Out of Arafat’s Hands

In the reoccupied West Bank town of Hebron, an activist in Yasser Arafat’s Al Fatah, a graduate of Israeli prisons, lamented the other day: "I gave up my dream of the whole of Palestine for the sake of the Oslo accord. And what did I get? Corruption, no democracy, security services abusing and blackmailing our people. And now I’m getting Israeli soldiers invading my town and the Palestinian Authority is doing nothing to protect me."

The middle-aged Palestinian was talking privately among friends, but such criticism is being voiced more and more openly. And dissenters are no longer afraid to point a finger at Arafat and to challenge his decisions in the streets of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian political analyst, said: "Arafat has been weakened. He has not been able to control the street, not been able to control the violence and not been able to demonstrate leadership."

Arafat, who will be 73 next month, remains a national symbol. Aspiring successors, like the former Gaza Security Chief Mohammed Dahlan, are biding their time. But the chairman is no longer feared.

Israeli tanks have prevented him leaving his Ramallah compound for the past eight months. No American diplomats (and a diminishing number of others) talk to him. His Palestinian Authority has ceased to function. He doesn’t have policemen to direct the traffic, let alone resist the Israeli invasion. His disgruntled subjects are having their say.

Muawiya al-Masri, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, recently accused Arafat of diverting millions of dollars of foreign aid to bolster his own power. Hossam Khader, another Palestinian legislator, protested that the wives and children of 50 senior leaders — including Arafat’s wife, Suha, who lives in Paris with her daughter — left the Palestinian territories and "settled with their millions of dollars in Europe and Arab countries" when the intifada erupted in September 2000.

Hundreds of Palestinian security men marched through Ramallah and Hebron early this month against Arafat’s dismissal of their commander, Jibril Rajoub, and refused to serve under his designated successor. Such a rebellion would have been unthinkable a year ago. So would a demonstration in Gaza by 3,000 unemployed workers, who complained that the leadership had waxed rich at the expense of the people.

Many Palestinians, who endured three decades of Israeli occupation, are starting to blame Arafat, and other "outsiders" who returned from exile after the 1993 Oslo accords, for failing to understand what makes Israel tick.

Arafat has announced a 100-day reform program, culminating in elections next January. But Palestinian skeptics see it as a familiar exercise in survival rather than a readiness for change. "He is trying to resist American and domestic pressure to remove him," Shikaki argued. "He fears reform, because he doesn’t want to give up power."

That power is already seeping out of Arafat’s hands. He tried and failed to marginalize two of the most credible younger-generation Fatah leaders, Mohammed Dahlan and Rajoub, both of whom have now been promoted within the security hierarchy. Rajoub, in particular, showed that he continued to command the loyalty of his 6,000-man Preventive Security Force and their families, despite the fact that he surrendered his besieged West Bank headquarters to Israeli troops in April.

Where, then, do Yasser Arafat and his unhappy people go from here? The Americans, backed by Egypt and Jordan, the two Arab states that signed peace treaties with Israel, are looking beyond the January elections in which Arafat is unlikely to face a serious challenge. They think of a collective leadership, with Arafat’s supreme role as president of the Palestinian Authority and chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization divided between a figurehead president, an executive prime minister and a PLO chairman drawn from the diaspora.

That is not how Arafat wants to walk into the sunset. The question is whether he is now so weakened that he will have no choice.