Arafat’s Lack of Leadership

The recent resurgence in anti-Israel terror brings the issue of international support for Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority to the fore. President George W. Bush made clear that the Palestinian leader must join the global war on terrorism by cracking down on religious extremists responsible for the recent bombings.

Pro-Palestinian apologists cite Arafat’s limited influence over radical groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. This is a serious and superficial misreading of the current Palestinian dynamic.

The Palestinian leader’s actions since 1993 have directly played into and empowered the extremist’s agenda. He has consistently sought to play politics by periodically “letting loose” the more militant elements not only within the religious sector but also within his own Fatah wing.

In our effort to combat religious extremism, we must not lose sight of the fact that groups controlled by Arafat, namely the Tanzim, Fatah Hawks, Force 17 and the Palestinian Security Force, perpetuated almost half of the acts of terror within the past year. Moreover, Arafat’s two-track positioning of issuing strong anti-terror statements in English, while watering down statements to the local Arab media and allowing local media outlets to applaud terror, leads much of the populace to believe that he actually approves of the armed struggle.

Indeed, Al Hayat al Jadida, the official publication, cited the suicide bombers of Sept. 11 as the “salt of the earth,” the “most honorable among us.” While the recent arrests play well in the international arena, the history of arresting and then releasing known terrorists is not lost on Arafat’s detractors.

Moreover, the widely acknowledged economic malpractice, rampant corruption and brutal human rights record of the Palestinian Authority pushes the Palestinian populace toward the what is perceived as the more honest and consistent religious groups.

Contrary to those Pollyannas who cite his limited ability, there is much more that Arafat can do to fight terror and save an opportunity for a negotiated and just peace for his people. Attempting to show his solidarity with the anti-terrorism front and good faith, Arafat immediately condemned the terror, issued a regional state of emergency and arrested over 100 militants.

Lacking more substantial good-faith efforts, the arrests alone will not lessen local support for terrorist groups and further decrease Arafat’s legitimacy as a viable leader. The Palestinian leader, if so motivated, can undertake much more concrete measures to deter terrorists from operating within his domain.

First, the Palestinian leader must appear personally on local Arabic television condemning the wave of terror and calling for a wholesale cease-fire. Ironically, despite the written condemnations contained in Palestinian Authority press releases, the only footage seen locally is Arafat flying around meeting with world leaders.

Second, the pervasive corruption and whimsical nature of the Palestinian Authority courts have only provided fuel for militants. Even moderate Palestinian leaders, such as Hanan Ashrawi, decry the secret courts that see the conviction and execution of anti-Arafat elements within a few days of arrest.

They also point to the arbitrary release of terrorists, such as the mass release of hundreds of suspected terrorists that were freed at the outset of last year’s violent outbreak. To engender some positive confidence in the discredited judicial system, the crackdown must be followed by public trials governed by accepted international standards of due process, and the sentences be carried out exclusive of political considerations.

Third, to garner support for peaceful negotiations and co-opt the increasing popularity of the militant organizations, the Palestinian Authority must be forced to deal with its own widely acknowledged fiscal and political corruption. Even the most ardent Arafat supporters see his dictatorial rule at best as incompetent and at worst, ethically bankrupt.

Despite the massive economic aid flowing into the territory since 1993, the standard of living and quality of life among the general population have fallen dramatically. At the same time, Arafat’s cronies that grew up with the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Tunis or Paris drive Mercedes and build mansions amidst the poverty-stricken refugee camps in the Gaza Strip.

Last year, in order to quiet the outcry, Arafat approved an anti-corruption program developed by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Despite the project’s receiving wide acclaim from all local stakeholders and the international community, including the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, Arafat reneged on his public pledge. Within weeks of implementation, he put the project in abeyance. Despite the fact that international donors continue to cover the Palestinian Authority budget, no pressure has been exerted on Arafat to fulfill his promise to establish some economic viability and sense to his administration’s policies.

The drastic economic crisis directly empowers those extremist elements proffering an alternative to Arafat’s seeming moderation. As Palestinians point out, if they cannot trust Arafat to use the billions of dollars of international assistance to deal with the sewage problem and if the political leaders continue to arbitrarily co-opt any profitable private or public business for their own benefit, how can they trust him to negotiate a final agreement?

Hamas and Islamic Jihad continue to use this void of real public administration to advance their radical agenda. They not only provide routine health benefits and pick up trash, but also provide monetary support to families of those who die or are imprisoned as a result of perpetrating violence against Israeli citizens.

Fourth, Arafat’s refusal to abide by basic democratic principles also pushes the population to seek out any political alternative. The most glaring and public example remains Arafat’s refusal to acknowledge the role of the elected Palestinian Legislative Council. Arafat simply ignores any parliamentary actions, refusing to sign legislation and/or cede any semblance of decision-making power. Notorious for his micromanagement, not to mention controversial approach, Arafat even demands that he personally sign off on the expense reports of all Palestine officials traveling abroad.

The argument that Arafat did not personally direct the recent terrorist incidents is by all accounts accurate. However, the position that he can do little to directly counter the terror and roll back the escalating support for the terrorist groups is inaccurate and specious.

It is time for Arafat to move from the leader of an armed struggle to a viable political leader. To do otherwise is to foretell his own downfall and that of any chance of a negotiated peace in the Middle East.

James Prince, president of the Democracy Council, has written extensively on the Middle East and was a regional expert with the House International Relations Committee and Council on Foreign Relations.