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Middle East Roundtable / Edition 4 Volume 1

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What did you do today, to promote peace?

Deep reform needed, not resignation
a conversation with Bassam Salahi

bitterlemons: In your view, what prompted the kidnappings in the Gaza Strip?

Salahi: First of all, using arms against others for political purposes is a very bad development in Palestinian internal relations. Causing problems in Gaza now is not helpful for the Palestinians, even though internal pressure for reforms in the Palestinian Authority is necessary. These events took place because there is conflict between those in power now and those who want more power in the Authority in general and in security agencies in particular. It is not an issue of security reforms but of who is in power.

bitterlemons: Why did Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei (Abu Ala) tender his resignation now, after Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat finally agreed with him to restructure the security forces?

Salahi: I think it was a mistake to tender his resignation before giving the present government a chance to stop the conflict in Gaza. But in general Abu Ala thinks he cannot continue like this because of the government's lack of power, especially on security, which is controlled by Arafat. The resignation of the government now will not support reforms but will cause difficulties for all Palestinian goals. The Israeli contention that there is no Palestinian negotiating partner will be reinforced by this situation. The Israelis will continue their escalation in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, using the lack of a prime minister as an excuse not to talk to the Palestinians. At the same time, the PA's difficulties with the United States will resume, since this crisis seems to confirm US complaints about the Palestinian Authority.

If the government can succeed in its role by asking the Palestinian masses to help stop this dangerous development, it can justify its place in the Palestinian system. So this is a test for the Palestinian system. If the PA can get control of the security situation, it will become more powerful than before. If, on the other hand, the government resigns or does nothing, the public judgment will be negative.

bitterlemons: What is the connection, if any, between the Palestinian government's collapse and the Israeli government's search for a coalition with Labor?

Salahi: The connection is indirect, not direct. I think a coalition government in Israel would strengthen Sharon's plan and add impetus to the Palestinians' demands for more power in their government. Under a coalition, Sharon's plan would be implemented faster. The PA's role is being tested. If the PA has clear duties related to the disengagement plan, especially for negotiations and security, it can continue working with Egypt and others to manage Sharon's plan.

There are different positions among Palestinian groups regarding Sharon's plan. The majority thinks we should not negotiate on the basis of Sharon's plan and we should go back to the roadmap or the United Nations. Sharon's plan is now different from what he gave to Bush and what the Israelis have talked about with the Egyptians. None of the Palestinians knows exactly what Sharon's plan is, but in general the majority of Palestinians thinks this is a Sharon maneuver to create more difficulties and that in the end Israel will not leave the Gaza Strip. Abu Ala cannot continue working for political mobilization without a united Palestinian concept on the Egyptian initiative and Sharon's plan.

Any initiative, even the Egyptian initiative, has a duty to clarify the Israeli government's disengagement plan and the plan's relationship to the wall and to withdrawal from PA territory, which is necessary for PA elections to take place before March 2005. The PA has to think about the new developments in Israel. Some Palestinians think a coalition government in Israel will be worse for us; others think it will move something and bring us back to the roadmap. I don't think that Sharon and Likud will change their plans; Labor will accept Likud ideas, not vice versa.

bitterlemons: In the Israeli case, the dismissal of corruption charges against Sharon has made a coalition with Labor possible for the first time. What effect do ongoing charges of corruption against Arafat and other PA officials have on Palestinian coalition building?

Salahi: In Israel, even though there is not a complete legal case against Sharon, the majority thinks that Sharon has a relationship with corruption. Corruption in the Israeli political system is clear in many ways and with different ministers or former ministers. On the Palestinian side, there are many issues of corruption in addition to the main issue of how to stop Israeli aggression and the wall, which has damaged all the Palestinian areas.

Palestinians think they will not be successful against Israeli aggression without deep reform in their own political system. PA corruption should stop, and we should go to the UN to make Israel withdraw from PA territory so that we can hold elections under UN supervision. Even if in Israel they manage with their corruption, we cannot manage ours, because it means that the occupation will continue. With elections, we can stop corruption and other abuses of the democratic system. The legislative council is now discussing changing the electoral system. Hopefully this will result in a more democratic system.

bitterlemons: How will this crisis affect the Palestinian government and agenda in the long term?

Salahi: For the Palestinians, the first priority now is to stop this crisis. The second is to disarm armed groups and implement reforms of the security agencies, so that only trained professionals work in these areas. We also need to address social and economic priorities, stop corruption, and rebuild the damaged institutions of the PA and Palestine Liberation Organization.-Published 19/7/2004©bitterlemons.org

Bassam Salahi is the secretary general of the Palestinian People's Party and a member of the PLO Central Committee. He was a member of the first intifada's United Intifada Leadership.

Unstable governments

Bitterlemons-international.org aspires to engender greater understanding about the Middle East region and open a new common space for world thinkers and political leaders to present their viewpoints and initiatives on the region. Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at ghassan@bitterlemons-international.org and yossi@bitterlemons-international.org, respectively.

hagalil.com 27-02-2004



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