The Palestinian Authority is the site of two ongoing tragedies: the deadly conflict between Jew and Arab; and Yasser Arafat's slide into raw dictatorship. Why do we hear so much about the first, yet virtually nothing about the second? Perhaps it is because, since the Palestinians are Arabs, Western pundits have applied to their state-in-embryo the bigotry of low expectations. Although the European Union squawks now and then about corruption and tyranny, few listen. For the most part, Western leaders have come to terms with the fact that their aid money is being used to construct a typically repressive Middle Eastern dictatorship. Israel, the subject of so much venom, is democratic. But in the Arab world, there is not a single state in which the leader is chosen by democratic means.
The political structure of the Palestinian Authority has an important effect on the peace process. Mr. Arafat has skimmed billions of dollars since the creation of the PA, and has turned his administration into a corrupt holding company for a small group of cronies. Even Arab nations no longer trust the regime, and prefer to spend their aid money on projects that are not controlled by the PA. If the administration were democratic, Mr. Arafat and his cronies would be held to account for their corruption -- and for the fact that per capita GDP in the West Bank has fallen by more than half since the PA was created in 1994. The only way he can distract the populace and legitimize his rule is to play up his ostensibly Saladin-like campaign against the Israeli occupiers. In the absence of a demonized external enemy, Mr. Arafat's hold on power would crumble.
Of course, Mr. Arafat has another reason to avoid peace with Israel: He yearns for a Palestine that covers all of what is now Israel, and he can only get it if he can somehow instigate a large-scale war in the region. But short-term political calculations also figure prominently in Mr. Arafat's stubbornness. At Camp David, he was offered a state that covered virtually all of the West Bank and a chunk of Jerusalem that included the Temple Mount. It was a deal so sweet, it cost former Prime Minister Ehud Barak his job. According to Dennis Ross, who acted as Middle East envoy under Bill Clinton, "I had one Palestinian negotiator say to me, 'If we can't do an agreement under these circumstances, we ought to be fired.'" Yet Mr. Arafat rejected the deal without even proposing a counter-offer. Had he accepted, he might have been deposed by now: For a despot whose legitimacy is predicated on an external threat, peace is tantamount to political suicide. Predictably, Mr. Arafat has done nothing to prepare Palestinians for peace in the months since Camp David. Palestinian media and schools systematically stoke hatred against Israel; 12-year-old rock-throwers are sent to be maimed or killed for the sake of Associated Press photographers; and the Mufti of Jerusalem, preaches that the Jews tried to steal November's U.S. presidential election so that "the Jew Lieberman [could] take over."
What all this means is that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is quite correct to take a long-term view toward peace negotiations. It is not this or that fragment of land that is holding up peace, but the attitude of dictators -- in Damascus as well as on the West Bank -- whose popular legitimacy is predicated on the demonization of an external enemy. Only when this attitude changes, as it has, partly, in Egypt and Jordan over the decades, will true peace be possible. Mr. Sharon and the rest of us are in for a long wait.
©2001 - National Post