The Common Good
July-August 1997

A Squandered Opportunity

by Jim Rice | July-August 1997

Arafat's squandered opportunity

In the decades under Israeli occupation, Palestinian civic leaders have developed a clear understanding of and commitment to human rights, freedom, and democracy. So it’s not surprising that as a Palestinian state emerges in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, the establishment of democratic institutions has been given the highest attention.

It’s also not surprising that such efforts have met with powerful opposition. Unfortunately, the biggest obstacle to Palestinian democracy may well be the embryonic state’s founding father, Yasir Arafat.

The May 20 arrest of Palestinian-American journalist Daoud Kuttab was merely the latest example of Arafat’s autocratic impulses. With the Middle East peace process teetering on the edge, Arafat—who last year was overwhelmingly elected president of the newly established Palestinian Authority—has increasingly acted more like a petty despot than head of a democratic state.

In doing so, Arafat has managed to squander a golden opportunity to move Palestine toward genuine autonomy and freedom. The world has increasingly seen Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration as doing everything possible to scuttle the peace process—including pushing settlements and expansion at all costs, rampant violations of Palestinian human rights by Israeli security forces, and generally undercutting the Oslo accords. The situation was ripe for a nonviolent movement, building on the intifada, that would take the final steps toward a peaceful, independent Palestinian nation. But the Palestinian Nelson Mandela has not emerged—or, more accurately, not been allowed to emerge by Arafat and his strong-armed rule.

Arafat’s handling of the Kuttab case could be seen as laughably inept, but such police-state tactics are deadly serious. In the almost-three years since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, 14 Palestinians have been murdered in prison by Arafat’s thugs. Kuttab’s crime, for which he was imprisoned a week but never charged, was simply the televising of a session of the Palestinian Legislative Council. To put it in perspective, it’s as if the head of C-SPAN in this country were arrested for broadcasting congressional debate that criticized Clinton.

And therein lies the rub: Arafat’s skin has grown thinner and thinner as his critics grow bolder. The 88-member Palestinian Council has begun to act like a genuinely democratic parliament, including questioning the actions of the executive branch (Arafat’s Palestinian Authority). The session that led to Kuttab’s arrest dealt with charges of corruption and mismanagement leveled at Palestinian Authority officials, many of whom live conspicuously lavish lifestyles—allegations that, ironically, have been since confirmed by an audit ordered by Arafat. Kuttab’s broadcast of the Council session was jammed by the official, Arafat-controlled TV station, so Kuttab distributed tapes of the meeting to independent stations throughout the West Bank. Arafat was reported to be "irked," and ordered Kuttab arrested.

Kuttab has been a fearless critic of Israeli human rights abuses—he recently decried Jewish settlements as an "apartheid-like situation"—and he was awarded last year the International Press Freedom Award for his opposition to censorship by both Israeli and Palestinian authorities. But what’s good for the goose apparently isn’t for the gander, as his equal-opportunity application of human rights standards was not at all well received.

Daoud Kuttab’s brother, Jonathan, told Sojourners that Arafat was "acting almost like a petty Third World dictator—that doesn’t fit with a Palestinian population that is very thirsty for a chance to participate in democratic governance." It is indeed an explosive mix: a rigid autocrat lording it over a long-oppressed people more than ready for genuine freedom and democratic self-rule.

Extremists have long held hostage prospects for peace in the Middle East. In the past they’ve been mostly on the margins—radical Jewish zealots, on the one hand, or the militants of Hamas, on the other. Now they’ve been elected to office, with bellicose acts by Netanyahu providing the excuse for Arafat’s petty despotism, with most of the brunt borne by his own people.

One of the most difficult of all political transitions is that from revolution to democracy; guerrilla leaders rarely make exemplary democrats. And respect for human rights cannot be postponed until some mythical day when that transition is complete. As Palestinian activist Bassam Eid said, "I believe we can have a democracy, but we will have it only by practicing it."

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