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Democracy in Palestine

End times for Arafat?

Jun 3, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 37 • By ELI J. LAKE
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MAY 21 WAS A TOUGH DAY for Yasser Arafat. In Ramallah, an opinion poll was released that showed most Palestinians are fed up with his leadership. According to the survey, conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research between May 15 and 18, only 35 percent of the Palestinian people support Arafat; a full 95 percent favor sacking ministers suspected of corruption; and 83 percent favor holding elections in the next few months.

In Washington, meanwhile, a State Department official delivered a blow to Arafat's credibility. Briefing reporters on the department's first annual report on terrorism since September 11, Francis Taylor, the secretary of state's coordinator for counterterrorism, mentioned in passing that the documents Israel captured last month at Arafat's compound in Ramallah are authentic. Arafat and his deputies have insisted they are forgeries.

Two of the documents the Israelis have made public show Arafat's signature authorizing cash disbursements to members of the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade, a group the State Department designated this year as a foreign terrorist organization. "We don't have any question about the authenticity of the documents provided by the Israeli government," said Taylor. His statement is significant because it can be assumed to reflect the CIA's independent, classified analysis of the seized documents. All in all, Ambassador Taylor's admission reinforces the Israeli government's contention that it had good reasons for attacking Arafat's security apparatus--though Taylor's report, amazingly, was critical of Israel's destruction of Arafat's "security infrastructure."

One Palestinian who is watching Arafat closely is Omar Ibrahim Karsou, a currency trader turned political activist who until recently was based in Ramallah. "I wouldn't want to be in Arafat's shoes right now," he said in Washington last week.

Karsou has just announced the formation of a new organization, Democracy in Palestine, aimed at sparking a democratic challenge to Arafat's rule. In recent months he has met with senior officials at the Pentagon, the National Security Council, and the State Department to discuss the practical prospects for alternative leadership for the Palestinian people, but only recently did he judge the political climate right for a public announcement. "If the Palestinians see there is international pressure," he says, "then there is a good chance of ousting the regime."

Such pressure has started coming from none other than George W. Bush. After meeting with Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon on May7, the president told reporters, "It's important for all of us to work out a way to develop the institutions necessary for there to be a Palestinian Authority that's got the capacity to keep security, . . . as well as a Palestinian Authority that's got the ability to help promote hope for the future of her people."

Following the president's call for reform, administration officials say the White House instructed the State Department to seek out moderate leaders within the Palestinian Authority who would be willing eventually to negotiate with Israel. "For now, we are all trying to figure out exactly what we mean when we say, 'reform,'" one administration official said last week. "The Israelis want reform to mean regime change, Arafat wants reform to mean nothing. Right now we are in the middle."

Omar Karsou, for his part, warns against the United States' presuming to pick new leaders for the Palestinian people. He sees his own role as that of catalyst for change, he says, not leader in exile. But the fact that Karsou and others are willing to oppose Arafat publicly could crumble the longstanding article of faith in the Bureau of Near East Affairs at the State Department that Arafat is the only viable leader of the Palestinian people and the only person capable of ending the intifada.

Meyrav Wurmser, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Middle East Studies and one of Karsou's hosts in Washington, said Wednesday, "The fact that people like Omar Karsou are stepping forward shows Arafat's vulnerability. It is a sign of the great deal of frustration that is building among Arafat's people."

Indeed, in one of the most direct challenges to his authority since the creation of the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian Legislative Council on May 16 called on Arafat to oust his current cabinet within 45 days. Earlier in May, Arafat's trusted adviser and liaison to the Palestinian legislature Nabil Amr resigned. Also in May, Abdul Sattar Qassem, a Palestinian political scientist who in the past has defended suicide bombings, declared his candidacy for president of the authority if Arafat should hold elections.