Arafat should be called Yassir the Dependable for his nearly unbroken forty-year record of breaking -- or ignoring -- any promise he makes which might, if carried out, contribute to peace. For example, a little over a week ago, he was promising to reform his corrupt Palestinian Authority and hold elections for the legislature and his position as leader.
Voilà! He put his words into action over this last weekend. Or did he? Arafat has always made Big Announcements when he felt the pressure in the international boiler was rising to a dangerous level. This past weekend Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak visited President Bush at Camp David and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was about to arrive for a powwow at the White House.
In the past, Arafat's Big Announcement often has taken the form of denouncing (in English) suicide bombings and promising to arrest terrorists (who were booked, then let go). This time the announcement was so big it deserved a trumpet fanfare: Arafat reshuffled his cabinet and reduced it in size; his information minister told the press elections would be held next January; and Arafat said he would reduce his security units from nine to six.
There is a Catch-22 to each of these. Although he reduced the cabinet from 31 to 21 ministers, he carefully skirted the call by critics to appoint a prime minister to coordinate and lead the work of the ministers. As he has since the Palestine Authority was created, in the wake of the Oslo Accords, Arafat holds the reins tightly.
As for the promise to hold municipal elections this fall and parliamentary and leadership elections next January, the news media, in reporting this, seem to have forgotten that about 10 days ago Arafat said elections would be held only after all Israeli forces are withdrawn from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This will not happen as long as Palestinian terrorists blow themselves up in Israeli markets, restaurants and buses. The bombings show no sign of stopping, so Arafat has created for himself a handy excuse for laying aside his election promise.
In his Big Announcement, Arafat divested himself of the interior minister's portfolio (which he has held for eight years) and named a new minister who will be, as his spokesman put it, "responsible for all the security issues inside the Palestinian territories (and to) supervise all the security establishments." Who is this new security czar? One of Arafat's guerrilla "generals," one Abdel Razak Yehiyeh, a 73-year-old cipher who is widely seen as a cat's paw for Arafat. Conspicuously avoided was the chief of security in Gaza, well-regarded internationally as a man who could effectively reform the security operation.
Why, by the way, does Arafat need six security agencies? His jurisdiction is geographically small and compact. Logic would dictate three at most: a Secret Service-type detail to protect leaders; a standard police force for civilian police work; and a small military defense group. The last two functions might be combined. The reason Arafat wants so many is to prevent any one from becoming large enough that it might be able to turn him out.
Arafat hopes his Big Announcement will distract international attention so that he can avoid any settlement which would eliminate options making it possible to one day drive the Israelis into the sea (the "right" of Palestinian "refugees" to return to Israeli is one such). Without such options Arafat would have to persuade the more radical elements among the Palestinians to abandon their hope of destroying Israel. And, he would have to lead a fledgling state, building its infrastructure. He has neither the inclination nor experience to do either. The only thing he knows well is stirring up conflict.
It is time for the Europeans and the Saudis (if they are serious about settling the matter -- and they may be) to lean heavily on Arafat to name a prime minister, giving him the authority to run things, then stand aside to become a father figure to his people. If they do not, Arafat will fall into his dependable pattern of not giving any real authority to anyone else and always finding an excuse to stall reforms and efforts to bring peace.