Palestinian Authority Is Short on Real Power

Setting up `liaison committees' to negotiate Palestinians' future gives Israel an unfair advantage

THE advisers to Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, insist that conditions in the Gaza Strip are much improved since last summer. As one PLO official put it, Palestinians can now ``go to cinemas'' and walk safely on the streets, ``protected'' by Palestinian police. Yet on Nov. 18 police fired into a crowd at a mosque in Gaza. Ensuing riots left 14 Palestinians dead and over 200 injured. A cinema was burned.

Continuing hardship, violence, and corruption are forcing weary Palestinians to focus not only on the behavior of their police but on the legitimacy of the newly established Palestinian Authority (PA). The PA is a ruling body empowered under the Declaration of Principles (DOP) signed between Israel and the PLO in September 1993. Its role was to govern Palestinians until elections could be held in the summer of 1994. These elections were to establish a responsive governing and legislative body. Palestinians felt that elected officials should conduct negotiations with Israel over such sensitive ``final status'' issues as refugees, land, and Jerusalem.

Elections have been postponed indefinitely - a huge disappointment to many Palestinians. Agreements signed between Israel and the PLO reveal even sadder facts. The fine print in the DOP and later agreements reveals that the real source of power over legislative matters and negotiations with Israel lies not with the elected PA, as is commonly assumed, but with a set of liaison committees. These are not exclusively Palestinian. They, not the PA (elected or not), will decide the questions most important to the Palestinians' future.

The most significant committee appears to be the Joint Israeli-Palestinian Liaison Committee, first mentioned in the DOP. Composed of Israelis and Palestinians, it will ``provide for a smooth implementation of [the] Declaration of Principles.'' The elected PA will have secondary legislative powers given over by the Israeli military government - powers sharply circumscribed by extant laws. This joint committee will arbitrate legislative conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians.

Another committee, composed of Jordanian, Egyptian, Palestinian, and Israeli delegates, will determine among other issues the disposition of the historic Palestinian refugee problem. The Continuing Committee decides ``the modalities of admission of persons displaced from the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967.'' According to the May 4 Cairo accords that set it up, the PA will not only be deprived of legislative power but will also be excluded from negotiations over final status issues, including refugees.

``Issues of mutual concern'' regarding the West Bank are raised in the Joint Civil Affairs Coordination and Cooperation Committee. Neither of the agreements establishing these last two committees even mention elections!

This pattern of disempowerment was repeated in the Aug. 29 ``early empowerment'' agreements on the West Bank. Members of the first liaison committee earlier met to discuss details later incorporated into the Aug. 29 accord. It defines those civilian sectors transferred by Israel to the PA, including education and culture, health, social welfare, tourism, and taxes.

The PA's powers in the West Bank are strictly administrative and even more restricted than in Gaza and Jericho.

NOTHING in the DOP or any other agreement indicates that membership in the elected PA will be equivalent to membership in the liaison committees. Elections, if held, will not invite popular Palestinian participation in determining their future or produce a political-legislative body to negotiate with Israel over self-rule and final status issues.

Given the vast power differences between Israel and Palestinians, the liaison committees, operating far from public accountability and monitoring, will be dominated by Israel. They will serve as a mechanism through which Israel can exercise veto power over Palestinian proposals.

Citing concerns about security, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin declared in December that Israel was reconsidering the DOP and the redeployment of troops from the West Bank. One can imagine the reaction were the PA to make a similar announcement. Still, Palestinians should seize this opportunity to renegotiate certain items, particularly the role of the liaison committees. This may be an opportune time for Palestinians to insist that if they are to deal effectively with violence, poverty, and growing Palestinian disillusionment with the peace process, elections must be held.

Elections must be democratic and open to all political parties. The elected body must enjoy real legislative and executive powers, not just those conferred by Israel. Palestinians must insist that as their democratically elected body, the PA, not the liaison committees, must be Israel's partner in negotiations for a lasting peace. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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