Yasser Arafat has promised for years that the Palestinian state he dreams of creating and plans to lead would be secular, democratic and tolerant. But as negotiations with Israel move ponderously toward the goal of statehood, Arafat continues to contradict his claimed commitment to democracy and tolerance.
Last Saturday, 20 Palestinian intellectuals and members of the Palestinian Legislative Council issued a harshly worded manifesto denouncing the corruption and abuse of power that are characteristic of Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. For the first time, the protesters publicly held Arafat directly responsible for widespread malfeasance. His response was swift and severe. Within hours, 11 of the signatories were arrested. On Wednesday, a special session of the legislature will consider whether to withdraw parliamentary immunity from the other nine, leaving them open to arrest.
A Palestinian security official feebly defended the crackdown with the excuse that, given the ongoing negotiations with Israel, “this is not the right time to demand accountability.” But for a regime notorious for its graft and repression of dissenters, there obviously is no such thing as a right time for accountability.
Palestinian critics charge that hundreds of millions of dollars in official income are unaccounted for each year, especially revenues from the government’s monopoly on the import and sale of fuel and cement. Up to one-fifth of what the Palestinian Authority takes in apparently vanishes, only to reappear funding such things as luxurious villas for top officials in Gaza.
The authority, like the successor state it envisages, must depend on the generosity of others to be viable. Now even the most sympathetic Western donors are holding back on promised contributions due to official corruption. The public protests by respected Palestinians underscore the magnitude of the problem. Arafat has done the predictably wrong thing in this airing of grievances. He has arrested his critics, when in fact he should be heeding them.