Turning PLO Activists Into Voices of the People

Despite limited authority and meager legislative results the Palestinian Legislative Council has emerged as (a) the best gauge of Palestinian sentiment in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem and (b) the likely source of future Palestinian leadership.

I recently participated in a conference in the Gaza Strip to discuss the council's future. The 88-member body is a product of the interim agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). It was organized last March after elections whose first anniversary was marked Jan. 20.

A year ago many observers hoped the council might be the first step in establishing democratic self-government for the Palestinian people and the first real democratic legislative body in the Arab world. With the peace process slowed by the Netanyahu government's ambivalence, those hopes are much dimmer today.

Joining in the Gaza Strip conference, sponsored by the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, were about two dozen council members, including most of the committee chairs. Most are longtime PLO activists, but they now find themselves in the role of any state legislator or city councilor. Their constituents want them to deliver and expect them to find a way to improve the intolerable living conditions most Palestinians in the occupied territories must endure.

A visit to the Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip shows starkly the difficulties faced by the council. The camp is a permanent home for more than 60,000 refugees who live in squalor and dream of the day they will live in their own homes in an independent Palestinian state. An incident between Palestinians and Israeli troops in Jabalya in 1987 sparked the intifadah (uprising). This same volatile mix of political aspiration and economic deprivation could blow up the peace process now.

The problem faced by the council is that Yasser Arafat and the PLO have never shown any particular interest in establishing a democracy, and to most Palestinians the creation of an independent state, even an autocratic one, supersedes all other goals. This puts council members in the impossible position of having a mandate with no authority to fulfill it. But even without clear authority, the Palestinian Legislative Council is forming the base for the development of a political system for the Palestinians' future.

First, the council provides a forum for the Palestinian people of the occupied territories, through their representatives, to present their views to Mr. Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. For instance, the council, responding to constituent pressure, has confronted the authority's efforts to stifle the extremist group, Hamas, and other critics of the peace agreement.

Arafat chafes under this criticism, and his dealings with the council have been, to put it mildly, strained. Several times members' questions have led to Arafat's erupting angrily and, on occasion, storming out of meetings. But he has always come back, afraid that ignoring the elected representatives of his people would be reckless as he tries to maintain control and negotiate the best deal with Israel that he can.

Second, the council offers an opportunity for the Palestinian leadership from the West Bank and Gaza to meet and plan. An Oslo peace agreement provision, which Israel has so far not fulfilled, calls for the establishment of a "safe passage" connecting the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. For the time being, the two regions are still largely isolated from each other. But Israel has reluctantly allowed council members to travel back and forth between Gaza and the West Bank, making it easier for them to plan for what they hope will be a future Palestinian state.

Perhaps most important, the council is the place where the next generation of Palestinian leadership could emerge. Several of the council members are young, and they honed their political skills in Israeli prisons during the intifadah. Ironically, part of this education came through watching sessions of Israel's Knesset (parliament) on television while behind bars. As one council member said to me: "What we really need to do is plan for the time after Arafat. He's been doing things his way for 30 years. He's not going to change."

The Palestinian Legislative Council is already playing a vital role in shaping the region's future. Though nobody knows how far this experiment in self-government will go or if it will lead to a true democracy, the council's role is one that anyone who has a stake in peace in the Middle East cannot afford to ignore.

* James M. Shannon served in the US House of Representatives from 1979 to 1985 and was attorney general of Massachusetts from 1987 to 1991.

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