NEW YORK — How could Yasser Arafat say that he "welcomed" Monday's speech by the president when Mr. Bush, although not mentioning Mr. Arafat by name, virtually called for his removal from office through new elections?
The obvious answer is that Arafat is a survivalist who assumes he will once again land on his feet in any new elections. The Bush administration will face an unpleasant dilemma if Arafat is reelected.
The constant question among Palestinians in recent months has been whether the United States would "pressure Israel" during any eventual negotiation. This speaks to Palestinian demoralization and the prevalent Palestinian view that their future is one that only outsiders can shape.
But Bush asserted bluntly that the first need was for new Palestinian leadership. Everything else the Palestinians hope for, he said, could follow in a time frame sketched out in terms that will strike most Palestinians as disappointingly vague.
Bush clearly shares Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's view that the Palestinian Authority must be reformed before Israel can negotiate with it. Mr. Sharon may or may not be as cynical in urging reform of the Authority as Palestinians believe him to be. He may be no more disposed to negotiate a final settlement with a renewed Palestinian leadership than he has been with the present leaders. Palestinians claim that the talk by Israelis and Americans about the need for new Palestinian leadership is just a ruse to justify a prolonged occupation and delay independence.
New elections, announced yesterday for January, will test the intentions of both Bush and Sharon.
Those Palestinians who argue against early elections assert that a free election would be impossible now, with Israeli forces still occupying territory placed under the Palestinian Authority's jurisdiction by the 1993 Oslo Accords. That argument has validity. Nonetheless, however humiliating this is, Israeli security concerns and domestic politics will probably keep the Israeli military indefinitely either stationed in parts of the territories or poised to intervene on flying raids. Yet there are strong arguments for starting the cycle of national and municipal elections without delay.
First, elections will help show that the Palestinians are seriously preparing to assume the responsibilities of independence. They have been criticized for abandoning their commitment at Oslo to a peace accord based on a two-state solution in which the Palestinian state would live side by side with Israel. Polls, however, indicate that a majority of Palestinians still hold this commitment. An election campaign in which candidates debate that issue would be helpful.
Second, for the past several years, Palestinians have complained about the growth of corruption and cronyism in the Authority. Elections offer the opportunity to start to correct this.
Third, the Legislative Council elected in 1996 failed to fulfill the hopes placed in it, not just because of the slowdown and collapse of the peace process, but also because of the poor working relationship between the Palestinian executive and legislative branches. This again argues for a fresh start.
Admittedly, the present circumstances constitute a strange setting for elections. There is no consensus among the Palestinian factions that the intifada has outlived its usefulness and should wind down. Hopefully, that decision will not be long in coming, and elections could start the rebuilding of civil society. Above all, they will give the Palestinian people the chance to articulate what they want and need for their future.
Richard W. Murphy, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs from 1983 to 1989.