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Corruption, Security Reforms Among Top Abbas Challenges, say Analysts

Mahmoud Abbas, the newly elected president of the Palestinian Authority, has to tackle major issues in the weeks and months ahead. In this report from Washington, Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at some of the internal challenges he faces.

Analysts say by receiving 62 percent of the votes cast, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, has a mandate to institute needed reforms and move the peace process with Israel forward. He succeeds Yasser Arafat, who died last November 11, 2004.

Many western analysts covering Middle Eastern affairs say Mr. Abbas faces a daunting task, especially when it comes to reforming the Palestinian Authority and improving the lives of Palestinians. In addition to relations with Israel and the peace process, Mr. Abbas has to address serious internal issues. Those include streamlining the security forces, reforming the judicial system, improving the economy and fighting corruption.

Seth Jones, Middle East analyst with the Rand Corporation, says the World Bank has a series of indicators measuring corruption around the world.

"And they rank corruption in Palestinian society as among the bottom 15 or 16 percent in the world," he said. "In other words, concerning the Palestinian Authority: about 85 percent of countries in the world have less corrupt systems than the Palestinians. They really are in the bottom 14 or 15 percent. Also, if you look at public opinion polls among Palestinians, since the mid-1990s, you've seen an increase from about 55 percent or so of Palestinians who believe that their own Palestinian Authority is corrupt, to over 85 percent by the end of 2004."

Rooting out corruption, says Mr. Jones, will take time.

Nathan Brown, Middle East expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington research organization, says to fight corruption, the Palestinian Authority must have the means.

"The real problem is the absence of procedures, of real legal institutions, of accountability and this sort of thing," he said. "Everything is sort of run on an ad hoc basis. And so what they really need to do is pass a series of laws, build some new organizations or respect the ones that they have."

For his part, Mr. Jones from the Rand Corporation says in order to adequately begin to fight corruption, the Palestinian judicial system must be built up.

"This is really an important element of any democratic state, to have an independent, workable and viable justice sector that has got a working court system, that has law schools, that has infrastructure like court buildings and buildings for prosecutors," he said. "The problem is that there is very little infrastructure that exists in the legal system right now. There is even no unifying body of laws. A lot of this is being developed. It's a daunting challenge, but several basic steps have to be taken in order to even begin to get a handle on this really fundamental issue."

Mr. Jones says another task facing Mr. Abbas is the reform of the Palestinian security forces.

"You have, by various accounts, something in the nature of nine different Palestinian security services in the West Bank and Gaza each," he said. "They range from general police services to what they call Force 17 which protects Palestinian leaders. It also includes the Mukhabarat Salamah, the General Intelligence Service. And the way these were organized under Arafat is, he essentially had control over them. He had control over the financial situation: there was really no accountability from the Palestinian justice system."

Mr. Jones says the number of security services must be decreased and they should be placed under the control of various ministries.

Analysts also say Mr. Abbas must find a way to improve the lives of the four million Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Fawaz Gerges is an expert on the Palestinians and professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York.

"At the end of the day, most Palestinians, like all people in the world, would like to put bread on the table," he said. "And when you have almost 50 percent of the population living below the poverty line, when you have in some areas unemployment topping 50 percent - the Palestinians live under horrible socio-economic conditions. And I think across the board, Palestinians tell us that the economic and social well-being, that the issue of the economic situation is as important as the peace process."

Mr. Gerges says the problems facing the new Palestinian leader seem insurmountable.

"Mahmoud Abbas faces one of the most challenging jobs in Palestinian history: he has to tackle serious, substantial, existential, internal challenges such as the huge unemployment rate; such as [the fact] that you have 50 percent of Palestinians live below the poverty line; such as endemic corruption; such as the need to institutionalize Palestinian life and rely on institutions; such as to at least unify the Palestinian security forces. It's a very long list of challenges," he said.

Analysts agree that Mr. Abbas cannot tackle all of the internal problems by himself. They say in order for him to succeed, he needs to get international support to help him restore the Palestinian economy and build lasting democratic institutions that will be the foundations of a new Palestinian state.