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Between hope and the abyss

By Abdel-Jawwad Saleh*
Al-Ahram Weekly, 5 - 11 August 1999

How can the Palestinians step back from the edge of the abyss? Through grass-roots empowerment, writes Abdel-Jawwad Saleh

Political activists, members of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), and prominent personalities (mostly independent) in Palestinian political life are taking steps toward the formation of an independent democratic movement. Another initiative is being organised by former members of traditional Palestinian groups, who are disenchanted by their leaders and the way they are handling the problems facing the Palestinian people. All these are united by a common imperative: in the absence of a democratic mass movement which can allow the Palestinian people to confront the socio-political challenges facing it, the Palestinian cause will sink into the abyss.

The independent members of the PLC are supported by non-members who played important roles in the Palestinian national movement before Oslo. This mobilisation results from the perceived need to rectify the mistakes made by the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Such political moves constitute a positive response, although it may have come a little late in the day, to Mr Arafat's indifference. The absence of good governance has had serious ramifications on popular morale, the fabric of Palestinian society, and the prevailing code of ethics. All these have been gravely damaged.

The PA's failure to set up strong institutions covering the three branches of its political system has jeopardised the Palestinian dream. The PA's denial of the Basic Law (the Palestinian Constitution), enacted by the PLC, is one of the main reasons for both PA failures and popular frustration.

The Palestinians are unexpectedly reminded of occupation policies: de-development, de-institutionalisation and a budget reminiscent of that of the occupation. Average people, to express their anger, have begun to compare the practices of the PA with the arbitrary repression practiced by the Israeli occupation.

The Palestinian cabinet does not exist as an institution. Its inability or refusal to prioritise concrete issues is well known. Since its inception, it has avoided tackling problems like unemployment, the phenomenal spread of poverty and the lack of a participatory approach involving the people in national development plans. The PA routinely denies funding to, and suppresses the opinions of, grass-roots groups. Palestinian children's health and the quality of their education are declining at a precipitous rate. The absence of an independent judiciary is undermining the potential for democratisation. Eventually, the systematic weakening of the PLC will imperil democracy.

The "collateral" activities of the security agencies, and the creation of a one-party system on a semi-military basis, are paving the way for the creation of a fully fledged police state. The PA leadership's abuse of power, responsibilities, and human rights has led to the widespread diffusion of corruption. The majority of Palestinians believe that an Intifada is brewing. The ingredients: frustration and despair. This situation has also weakened the PA before its Israeli counterpart. The paralysis that prevents the PA from confronting internal and external shortcomings is one of the factors crippling it in negotiations.

The other main factors behind the independent Palestinian initiatives are the stalemate of the peace process and the unprecedented acceleration of Israeli colonisation. Arafat, our main negotiator, has shown that he always bows to pressure. Barak knows that very well, and will manipulate it to the maximum. In fact, he has already started the game. First, Arafat cancelled the Geneva Convention signatories' meeting. Second, he yielded to Barak's request to establish a working group that will study Barak's "suggested" changes to the Wye Memorandum. The changes include the postponement of further redeployments stipulated by Wye until the final status negotiations -- in other words, decades from now.

We would do well to remember that Barak was the only minister under Rabin who rejected the Oslo Accords, in line with Netanyahu's position. This fact alone should arouse suspicion with regard to his "requests". His negotiating conditions, or "red lines" -- namely, maintaining Israeli control of the Jordan Valley; no dismantling of the colonies; ensuring contiguous Israeli "areas" (to dismember any potentially viable Palestinian state); no "foreign" sovereignty over Jerusalem (he rejected the raising of a Palestinian flag over the holy sites); and no return of Palestinian refugees to their homes -- are equally eloquent. In combination with Barak's new policy, which is to refrain from implementing the Wye Memorandum of understanding, and instead to postpone it until the final status negotiations, these goals should give observers a clear idea of what he is up to.

What will the Palestinians be negotiating for, if the red lines are imposed and further redeployments are transferred to the final status negotiations? Nothing of substance, that is certain.

Barak will limit negotiations on the Palestinian track to defining the nature and function of the future Palestinian entity. This explains why he is committed to the implementation of UN Resolutions 242 and 338 on the Syrian and Lebanese tracks, but denies their applicability to the Palestinian track. Barak, unfortunately, is trying to follow in Netanyahu's steps, and to go a little further still. His intention is to give the Palestinians a state devoid of substance, deprived of land and of Jerusalem. He will let the Palestinians call their "entity" the State of Palestine and borrow whatever adjectives the leadership likes. The Palestinian leadership's weaknesses will allow the Israelis to maximise their gains, while reducing the Palestinian share to nothing -- to a state without Jerusalem, without recognised international borders, without sovereignty over its lands and water; a state with nothing but a meaningless name. This is the ideal formula for continued conflict.

Barak's goal is to turn the PA into an Israeli security agency responsible for suppressing the Palestinian people and for protecting the settlers, the settlements and Israel. Who will accept this?

How can the Palestinians respond? This is an exceptionally difficult question. But a good place to start is with the empowerment of the Palestinian people, which will allow them to face the challenges ahead. Those who have taken recent independent initiatives understand such empowerment to mean the creation of a favourable environment: elections at all levels, including local government; a parliament surpassing the Oslo terms of reference; and presidential elections. The new leadership will derive its sovereignty from the people. New terms of reference will be adopted by a new team of negotiators -- terms based on the people's inalienable rights. This might be the only option left, if the Palestinians are to save themselves.

*The writer is a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

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