The Magazine

Toward Democracy in Palestine?

Amir Taheri interviews Rawya Rashad Shawa, member from Gaza of the Palestinian National Council.

Nov 4, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 08 • By AMIR TAHERI
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Editor's Note: A defender of traditional Palestinian positions on the conflict with Israel, Rawya Rashad Shawa is also an outspoken advocate of Palestinian reform and democracy. A former columnist, Shawa was elected from Gaza in 1997 to the Palestinian National Council, where she is a leader of the anti-Arafat bloc. The interview excerpted here was conducted by Amir Taheri, editor of the French quarterly Politique Internationale, in mid-October in Amman, Jordan, and translated from Arabic by Taheri.

Although much is written about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the outside world knows very little about domestic Palestinian politics. Why is that?

The main reason is the impression created by Chairman Yasser Arafat that he and he alone embodies the Palestinian political will. For years his message has been: Talk to me and you will not need to take notice of anyone else! He has never bothered to consult anyone, insisting on making his decisions alone. He is one of those politicians who can operate only in the dark, in secret.

He seems to have had his way for some time.

Yes. This is because the Arab governments with whom he dealt first were also run by men of the same culture of secrecy. They too were suspicious of pluralist politics and preferred to deal with just one man. That was the age of strongmen in the Arab world. And Arafat was the Palestinian strongman. After the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, the Israelis began to feel threatened. This was because the Palestinians had fielded an alternative leadership that consisted of people who had lived and worked in Palestine all their lives, and who could put their case to the outside world, especially to the Americans, in attractive terms. The Israelis had always favored Arab leaders of the strongman type. This is because one man can always be cajoled, bought, or destroyed. That analysis led to the Oslo back channel, when the Israelis put Arafat back in orbit and began making secret deals with him.

Does this mean that Arafat did not consult the Palestinian National Council?

The council was always used as a rubber stamp. For example, when Arafat signed the Hebron accords [in 1997] we received the information from Azmi Bisharah [an Arab member of the Israeli Knesset]. This is because the Israeli government had to inform the Israeli parliament. Arafat never felt the need to come to us and seek support for his secret deals. He didn't need any advice. He was Palestine. We were never given a clue. Arafat would send us [Nabil] Shaath or someone else from time to time to mumble a few meaningless phrases, and to kiss my hand and pay compliments, before disappearing. Abu Mazen [Arafat's deputy] was supposed to brief the members of our parliament's political commission. For three years there was not a single meeting, even for tea.

Are you not a bit hard on Arafat?

God is my witness that this is not a personal matter. Arafat has the same culture of authoritarianism, not to say dictatorship, that has marked almost all Arab leaders for as long as one can remember. What I am saying is that this style of rule, this authoritarianism, can lead only to disaster for Arabs, and in our case, for the Palestinians. We all see the military strength of the Israelis, their F-16s and Apache helicopters. But we should also see the strengths of their political system in which the government is responsible to the parliament, and the parliament is accountable to the electorate. All adversaries in history learn from each other and, in some aspects, come to resemble each other. In the struggle between our nation and the Israeli nation it is important for us to be politically as strong as they are. And that means a strong parliamentary system, accountable to the people. Because we cannot have a war machine like theirs does not mean that we should not have their democracy either.

Arafat is forming a new government. Will that make a difference?

Arafat asked the previous government to resign because he knew it would receive a no-confidence vote in the parliament. He wants to be the only one who can install or dismiss a government. Arafat refused to sign our Basic Law, which means we were run on an ad hoc basis, a nation without a legal framework. Now that he has signed it under American pressure, he is trying to circumvent it as much as possible. He is not behaving like that out of ill intentions. This is his political culture. He sincerely believes that democracy is nonsense and that great and dedicated leaders like him must lead nations.

Can the new government have a smooth ride in the parliament?

It is too early to tell. In any case what we need is fresh elections, both for the parliament and the president. Whatever government Arafat concocts will have no authority beyond day-to-day measures.

Does this mean that if Arafat makes a deal with the Israelis tomorrow you will not accept it?