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Palestinian Reform:  The Debate Over How and When? - 2002-05-10


Calls for Palestinian reforms are multiplying both inside and outside the region, as the Palestinian Authority starts to rebuild its infrastructure, destroyed during Israel's military incursions into the West Bank. VOA correspondent Laurie Kassman takes a closer look at the debate over how and when that political overhaul should, or could, be achieved, amid efforts to get Israel and the Palestinians to resume talks aimed at reaching a settlement.

Palestinians have long called for the elimination of corruption and mismanagement blamed on the Palestinian Authority. They also have complained about Yasser Arafat's autocratic style of leadership.

But Palestinian analyst Ghassan Khatib, of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, says the voices for change were silenced as Israel stepped up its attacks against Mr. Arafat, and Palestinians rallied around their elected leader. With efforts underway now to rebuild and repair the infrastructure, Mr. Khatib says, Palestinians are renewing their calls for democratic reforms. "This is a continuity of an old demand for reform by many forces and individuals within the Palestinian society," Mr. Khatib says. "It aims to force elections as an approach to reform and change, and also at strengthening the due process of law and allowing for an independent judiciary system."

Palestinians are not the only ones calling for reform. U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher voices the Bush administration's view that reform is essential, both to building a Palestinian state and responding to Israel's security concerns. "As we look to all the things we need to do in the future, whether establishing the Palestinian state with the ability to have a government, as the president put it, or whether it's humanitarian relief - making sure it gets to the people who need it, or whether it's rebuilding a security apparatus in the Palestinian Authority that can actually exercise authority and stop violence and terror," Mr. Boucher says. "All these things require basic principles of transparency and good governance, responsibility and accountablity. That's what we're looking at."

The timing of reform is a matter of debate, especially in Israel, which views a revamping of the Palestinian Authority as a precondition to resuming peace talks. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has called Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat an enemy, and refuses to deal with him.

Tel Aviv University analyst Mark Heller says it is not just Israel calling for a change of leadership. "The background for it is the assumption on the part of the Israeli government, and increasingly in Europe and other parts of the world, is that there's not much chance of making real progress, as long as Arafat continues to be in charge, and continues to operate the way he does, and continues to pursue the policies that he does," the Israeli analyst says.

But Palestinian analyst Khatib says accepting reforms dictated from outside would undermine genuine calls for change from within. And, he adds, accommodating Israeli demands would be the equivalent of setting up a collaborator-state. "This is completely different. The Palestinians are very sensitive about it. It's not practical at all to effect change by external pressure, especially if this external party is the enemy of the Palestinian people," says Mr. Khatib.

Former State Department official David Mack says that reaction is understandable. "That's quite an understandable response. I think it's fair to say that Israel's interest in what they call reform is interest in having the Palestinian Authority responsive to them, but that would also be more effective, because it would be seen as more representative of Palestinians," Mr. Mack says. "I'm not sure Israel can have both."

Mr. Mack, who helps run the Washington-based Middle East Institute, says effective reforms take time. And he cautions Israel to be prepared for the consequences of its push for a speedy overhaul of the Palestinian Authority in the current atmosphere of anger and frustration. "During the transition, you could see a popularly-elected alternative to Yasser Arafat who might be even less amenable to a negotiated compromise along the terms that Israelis are likely to push for," he says.

State Department spokesman Boucher says Palestinian reforms must come from within, and stresses that Washington still considers Yasser Arafat the legitimate Palestinian leader and a key player in any reform effort.

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