Posted on Sun, May. 12, 2002

Trudy Rubin | Palestinian reforms won't happen without statehood talks

A miraculous new solution has just been discovered for the Mideast conflict: force the Palestinians to establish democracy.

This is the core of the proposal Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon brought to Washington last week. Sharon told journalists he wanted to postpone new peace talks until the Palestinians revamped their government so as to sideline Yasir Arafat - and that President Bush backed him. A White House spokesman denied the President had said any such thing.

The White House presumably realized that Sharon had it exactly backward. There's only one way to reform the Palestinian Authority, or end Palestinian suicide bombings. It requires expediting - not delaying - peace talks and spelling out their goal clearly: the establishment of a Palestinian state within a reasonable time.

In fact, Israeli military incursions into the West Bank have created an opening for Palestinian reforms, and for peace talks. The past months' events have caused much soul searching among Palestinian intellectuals. Articles in the Palestinian press call for rebuilding their shattered institutions in a better way.

In private, Palestinians call for curbing the corruption around Arafat and holding new legislative elections. Some senior Palestinians are demanding unification of the many armed and competing Palestinian security bodies so they can be better controlled at the top.

These are the kinds of reforms Sharon - and the Bush administration - allegedly seek. But such reforms will not happen if there's no prospect of ending Israeli occupation.

Why not? First, because the Palestinian government may not be able to function without a clear political horizon.

Palestinian civilian ministries were thoroughly destroyed by Israeli military forces, their computers and furniture trashed and their files gutted. The same happened to nongovernmental agencies in Ramallah that are funded with European and American grants. I visited agencies that deal with health research and small business development whose premises had been wrecked and equipment broken.

It's hard to grasp how such destruction furthers the goal of reforming Palestinian government. What's clearer is that Western governments will be reluctant to refund Palestinian institutions - let alone press for reforms - if they have to worry that equipment may be destroyed again by Israeli military strikes.

Second, as long as there is no horizon for ending occupation, would-be Palestinian reformers will be eclipsed by armed militias. Last week Sharon said it's "premature" to speak of a Palestinian state (he's only willing to consider long-term interim arrangements). He also said it's "premature" to address the issue of Jewish settlement growth on the West Bank. But the more that settlements expand, the smaller the chances for a future Palestinian state.

Under such circumstances it's useless to send CIA Director George Tenet to the West Bank to help reform Palestinian security services in hopes they might actually crack down on bombers.

Under the Oslo peace process, the Palestinians agreed to cooperate on security in exchange for progress toward a Palestinian state. That bargain often failed, but it worked briefly in the mid-1990s when the peace process was moving. The current window of opportunity to reinstate the bargain will shut quickly if there's no prospect of renewed political talks.

If the Bush administration would put forward an American plan that fleshed out the outlines of a final deal, it could put Palestinians to the test. Potential leaders now reluctant to challenge Arafat might have the courage to speak out, with encouragement from moderate Arab leaders.

But it is ludicrous to talk of Palestinian state-building and constitutional conventions while ordinary West Bankers can't leave their towns or reach their schools. It is bizarre to talk of foreign investment in the West Bank when towns there are separated by Israeli military checkpoints and special roads for settlers.

The White House rebuffed Sharon's call to postpone talks until a new Palestinian Authority dumps Arafat. But Bush hasn't stipulated that reforms and talks on statehood must coincide.

Without that pairing, talk of promoting Palestinian democracy is sheer hypocrisy.