"The current crisis in Palestine was precipitated by the skidding of the quartet's roadmap in that part which is concerned with the reform of the system of security and finance of the Palestine Authority," Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a conference of President Vladimir Putin with cabinet members in the Kremlin.
And this is a serious crisis. President of the Palestinian National Authority Yasser Arafat has convinced his Premier Ahmad Qurei, who had filed his resignation, to keep the chair, but it is difficult to say how long Qurei would last. He had been dead set to leave, saying that the main task of the Palestinian leadership was to put an end to anarchy, which he cannot do. The trouble is that Palestinian territories are being taken over by various groups that are not controlled by the centre. The integrated system of power has collapsed, with corruption and arbitrariness reigning in the authority.
International mediators in the Palestine-Israel settlement, including Russia, have demanded more than once that Palestine's security system be reformed and urged administrative changes. But their calls went unheeded.
Everything Yasser Arafat has been doing can be described as an illusion of reforms. A relevant example was the introduction of the post of prime minister, whose powers were actually limited by Arafat. The first Palestinian premier was Mahmoud Abbas, who left in September 2003 a hundred days after assuming the office because of differences with Arafat. Qurei wanted to leave for the same reason.
Another example is the reform of the security services. Last Saturday Arafat decided, at long last, to reduce the number of Palestinian security services to three, as stipulated by the roadmap drafted in the spring of 2003 by a quartet of international mediators (the EU, Russia, the US and the UN). But Arafat decided to do this only when the security services started breaking out of his control.
Vladimir Isayev, deputy director of Russia's Institute of Oriental Studies, told RIA that "Arafat had not controlled the actions of his security services with regard to Israel, but nobody expected what is happening now: his people are rising against him and his power." A part of Palestinian groups, in particular the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade (the militant wing of Arafat's Fatah organisation), has refused to accept the command of the new head of the General Security Service appointed by Arafat. The Palestinian leader had to demote his man.
Isayev believes that "the point at issue is Arafat's ability to restore order in the authority; otherwise there will be a civil war." Paradoxically, only Israel can help him to do this. On the one hand, it would not gain from interfering in internal squabble in Palestine. But peace talks cannot proceed in conditions of chaos in Palestine. This proves Israel's claim that it has no negotiating partner. On the other hand, Israel cannot permit extremist groups to come to power in the authority. However, if the worse comes to the worst, the international community will not demand that Israel comply with its commitment to the peace settlement.
When he filed his resignation, Qurei noted that "only Israelis would gain from internal Palestine clashes." Not to lose in this situation, Yasser Arafat must launch real and not fictitious reforms. There is still time for that and this alone would help him to regain his lost allies. But the Palestinian leader is still reshuffling cadres; even though Qurei has agreed to keep the post, this will not change the situation radically.
The key question is, will Arafat agree to have his powers limited as part of reforms or not? The international mediators, including those who had been Arafat's defenders, if not allies, do not believe this. Last week, UN Special Co-ordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Terje Roed-Larsen criticised Arafat for the failure of political and economic reforms to which many international organisations had appropriated large funds.
Roed-Larsen's stand is shared by other intermediaries, including the EU and Russia. This proceeds from the statement by Sergei Lavrov, though Moscow has not openly blamed Arafat for the failure of reforms. But the trouble is that international mediators have no method of influencing the situation in the authority.