US plan to build new Palestinian leadership deemed unrealistic


THE MIDDLE EAST: The US plan to build a new Palestinian leadership through democratic means is seen as unrealistic by many Palestinians.

Firstly, the Palestinian President, Mr Yasser Arafat, has no intention of being ousted by an election. As soon as the January 2003 poll was announced, he decided to stand. He almost certainly would win because there is no figure of his stature on the Palestinian scene.

The only other popular personality is Mr Marwan Barghouti, the head of Mr Arafat's Fatah movement in the West Bank. But he has been in an Israeli prison since April. Dr Abdel Sattar Kassem, a radical academic who opposes the Oslo peace process, and Mr Oman Kassou, an unknown businessman said to be Washington's candidate, have declared their intention to run but have little chance of winning against Mr Arafat. He cannot be counted on to fade from the scene. He seems set to survive his two potential successors, Mr Mahmud Abbas, his deputy in the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and Mr Ahmad Qurei, the speaker of parliament who is in hospital following a heart attack. They are in their 70s and are less robust than Mr Arafat.

Secondly, little thought has been given to the issue of who will conduct the campaign and poll.

Mr Arafat is still recognised as the elected head of the Palestinian Authority. He will certainly insist on taking charge. While Israel has demolished the infrastructure of his administration, the Palestinian civil service remains intact and capable of running an election. This will make it difficult for Israel or the US to insist that the job be assumed by outsiders.

Thirdly, it will be impossible to conduct a consultation under the physical conditions now obtaining in the reoccupied Palestinian territories. Unless Israel withdraws from Palestinian cities and towns, ends its siege and blockade and revokes its pass system for Palestinians seeking to travel from one area to another, there can be no political campaign and no free and fair consultation. If Israeli forces remain in place, they will decide who will have freedom of movement to canvass and cast ballots.

Finally, Israel, and perhaps even the US, could insist on excluding parties such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front and on vetting potential candidates, to eliminate those who have taken part in resistance activities. Israel and the US could also seek to screen the electoral register to remove voters who support parties considered to be objectionable.

It is ironic that the Bush administration has called upon autocratic Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to help prepare the way for democratic elections in the Palestinian occupied territories.

The rulers of these countries would certainly prefer to see Mr Arafat remain in power than to contribute to the emergence of a new democracy in a region where only Lebanon and Israel have liberal democratic systems.

A democratic state of Palestine would constitute a challenge to the autocracies in the region.

This would be particularly true if the Palestinians establish an accountable government which practices transparency and is free of corruption. This would set a bad example to the pro-Western governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which are far more corrupt and authoritarian than the present Palestinian Authority.

One analyst observed that it is ironic that the US is exerting massive pressure for reform on the authority, an administration which is just over five years old and does not yet serve a state, while Washington does nothing to press long-established Arab states to establish accountable and transparent administrations.