THIS WEEK, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators are scheduled to arrive in Washington for another attempt to hammer out a framework for a permanent peace agreement. They hope to prepare the groundwork for a three-way summit this summer between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and President Clinton that will produce a treaty that concludes the Oslo peace process.
Much of the speculation over the meeting has dealt with either Clinton's hopes to win an agreement before the end of his term, or Barak's attempts to make concessions that will not topple his fragile coalition government.
Public support in both countries - both vibrant democracies - is considered crucial, since the American public will have to foot a multi-billion bill to ensure any peace agreement, and the Israeli public will be called upon to live next to a Palestinian state.
Virtually ignored in this rush to judgment, however, are the wishes and the will of the Palestinian public, whose support for any peace agreement is just as important. Leaders may sign treaties, but they cannot impose genuine peace. Peace is a social contract between respective peoples. Without Palestinian popular support, any peace agreement will lack credibility and durability.
Unfortunately, most of the focus is on Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority. It is assumed that Arafat has the unquestioned allegiance and support of his people and, thus, is the ultimate guarantor of any agreement. And while Arafat embodied the lofty hopes and national aspirations of Palestinian statehood during his long years in exile, his return has proved such a bitter disappointment that his own political legitimacy is in doubt.
"They [the United States and Israel] seem to think that they can use Arafat to do any amount of dirty work," said Rashid Khalidi, a University of Chicago professor. "They think they can squeeze him and squeeze him and he can put an infinite amount of pressure on the Palestinians. This is a major miscalculation. Just like Clinton has to deal with public opinion, just like Barak has public opinion, Arafat also has public opinion."
Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) overwhelmingly won Palestinian elections held five years ago, in elections the international community certified as free and fair. The PLO was virtually unopposed, because rival parties, such as the Islamic Resistance Movement or Hamas, refused to take part in the balloting and running the Palestinian Authority.
Since then, Arafat has ruled over his people with a heavy hand. The Palestinian Authority, by almost every account, has become a caricature of the most brutal, politically repressive and corrupt regimes in the Middle East.
In Palestinian-controlled areas in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, Arafat's bloated police state, with at least nine different security agencies, has routinely closed down newspapers, television and radio stations that run afoul of government censorship - not for inciting violence against Israel, but for criticizing the Palestinian Authority.
In its most recent report on the Palestinian Authority, "Human Rights Watch" reported:
"The Palestinian Authority [PA] failed to institutionalize important safeguards against human rights abuses that included patterns of arbitrary detention without charge or trial, torture and ill-treatment during interrogation, grossly unfair trials, and persecution of its critics. PA President [Yasser Arafat's] refusal to ratify Basic Law, passed by the Palestinian Legislative Council in October 1997, left Palestinians without any clear statement of the rights, or of the duties and responsibilities of the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of the government. Officials with specific responsibilities to safeguard human rights, like the attorney general, as well as judges, often found themselves under pressure to follow the executive's wishes, and unable to enforce their own rulings."
Amid this repression, Arafat has scandalously diverted huge sums of foreign aid and public money as patronage to his political cronies, or allowed them to establish economic monopolies, which charge more for basic commodities to the impoverished Palestinian majority than the Israeli occupiers. Even worse, the Palestinian leader has repeatedly ignored charges of corruption, despite evidence that as much as one-third of the PA's annual $800 million budget is lost through graft.
"People are at the boiling point," said Khalidi. "The people are angry... not so much at the Israelis, [but] because their main concern is that [Arafat] is selling them down the river. There is no rule of law in the [Palestinian Authority] areas. All decisions are arbitrary. It has everyone very worried."
This deplorable situation has not been a concern for either the Americans or the Israelis, whose primary interest in Arafat is limited to the ability of his government to curb political violence against Israeli citizens from militant groups, such as Hamas, and making concessions to Israel.
Yet Arafat's crackdown is not narrowly focused on the military structure of Hamas. It has been broadly aimed at the grass-roots Palestinian civil society organizations - many of the very same groups that led the Palestinian intifada or "uprising" against the Israeli occupation and the indirect rule of the existing Palestinian elite.
In his book, "The Building of A Palestinian State," author Glenn Robinson writes:
"The principal political task for the PLO as it returned to Palestine from Tunis was to consolidate its power over a population with whom it shared many emotional bonds but with whom it had no practical political experience. To consolidate its own power, the returning PLO had to undermine, through coercion, co-optation, and marginalization, the new elite which had emerged during the Intifada."
While Arafat and the PLO exercise official control, genuine political legitimacy remains elusive. In fact, the corruption of the Palestinian Authority has undermined its credibility to the point where the focus of popular discontent is not so much the behavior of the Israelis, but the poor performance of the Arafat regime.
Arafat is cognizant of this growing discontent among his constituents. He rarely ventures out of his heavily guarded Gaza headquarters for public appearances, spending much of his time traveling abroad, like his wife, Suha.
Many observers allege that Arafat instigated or organized last month's violent "Days of Rage" demonstrations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which were staged to protest the continued detention of 1,600 Palestinian political prisoners in Israel prisons. The prisoners were supposed to be freed under the Oslo Accords.
In fact, supporters of Arafat's Fatah Party and Palestinian police led the initial protests, although other groups quickly joined them, including Hamas. This prompted Israel to suspended secret talks with PA officials in Sweden, charging Arafat with trying to use violence to pressure the Israelis into concessions.
These protests may have had another purpose for Arafat - allowing the Palestinian public to vent its simmering discontent at Israel instead of the PA.
What should have alerted Arafat, Clinton and Barak was the size and scope of Palestinian rage - and the very real possibility that such public displays may increase in frequency and size as the Oslo process winds down.
Relatively speaking, the release of Palestinian detainees ranks far down the list of items to be resolved during the "final status" talks. Of much more importance to the Palestinian public are the status of Jerusalem, the return of Palestinian refugees, and the status of Jewish settlements and final borders. Palestinian popular opinion appears solidly against any compromise which is less than that stipulated by the various United Nations Security Council resolutions - namely shared sovereignty over Jerusalem, the right of four million Palestinian refugees to return or receive compensation, the dismantling of Jewish settlements on Arab land captured during the 1967 war. Publicly, Arafat has stated that he will not compromise on these issues, but many critics believe otherwise.
"Arafat will not make a 'retreat' on these issues, but he will not publicly discuss them," said Hisham Shirabi, a Palestinian academic and a former Georgetown University professor.
"The Americans and the Israelis want to put it in a way that will confuse the issue. So, when[Arafat] submits to the Israeli agenda, the U.S. and Israel will try to make it appear that it is something other than what it is."
Barak has promised the Israeli public that he will submit any agreement to a nationwide referendum, which initially dismayed Arafat and his negotiators.
Recently, Palestinian leaders who are not part of the PA signed a petition urging Arafat's government to hold a referendum, just as the Israelis plan to do. Palestinian activist, Hanan Ashrawi, who resigned from Arafat's cabinet to protest high-level corruption, was among those who signed. Arafat and top officials rejected the idea.
"There will have to be a referendum," argues Shirabi. "There is no acceptable way around it."
By rejecting the referendum, it is quite possible that Arafat will succeed in negotiating a permanent peace treaty with Israel, but one whose terms will be rejected by a majority the people he claims to represent. This could result in an intifada aimed at Arafat - not the Israelis - or an attempt to kill the aging leader.
Sunni M. Khalid is a freelance journalist who lived in Cairo and re ported on the Middle East.Forgotten: The peace process includes the American public and the Israeli public - but does not include the Palestinian public.