Yasser Arafat was in South Africa this week, helping to celebrate the birth of a new democratic government. But the peripatetic chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization ought more usefully to have been at his Tunis headquarters, trying to put together the Palestinian governing council that was supposed to have been ready Wednesday to take over from Israel the administration of the Gaza Strip and Jericho.
Arafat's inability to assemble a ready-to-go 24-member council signals an undisguised rebuff to his leadership, which can be traced directly to rising and increasingly vocal aversion to his autocratic management style. Such well-known Palestinian political figures as Faisal Husseini, Farouk Kaddoumi and Mahmoud Abbas are said by PLO insiders to have refused to serve on the council, which will exercise limited executive and legislative authority until a popularly elected governing body is chosen later this year. Arafat will head the council, and he has made plain he expects to remain in charge after free elections. But the refusal of prominent Palestinians to put themselves under his command on the council--some say bluntly it would be political suicide to do so--along with other signs of his shrinking popularity deepen doubts about the prospects for orderly and stable interim Palestinian self-rule.
The loser in all this isn't Israel, which can't wait to cut itself lose from the turbulence in Gaza. The losers are the Palestinians in the territories, who want an end to Israeli military rule and the chance to handle their own civic affairs but who also desperately need the more than $2 billion in developmental and other aid pledged by the World Bank and other donors. Those funds, however, won't be released until the governing authority is in place.
Arafat has blamed everyone in sight for his problems, but it's clear where the fault lies. The orderly transfer of power called for in last week's Cairo accord can't occur until a Palestinian authority is in place, and Arafat so far has proved incapable of forming such a body. That not only leaves Palestinian political aspirations up in the air, it also leaves the long-term viability of the U.S.-sponsored peace process very much in doubt.