AS the world watched the signing of the declaration of principles between the Palestinians and Israel Monday, many worry whether the stroke of a pen and a handshake will bring peace to the Middle East, or if the process will be derailed by those who oppose Yasser Arafat.
Members of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, are not the only Palestinians who oppose him. Mr. Arafat's opposition ranges from the Palestinian National Council to members of the Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee. However, the Palestinian opposition should not be a source of worry. The main worry is likely to come from depending on the Gulf Arabs to finance the building of Palestinian institutions after Israel leaves the territories.
Central to the argument of those who oppose the Gaza-Jericho deal is the claim that the Palestinians had better offers before, which they refused. But those who lament potential territorial losses should also look at the Palestinian gains. It is important to note that it is the Palestinian leaders who signed the declaration of principles on behalf of the Palestinians, not a joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation.
It is reassuring that the different Palestinian voices we hear today are not new to Palestinian political discourse and culture; it is a sign of democratic dissent and birth of a nation rather than a sign of weakness and disarray.
Palestinians were victimized in part because of the envy and fear of Palestinians endemic in the Arab world. Many Arabs have resented the Palestinians for their education and technical expertise and have distrusted their secular democratic ideologies. In fact, Arab regimes have been as afraid of Palestinian independence as the Israelis are; if secular Palestinians gain independence they are likely to have a democracy that would affect the survival of neighboring autocratic regimes.
Arafat missed Camp David because the countries that opposed the Egypt-Israel peace accord were the ones that provided funds for Arafat. To follow a poor country like Egypt, Arafat had to risk both the financial backing of the many Gulf regimes and the lives of Palestinians working in Iraq and the Gulf states.
He came to Washington at a time when all Gulf states have abandoned him financially and expelled many Palestinian workers.
Yet this financial disengagement between the Palestinians and the Arab regimes is a sign of independence that has led to the emergence of the independent Palestinian decision to conduct the secret talks in Norway.
The Palestinian decision was driven by political realism - a serious departure from the Arab tradition of rhetoric - and the need to minimize Palestinian casualties. Indeed, as both Bosnia and the invasions of Lebanon show, the Israelis could have massacred the Palestinians with few objections from the West.
As the world attempts to help the Palestinians build their institutions in Gaza and the West Bank, it is important to maintain Palestinian financial independence and not to leave them again at the mercy of conservative Arab regimes. Conservative Gulf money, if it comes to the territories, is likely to go to Hamas. When Egypt signed its peace treaty with Israel, American aid helped Egypt maintain the peace. As soon as Egypt went back to the Arab camp, Gulf money started to flow to the Islamic groups destabilizing Egypt.
For an independent Palestinian voice to emerge and for peace to prevail, it is important that Palestinian infrastructure be Western-financed. That is in addition to the help of countries like Japan, and also the securing of an environment that would allow Palestinian money to come to the territories. Many rich Palestinians live abroad and, if given the right guarantees, are likely to invest their money in the region. This does not mean that Arab regimes did not help the Palestinians financially. But one must remember all the wealthy Arab states are each run by one person. If his mood changes Palestinians will be abandoned.
Since Palestinians are a vocal people with different ideological persuasions, some are likely to criticize King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and call him an autocrat in the same way they recently criticized their own leader. Such criticism will be taken as an insult, and consequently money could be cut.
To depend on Arab regimes for financing the building of Palestinian institutions is to take chances. A historic agreement like this one should not be left to chance.