George Habash, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, declined Tuesday a meeting with Yasser Arafat scheduled for August 1 in Cairo. The move is a blow to Arafat's recent efforts to secure the support of various Palestinian opposition groups for the current peace negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Continued dissention in the Palestinian ranks highlights a basic disillusionment among the Palestinian opposition to Arafat with the current peace negotiations as well as lingering problems with Arafat's leadership. As long as such problems persist, Arafat will likely continue to find it difficult to mobilize support for the peace process and for what appear to be recent efforts to foster greater democracy in Palestine.
ArabicNews.com reported last week that Arafat had agreed to meet with Habash and Nayaf Hawatmah, the leader of another Palestinian group opposed to the current peace process with Israel. According to ArabicNews.com on July 22, the meetings are aimed at "reconciling points of view toward the peace process" and discussing measures to ensure greater participation and democracy in Palestine's government. The report says Arafat appears willing to cooperate with opposition demands for greater democracy and freer elections under Arafat's Palestinian Authority.
Tuesday Arafat held his first substantive meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and talks between the two seem headed towards securing the long-delayed implementation of the Wye River Accords. Despite continued glitches, such as the timetable for Israel's 13 percent withdrawal from occupied Palestinian territories, Barak has stated his commitment to the principals of the accord. But Barak wants to delay the withdrawal until final status negotiations, including the fate of Jerusalem, are underway. Arafat is reportedly worried such a delay could give Israel an advantage in final status negotiations and has called for an immediate withdrawal, although he is currently taking two weeks to decide his official response to Barak's demands.
Even with Arafat's own, rather conciliatory stance toward U.S. and Israeli interests, Barak's recent demands for a delay in the Wye Accords leave much to be desired. Arafat told reporters on July 20 that he would not accept Barak's call for a 15-month delay. "We will accept only the immediate and speedy implementation of the Wye River Memorandum," said Arafat, as quoted by Al-Ahram Weekly on July 22.
Barak's delay only exacerbates existing Palestinian frustration with Israel's slow pace in the peace process and perceived problems with the Wye Accords themselves. Palestinian concessions to fight terrorism have led to a vicious crackdown on proponents of armed struggle and general opposition to the peace process. And the plans for withdrawal have been criticized because they leave Israel in control of key areas, with the network of Israeli settlements well connected but areas of Palestinian control geographically divided. As a result, many of have charged Arafat with selling out to Zionist demands. And according to the August edition of the Palestine Times, a group of former Palestinian officials calling themselves the "free officers" circulated a communique in late June alleging Arafat's government was "penetrated by Zionist agents."
The communique further accused government officials of widespread corruption and autocratic methods; a charge that no doubt resonated with many Palestinian opposition groups. An article in the July edition of the Palestine Times says that there is "corruption, nepotism and cronyism throughout the Palestinian Authority," and that the claims of the free officers are not an isolated instance of popular disillusionment.
According to a December 1998 BBC report by Gerald Butt, Arafat "has used threats and intimidation as to ensure that he alone should hold the reins of power." And Arafat's methods indeed seem to have caused a fracturing of the Palestinian leadership which threatens to tear the country apart when Arafat is gone.
Against the background of the floundering peace process and internal unrest, Habash's refusal to immediately back Arafat's quest for peace and greater democracy reveals some of the hollowness of Arafat's leadership. And although Habash is sending his assistant secretary general, Abu Ali Mustapha, to the meeting in Cairo and although his organization remains committed to dialogue with Arafat, fundamental differences remain.
In an interview with the BBC's Arabic service on July 27, Habash said Arafat's condemnation of armed struggle had led Palestinians into their current crisis. He said he would not meet with Arafat until the leader reinstated clauses calling for armed struggle against Israel in the PLO charter. Such a stance reveals the fundamental disillusionment of some Palestinians with the peace process. And if Arafat is to ensure the future solidarity of his country, he must be able to insure the cooperation of such elements, which are not necessarily committed to peace with Israel at the cost of their basic freedoms.
Zakariya Wright is a staff writer at iviews.com