestinian Reform



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