Following intense internal maneuvering and international pressure, Yasser Arafat has agreed to a new government proposed by Prime Minister-designate Mahmud Abbas (Abu Mazen), paving the way for Washington to release the long-delayed ‘road map’ for an independent, democratic Palestinian state. But can Abbas implement genuine reform? How do Palestinians view the issue of reform, and how are different Palestinian factions likely to respond to Abbas’ premiership? What is the relationship between reform and attempts to negotiate Arab-Israeli peace?

Amy Hawthorne, Associate, Carnegie Endowment Audio
Nathan Brown, Professor, George Washington University Audio
Larry Garber, Director, USAID Mission to West Bank and Gaza Audio
Salim Tamari, Visiting Professor, New York University, Director, Institute of Jerusalem Studies, Jerusalem Audio

Q and A

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Event Summary

Amy Hawthorne's Introductory Remarks

Several key developments have occurred in the realm of Palestinian political reform in the last months. For example, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has created an independent election commission, Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) was nominated to the newly created prime minister position in March 2003 and confirmed in April, and a new cabinet, which includes several leading reformists, was approved along with Abu Mazen. This has paved the way for the United States to issue formally the "Roadmap for Peace" ("A Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict"), which calls for further reforms.

Such reforms would seem to make Palestinians the envy of democratic reformers elsewhere in the region. But reforms raise as many questions as they answer regarding the nature of the accomplishments and the prospects for future progress. There are three broad categories of questions relating to reform. First, what is the impact of these reforms on internal Palestinians politics? Will they reshape Palestinian politics towards democracy, or are they irrelevant to the reality of how power is exercised in the PA? How do key Palestinian factions view the issue of reform? Will reform be a catalyst for national consensus, or a source of polarization and conflict? How viable is the leadership of Abu Mazen?

Second, what is the impact of these reforms on the Palestinian-Israeli peace process? What if genuine reforms empower political factions that have a different vision of peace than that held by the United States and Israel?

Third, what role does intensive external pressure play in fostering genuine indigenous democracy, especially if the parties involved have different definitions and perceptions of political reform?

Summary of Nathan Brown's Remarks

Palestinian political institutions have existed at least since the time of the British mandate. These institutions have provided a governance structure for the Palestinian people despite the absence of a formal internationally recognized state. The Palestinian territories do not need institution building as much as they need institutional reform.

Palestinian institutions have experienced four phases of development since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. The first phase (1993-1996) revealed a Palestinian Authority that was similar to regimes in many Arab countries. The laws issued resembled those of neighboring countries, particularly Egypt. The structure was authoritarian, based on a strong presidency with immense powers granted to the security forces. In 1996, a second phase began with the election of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). The PLC set out to draft a series of laws that were intended to transform the Palestinian Authority into a democracy. These laws were relatively liberal in many respects, and attempted to limit the powers of the presidency and the security forces. Yet these laws could not be implemented without the approval of Yasser Arafat, the president of the Palestinian Authority, and he did not implement many of them (in many cases, he did not even sign them into law). This left Palestinian institutions democratic on paper, but in reality authoritarian. The third phase began in September 2000 with the outbreak of the second Intifada. Issues of reform became subordinate to the immediate crisis with Israel, hindering any progress on the reform agenda. This changed in April 2002 following the Israeli incursions into major Palestinian cities in the West Bank and Gaza, which marked the beginning of the fourth phase, when the Palestinians realized that their weak institutions could not adequately fulfill their needs or face Israeli challenges. Pressure from the United States, Israel and the European Union, who wanted a new leadership not tainted by violence, forced the reform agenda into the international spotlight. The process of Palestinian reform was revitalized.

Recent accomplishments of reform are evident in three main areas. The laws drafted by the PLC after 1996 have been approved by Arafat, which will have significant effect on legal reform (e.g., the law on the judiciary). Fiscal reform has resulted in more governmental transparency, although financial accountability has yet to be fully established. Considerable progress has also occurred in constitutional reform. Arafat finally signed the Basic Law in May 2002 and significant work has been done on drafting a constitution. The creation of the prime ministerial position has limited the powers of Arafat. Despite Arafat's maintaining control over key areas, theoretically the Palestinian prime minister is stronger than most of his counterparts in the Arab world.

