The Palestinian Dilemma: Whether to Jettison Arafat

For people like Sam Bahour, a 37-year-old telecom entrepreneur, life in the occupied West Bank is getting grimmer. Bahour is afraid to leave his home in Ramallah even in the few hours when curfew is lifted because a contingent of Israeli troops have taken over the house across the road. One of their tanks is parked outside. A persistent critic of the disastrous policies of the Palestinian Authority, Bahour nevertheless wonders whether change is possible under such conditions. "People know there is a need for reform," he says. "But it is a joke when we are locked up in our homes."

That's the reality Palestinians confront as they ponder upcoming elections. Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat has declared presidential and legislative elections for this coming January--in response to President George W. Bush's recent call for reform in the Palestinian Authority. The leadership has so far dismissed U.S. demands that they replace Arafat. Nevertheless, the elections could give the 3 million Palestinians who reside in the West Bank and Gaza the chance to debate what course for them really makes sense.

Arafat, who hasn't officially declared, is expected to run. The latest polls show him with 35% support--down from the 75% of the mid-1990s but ahead of his nearest challenger, says the Palestinian Center for Policy & Survey Research. "Most Palestinians do realize without the [U.S.] President reminding them that Arafat has failed," says Khalil I. Shikaki, the center's director. But most Palestinians "don't want him to go." Arafat's nearest rival, backed by 19%, is Marwan Barghouti, a leader of Arafat's Fatah movement who is now languishing in an Israeli jail. Elections could also give a bigger voice to the Islamic organizations Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which are backed by 25% of voters. "There is really no opposition waiting in the wings to take over from Arafat," says Jonathan Figel, a former Israeli military governor of Ramallah.

If there is to be serious change in Palestinian politics, moderate Arab states will likely be involved. The Egyptians, who have smashed their own Islamic insurgency, may offer the Palestinians help in rounding up suicide bombers. A more crucial contribution from Egypt or Saudi Arabia could be brokering a deal between the U.S. and Arafat that saves the Palestinian chief some face. "If our effort has any chance of success, it has to come from the Saudis and others putting pressure on the Palestinians," says one Administration source.

That could involve kicking the Palestinian leader upstairs. One idea making the rounds is to award him a ceremonial role such as the presidency of the Palestinian National Council, which represents Palestinians worldwide, while letting younger leaders run for the post of Prime Minister. "Egypt will not ask Arafat to leave but will not object to a Palestinian alternative to Arafat," says Abdel Moneim Said, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

The huge setbacks of recent years leave Palestinian society ripe for such changes. But the intense debate needed to shift the leadership is unlikely to happen as long as Israeli tanks are besieging Palestinian cities. And some analysts wonder whether the U.S. will follow through and recognize a Palestinian state if a leader other than Arafat is elected. "It all depends on the offer. If Arafat steps aside, what do the Palestinians get in return?" asks Emad Shahin, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo. Despite such questions, the Palestinians have few other options than to try and start the painful process of reform.

By Stanley Reed in London and Stan Crock in Washington, with Neal Sandler in Jerusalem and Susan Postlewaite in Cairo

Edited by Rose Brady

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