Jewish World Review May 14, 2002 / 3 Sivan, 5762
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon claimed last week that he and President Bush agreed Arafat should be moved aside as the top leader of the Palestinian Authority.
Bush denied it, but Arafat is sure to seize on Sharon's assertion to claim that any effort to reform his regime is a U.S.-Israeli plot.
It isn't. A consensus is developing, shared by Arabs and Europeans as well as the Bush administration and Israel, that the Palestinian Authority needs to be democratized and made less corrupt.
In fact, the consensus is also widely shared among Palestinians, 83 percent of whom agreed in one 2001 poll that Arafat's regime is corrupt.
After meeting with Sharo, Bush said, "The Palestinians need to develop a constitution, rule of law, transparency ... [and] a treasury that is able to battle corruption."
Among some diplomats and scholars on the Mideast, "reform" and writing a Palestinian "constitution" are code words for reducing Arafat from the role of an all-controlling dictator to that of a figurehead president.
After Bush's meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah, an Arab diplomat told The Washington Post that reform might mean creating a new post of prime minister to run the Palestinian government.
Some nongovernment U.S. experts even have in mind possible successors for Arafat: Mohammed Dahlan, Palestinian chief of security in Gaza, and Jibril Rajoub, his counterpart in the West Bank.
Both were participants in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks during the Clinton administration, and Dahlan, especially, was understood to support Palestinian acceptance of Bill Clinton's proposals, which were agreed to by then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak but rejected by Arafat.
Displacing Arafat certainly is a good idea, and it would open the way for Sharon to negotiate with Palestinians. The problem is, if it's seen as a U.S.-Israeli ploy, Arafat likely will be able to block it.
Arafat has made a career of playing one Palestinian faction against another and surviving even the most disastrous setbacks, including bloody expulsion from Jordan in 1970 and Lebanon in 1982.
At the moment, he does show signs of feeling pressure - as demonstrated by his strong denunciation last week of the latest suicide bombing south of Tel Aviv and his ordering the arrest of 10 members of the extreme Islamic group Hamas, which claimed responsibility for the atrocity.
Moreover, European and Arab governments are expressing reluctance to contribute to humanitarian relief and reconstruction of Palestinian cities after Israeli incursions, fearing the money will be stolen.
Even an Arafat associate, Saeb Erekat, was forced to assure European diplomats that "major changes are due in the coming weeks" in the Palestinian Authority's operations: "You can expect results. We don't have any choice."
If Arafat is to be displaced or "kicked upstairs," there seem to be two alternatives for engineering it - one subtle, one highly risky.
The first, which the Bush administration seems to favor, is to concentrate on incremental reform and de-emphasize the notion of replacing Arafat anytime soon.
Administration officials have repeatedly said that it's not the business of the United States to choose the Palestinians' leader and that, however "disappointing" he is, Arafat now occupies that position.
The first step toward incremental reform is the plan to send CIA Director George Tenet to the region to work on a consolidation of the Palestinian Authority's segmented security services.
Such a step might strengthen Dahlan and/or Rajoub vis-ˆ-vis Arafat and put one or the other in a position to succeed him if constitutional change ever occurred.
The other alternative - the risky one - is for Sharon to respond to continuing suicide bombings by sending Arafat into exile.
This, Mideast experts say, would certainly be followed by turmoil - a possible breaking of diplomatic ties by Jordan and Egypt and possible resumption of Hezbollah rocket attacks from Lebanon.
Worldwide pressure would fall upon Israel to allow Arafat back into the country, but Sharon conceivably could make a condition of Arafat's return his acceptance of a ceremonial presidency.
Sharon wants to make his idea of "reform" - Arafat's displacement - a prerequisite for any peace talks. Washington is resisting that idea.
Besides the danger that Arafat could use Israeli eagerness for "reform" to stay in power, another potential problem exists: A successor might be even more radical than Arafat is.
Rajoub, for one, is friends with Marwan Barghouti, the now-arrested boss of Arafat's Fatah party in the West Bank. Barghouti has publicly claimed credit for ordering attacks on Israeli targets.
Given Arafat's past refusal to make peace and his orchestration of violence, it's worth taking a chance on an unknown successor. But Bush needs to be careful how he does it, or the effort could end up bolstering Arafat.