While in the past year there has been a flurry of laws signed by Arafat, there is a long way to go with regard to implementation. There is no actual democracy in the Palestinian territories. The renewed Israeli-Palestinian violence and its implications for Palestinian politics have hindered the implementation of some of these reforms. For example, the current security, political and economic conditions in the Palestinian territories make the prospect of holding elections a remote one, at least up until now.

Many Palestinians complain that international pressure for reform is not motivated by concern for Palestinian interests. While there is an element of truth to these complaints, most of the reforms have emanated from Palestinians themselves, and were not simply imposed from abroad. These domestic calls for reform have provided the blueprint for the ongoing reform process.

Summary of Larry Garber's Remarks

There are four aspects of Palestinian reform that need further examination to assess the extent of actual progress in the West Bank and Gaza. First is structural reform. Constitutional reforms have been encouraging, particularly with regard to the recent creation of the prime minister position. The reforms have also established better separation of the legislative and executive bodies. The PLC has already challenged Arafat twice by threatening a no-confidence vote, in September 2002 and February 2003, and has asserted its will in both times. This reflects the growing independence of the legislative body. Yet it remains unclear whether the creation of a prime minister position represents genuine reform or simply a change of personnel in leadership. The role of the cabinet and its responsibilities need to be fully defined in order to have a clearer understanding of the new shape of the Palestinian Authority.

Second is governance reform. Finance Minister Salam Fayyad has initiated a series of governance reforms during the last ten months that represent a significant accomplishment. These reforms have been mainly in the financial sector, as the improvement of financial transparency is essential for overall reform. The PA has also begun to reform the internal structures of various ministries to improve their operation.

Third is political reform. Several months ago there was international emphasis on the importance of holding elections as a necessary first step towards political reform. Today, however, there is a different perception that values the development of political parties and civil society prior to convening elections. The role of civil society in political reform has to be clearly defined to facilitate healthy public participation in civic life.

Fourth is security reform. Obviously, this is the most important aspect of reform to the Israelis. The security apparatus needs to be restructured in a way that effectively combats terrorism. The internal chains of command need to be better organized. Key issues involve the control, structure, size, training and funding of any reconstituted security forces. The PA's attempts to bring the security forces under the control of the cabinet have not been as successful as other reform processes.

Role of the International Community
The topic of Palestinian reform has long been on the agenda of policy dialogues with the Palestinians, but was never considered of primary importance. Only recently did the international community begin to focus on Palestinian reform, as a result of President Bush's speech on June 24, 2002 and the announcement of Arafat's 100-day reform plan two days later. The 100-day plan called for reforms in ministries, institutions and security apparatuses, as well as in the ministry of finance and the judiciary. Key donor countries formed a taskforce to work directly with the Palestinian Authority on reform. The taskforce developed a policy dialogue with seven baskets: market reform, financial accountability, ministerial and civil service reform, rule of law, elections, local government and civil society.

The "Roadmap"
The recently published Roadmap defines the steps that Israelis and Palestinians must undertake, including Palestinian reform, to reach a peaceful resolution of the crisis. While some of the reforms have already been met, there are more challenging requirements ahead. For example, the Roadmap calls for free and fair elections to be held in the first phase [present - May 2003]. In the best of circumstances, the PA would need at least six months to convene elections. Considering that the current circumstances are not ideal, some argue that Abu Mazen's government would need twelve to fifteen months to be able to convene "meaningful" elections.

Summary of Salim Tamari's Remarks

Since September 11th, American foreign policy has been formulated almost wholly in the context of combating terrorism. Thus, the issue of Palestinian reform is seen in Washington mostly through the narrow prism of terrorism. Palestinians feel the Bush administration is not sympathetic to its concerns, including on reform. The failure of the administration to retract or apologize for the August 2002 statements by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in which he referred to the West Bank and Gaza as "the so-called occupied territories" indicates to Palestinians the administration's bias against them. In Palestinians' eyes, the administration views Palestinian reform merely as a mechanism of protecting Israel from terrorism, rather than as a process of strengthening the Palestinian institutions for the sake of democracy.

