Changes are afoot in the Palestinian Authority. This past week, the Palestinian Legislative Council voted 64-3 to create the position of prime minister. All signs are that Chairman Yasser Arafat --who has dominated the Palestinian Authority since its inception -- will appoint his long-time second in command, Mahmoud Abbas (better known as Abu Mazen). In the United States and Israel, which have both demanded Palestinian democratization, the move has been taken as a positive sign. Indeed, U.S. President George W. Bush said yesterday that Mr. Mazen's confirmation would permit the countries to go forward with the President's "road map for peace." Yet it remains to be seen whether this is a harbinger of real reform -- or merely a cosmetic move designed to protect Mr. Arafat's crumbling autocracy from criticism.
Mr. Arafat's selection of Mr. Mazen, a veteran negotiator and well-known supporter of the peace process, was a nod to moderate Palestinians. Several months ago, Mr. Mazen was quoted as telling a closed-door meeting of Fatah activists in the Gaza Strip that the current uprising against Israel had been diverted from its "natural path" to one of weapons that the Palestinians "can't handle." He explained that in calculating the gains and losses of renewing violent opposition to Israel, "we will see that without any doubt what we lost was big and what we gained was small ... What happened in these two years, as we see it now, is a complete destruction of everything we built." To any reasonable Westerner, this seems like mere common sense. But in the Arab world, where criticism of terrorist "martyrs" is still largely taboo, these are brave words.
Born in what is now Israel in 1935, Mr. Mazen fled to Syria in 1948. In 1965, he co-founded Fatah -- the main movement within the PLO -- with Mr. Arafat, and was appointed head of the group's Department for National and International Relations in 1980. He followed Mr. Arafat when the PLO chairman was based successively in Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia, and also accompanied Mr. Arafat to the White House in 1993 to sign the first Oslo accords. Despite his relatively moderate reputation, Mr. Mazen has in the past given credence to some of the malign theories about Jews that are typical fare in the region. In his Arabic book, The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism, for instance, Mr. Mazen denied "the Zionist fantasy, the fantastic lie that six million Jews were killed" in the Holocaust. (To his mind, the real tally was a sixth that number.) Yet if Israeli public opinion is any guide, such pronouncements do not seem to have fatally undercut Mr. Mazen's position as a negotiator.
Many Palestinians, on the other hand, were underwhelmed by the appointment. Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, for instance, a well-known democracy advocate, agreed that the appointment was a good idea. "But, it's a bit late," he added, noting that "usually, a prime minister is elected, not appointed." There's also a widespread suspicion that Mr. Mazen will simply be an Arafat deputy with a fancy job title. Notwithstanding his grandiose job description, Mr. Mazen reportedly won't have much real power on key issues. Mr. Arafat apparently plans to retain control over security and peace talks, while the new prime minister will deal largely with domestic affairs, including naming and supervising cabinet ministers.
The PA's halting effort at reform shouldn't be seen as entirely negligible. (Consider that for the past eight months, a new Finance Minister, Salam Fayyad, has been quietly working to rid the PA of corruption -- and consolidating its investments to avoid cash leakage to terrorist groups.) But the circumscribed nature of Mr. Mazen's powers indicates that, consistent with the pattern he's followed since the PA was created a decade ago, Mr. Arafat wants to maintain his hold on power, keep his hand on the terrorism spigot, and control relations with the Israelis. Until the PA Chairman steps down entirely, it seems unlikely the PA will take any serious steps toward democracy, or peace.
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