On March 1, the Quartet (the United States, United Nations, European Union, and Russia) and other donors will meet in London to discuss ways to support the new Palestinian leadership in carrying out political, economic, and security reform, as well as preparing for Israeli disengagement from Gaza. Hosted by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the meeting builds on several years of donor efforts and will set the stage for a subsequent pledging conference.
Sustained international effort to press for Palestinian Authority (PA) reform emerged following President Bush’s June 2002 speech, in which he explicitly tied movement toward Palestinian statehood with PA reform. Within weeks of Bush’s speech, key donors (the United States, European Union, Russia, UN Secretary General, Norway, Japan, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund) formed the Task Force on Palestinian Reform (TFPR). Working with seven reform support groups organized by donors physically operating in the Palestinian territories, the TFPR established a series of specific benchmarks against which PA performance was evaluated at subsequent TFPR meetings in 2002 and 2003. This extensive international attention ensured that the issue of reform remained on the front burner, even as the socioeconomic situation in the Palestinian Territories deteriorated, and the conflict between Palestinian militants and Israeli Defense Forces intensified.
Since 2000, Palestinian reform efforts have been driven by internal as well as external pressures, especially advocacy by various Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) members and civil society activists. Together, these Palestinians made the issues of reform and anti-corruption a dominant theme in Palestinian political discourse. Even more important, internal pressures led to the appointment of the well-respected former International Monetary Fund (IMF) Resident Representative Salam Fayyad as Minister of Finance in June 2002, the PLC rejection of Arafat’s proposed cabinet (deemed insufficiently reform-minded) in September 2002, and the strengthening of the Prime Minister’s authorities in March 2003. Fayyad, in particular, has revolutionized PA practices, earning the trust of the international community and the Israeli authorities.
Elections, viewed by all as an integral component of the reform agenda, from the outset created a conundrum for the international community as well as for Palestinians. Despite profound rhetorical commitment to democratic processes, the United States was ambivalent about holding Palestinian presidential elections while Arafat was alive. For their part, Arafat and his inner circle were reluctant to schedule legislative or local elections, which they feared might result in a repudiation of their rule. Indeed, following Arafat’s death, there was a serious debate regarding whether Abu Mazen should be elected or simply crowned. Nonetheless, the pressure of Palestinian reformers, who have long advocated elections as a means to create a new dynamic in Palestinian society, bore fruit first with the decision to organize phased municipal elections and then the decision to schedule a presidential election within 60 days of Arafat’s death, as required by the Palestinian Basic Law.
Tellingly, the issue of security reform has not been on the TFPR agenda. Rather, the United States, with the concurrence of both the Israeli government and the PA, preferred to address this subject in a separate and exclusive forum, which represented an outgrowth of the arrangements that had existed since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993. The consequence of this policy decision was that security reform was detached from broader discussions of political and economic reform, including those areas such as rule of law and judicial reform, whereas there should have been an organic connectivity if the goal was a democratic system of government.
Many Palestinians view the above as ancient history and are hoping that, with Mahmoud Abbas’s election, an improved future awaits them. Consequences of the reform process of the past five years, however, will continue to inform developments during the coming months. For example, 2003 amendments to the Basic Law, seen as an important reform measure to curtail Arafat’s monopoly on power, now limit Mahmoud Abbas’s constitutional authority to the appointment of a prime minister and a limited number of other circumscribed ministerial responsibilities. The independent Central Election Commission, whose establishment was one of the major achievements of Palestinian reformers and which performed admirably in organizing the presidential election, has seen the resignation of several senior officials who believe the Commission was subjected to inappropriate, heavy-handed actions by senior Abbas supporters on election day. Most notably, the PA must now bring security reform back under its control in order to reestablish a monopoly of authority over the use of force for all who operate within the Palestinian territories.
All these efforts will take place under a bright international spotlight. Following the March 1 meeting, the TFPR will undoubtedly revitalize efforts both in their capitals and in the Palestinian territories.
Larry Garber, currently Executive Director of the New Israel Fund, directed the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) program in the West Bank and Gaza from 1999 to 2004.