In fact, the reforms that have been demanded by the Palestinian people since 1996 involve more than just enhancing control over the Palestinian security apparatus, the focus of the international reform agenda. They involve accountability, economic reform, freedom of expression, protection of civil society and fiscal transparency. These demands previously received very little attention from the international community, including the United States. Furthermore, Israel supported the Palestinian Authority in its deviations from the rule of law in order to ensure Israel's own security. This was because Israel and the United States believed that the major function of the Palestinian Authority was to maintain control over the radical groups, and hence that the PA should be allowed some latitude in its governance to accomplish this goal.

The United States and the European Union did not begin to discuss Palestinian reform until well into the current Intifada, when they realized that the current Palestinian regime had lost control over radical factions and the security situation had dramatically worsened. Arafat lost his sovereignty over the Palestinian territories due to Israeli incursions, the expansion of Jewish settlements and the deterioration of the economy, among other reasons. Accordingly, it became in the Western and the Israeli interest to promote reform for the purpose of spurring the Palestinian leadership to curb terrorism and violence, even if this required a change of leadership.

External pressure was effective in reviving the reform agenda and in providing the Palestinian Authority with a model it can follow, particularly with regard to the establishment of accountability, transparency and the rule of law. Nonetheless, from the perspective of the United States and Israel, the reform of the security apparatus remains the most important factor in this process. They view the reform agenda as a reciprocal process, in which Israel would not grant Palestinians their freedom until the PA controls radical forces. However, the PA would not be able to control such factions unless there is overall reform that gives Palestinians a stake in the parliamentary system and in political freedom in a viable state. Without genuine political freedom, no security forces will be able fully to suppress extremist groups. Conditioning peace on political reform is not helpful to either process because violence is not a random cycle, but is a product of occupation. Israeli-Palestinian violence is a political conflict, not an inevitable cultural or religious clash, meaning that it can be stopped, as we have seen it stopped before.

Summary of Discussion

Conditions for Reform
Tamari and Brown agreed that the prospects for Abu Mazen's success in reform efforts depend on the level of cooperation he receives from Arafat and from Israel. Abu Mazen cannot control the Palestinian Authority without Arafat's support. This requires giving Arafat the necessary respect and avoiding his complete alienation - steps Israel may oppose. Israel needs to take immediate steps of withdrawal from the territories re-occupied since September 2000; otherwise, Abu Mazen will not be able to convince his people of the feasibility of non-violent resistance. Garber added that it is essential for Israel to facilitate the holding of Palestinian elections. Israel has not provided the necessary freedom of movement for this to be contemplated; for example, the PLC meetings cannot be held without Israel's approval. Freedom of movement has to be established as a priority for Palestinian reform. Garber also argued that reform cannot be accomplished independently, but has to be undertaken within an integrated process of improving the humanitarian, economic, and security aspects of Palestinian lives.

Security Reform
The panelists discussed the potential structure of Palestinian security forces after their reform. Garber explained that the Roadmap addressed three aspects with regard to the security forces: intelligence, commitment to combating terrorism, and a new structure for recruitment and funding. Tamari argued that it is important to centralize the security forces and have them operate within the rule of law to avoid the excessive proliferation of weapons and potential for chaos. He also added that the many armed Jewish settlers currently operating outside the limits of Israeli or Palestinian laws and attacking Palestinian civilians while enjoying the protection of the Israeli army are also a part of the security situation. Brown mentioned there is an another often-overlooked dimension to security reform. Palestinian reformers have long been critical of Palestinian state security courts which were set up to maintain internal security. Palestinian reformers are renewing their calls to abolish these courts, and they may be gaining ground. Garber indicated that this has been a demand set forth by international actors as well.

The Roadmap
Garber stated that there are three factors that provide hope for the success of the Roadmap: the renewed international engagement in light of the Iraq war, Abu Mazen's appointment as prime minister, and the desire from both sides to change the disastrous status quo. Brown expressed his pessimism about the success of the Roadmap particularly because the extent of the Bush administration's commitment to resolving the Middle East conflict remains unclear, but Brown also mentioned that the Roadmap is different from its predecessor documents and still has potential for success.

Summary Prepared by Tamer Nagy Mahmoud, Junior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment