Mr. Khazen is the editor of al-Hayat, an internationally circulated Arabic-language daily published in London. The following interview was conducted on October 14, 1994, at Mr. Khazen's office in the Hammersmith district of London by Roger Gaess, a free-lance journalist based in New York.
GAESS: The prevailing criticisms of Yasser Arafat's governing style are not new. There are the allegations that Arafat has concentrated virtually all Palestinian National Authority (PNA) decision making in his own hands rather than delegating some of it, and that he has appointed his cronies to key positions on that interim self-rule body rather than seeking out those who are most qualified irrespective of political affiliation. Then there is his closure of the Jerusalem based Palestinian newspaper an-Nahar (from July 29 to September 5) until it shed its pro-Jordanian sympathies and professed the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) line, coupled with the apparent emergence around Arafat of the multiple security agencies characteristic of a police state. Are these instances of unavoidable growth pains, or is a real problem emerging for prospective Palestinian democracy?
KHAZEN: The problems are not surprising. Abu Ammar [Yasser Arafat] has acted this way since he became leader of the PLO [in 1969]. He's always concentrated most of the power in his own hands. His original top aides, Abu Jihad, Abu Iyad-whom you might call the second man and third man in the PLO-have been assassinated. So he is dealing with minor officials, at least in the hierarchy of Fatah [the predominant PLO faction, headed by Arafat], which makes it easier for him to run the affairs of the Palestinians without much opposition from within. He's now running the "state" the way he ran the PLO from Beirut or from Amman. He just doesn't know any other way of running an organization. Maybe he's well-meaning, but he controls most of the money. He himself is not corrupt; I haven't heard anyone accusing him of taking money himself or squandering money. But he uses money to gain influence, and when all officials have to go to him for money, there is a limit to how much opposition they can put up.
You referred to security agencies. I've heard lots of complaints from Palestinians in the territories about the preventive-security agency. This in a way is surprising because among the Palestinians Arafat has never had a reputation for violence. I am not aware that he killed anybody or ordered the death of anyone over the last 25 years. He doesn't think in that manner. Even the Israelis have not pinned any of what they call "terrorist" operations on him.
The Palestinians in the territories are not happy about [current limitations on democracy. Under the Israeli occupation they exercised a high level of consultation among themselves. Even the Fatah people, his own people, were meeting and discussing things with the Hamas [Islamic Resistance Movement J people all the time under the occupation. Now they find that much of that democracy is being taken away from them, and that they are governed by the [PLO] people who came from abroad and who are not very well versed in the affairs of the people of the occupied territories. I know many Palestinian personalities who go and talk with Arafat and speak their minds. They criticize him in his presence as no Arab would do in front of an Arab head of state, and he listens, and he shouts back and he argues, but at the end of the day it is his decision and no one else's.
Some Palestinian businessmen went to see Arafat recently. They differed on political issues but they agreed on the business side-he signed everything that they wanted. But at the end of the day business needs an atmosphere of security, of safety; it needs to know that the rule of law prevails in the country, not just the authority of one individual.
Q: What were the businessmen asking for?
KHAZEN: The ability to start projects and to move capital and equipment freely. And he said, yes, yes, yes, and I think he's trying to help them. But in the same way that Arafat talks about the lack of a Palestinian Rothschild, they, after their discussion with him, were talking about the lack of a Palestinian Ben-Gurion. They don't see him as a Mandela either.
Q: What options exist, given Arafat's history? Is long-term damage being done?
KHAZEN: I don't know if a great deal of pressure on Abu Ammar from various quarters would gain results. Maybe he can be won over by caressing, cajoling and enticement more than by straight-forward pressure. Pressure will only make him recoil and get more intransigent in his position. And I understand he is under pressure; his temper is getting shorter and shorter. He hasn't received the money [from international donors] that he needs to run his own government.
I don't think there will be long-term damage. In the case of so-called dictators, the damage goes with them. Arafat is not heading a totalitarian state. His system is really built around him, and no one is going to inherit it from him. I think the Palestinians are an educated people, they've suffered a great deal, and they're not going to allow a one-man show.
Q: Is part of the problem that the United States and the World Bank think that Arafat is the only one they can deal with at this point, that he's the only one who can deliver the peace?
KHAZEN: Yes, absolutely. At the moment there is no other Palestinian who would be able to gather the Palestinians around him. This is why the U.S. government and the World Bank need to talk to him. The thing is, if they explain things to him in a way that he'll understand, then he'll listen-he hasn't got that many friends. Arafat listens to the Egyptians, he depends on them, so maybe there is a way of talking to him through or with the Egyptians. I'm sure that if [Egyptian President] Hosni Mubarak advises him to take a position or do something, he'll do it. The Egyptians have been a great help for the Palestinians, and maybe they should take a more active role in advising him.
Q: You've talked in terms of extensive consultative democracy's having existed in the West Bank prior to the emergence of the Palestinian National Authority. Is that where the hope for Palestinian democracy really rests, in that kind of necessary consensus?
KHAZEN: Yes, if it's allowed to grow. In very general terms, the Palestinians in the territories are divided between Fatah and its supporters and Hamas and its supporters. I don't think the ten [Palestinian] organizations headquartered in Damascus represent the views of more than 1 to 5 percent of all Palestinians-they're really a very small minority. If fact only two organizations, the PFLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine] and the Democratic Front [for the Liberation of Palestine, DFLP] can claim any following in the occupied territories. My information is that Yasser Arafat has the backing of more than 60 percent, maybe 70 percent in the territories, against 30 percent for Hamas. His supporters have an absolute majority, and he can win any election. It follows that he could allow a great measure of democracy because Hamas is not going to replace him.
Q: What is Arafat really worried about then? Why can't he institute broader power-sharing and build a firmer democracy right now?
KHAZEN: It's a good question. If I were in his place, I wouldn't worry; but I'm not in his place-it's Arafat and his mind. First, he's suspicious of everybody. He expects everyone to be conspiratorial, to be out to get him or get something from him. He's unwelcome in several Arab countries. His relations are very bad with Syria and Jordan. They're in fact as bad with Jordan as they are with Syria, but it's less publicized. He finds that too many people are pushing around him for position. He worries that at some point the Americans and the Israelis might try to replace him with someone more to their liking. It's not one single major factor that makes him act in this manner; it's many factors.
But to go back to the first question, I don't think he's democratic himself. His ideas should be changed, but he's over 60 years old, and maybe in the back of his mind he thinks that his old methods have served him well and have gotten him to where he is now. Maybe this is stretching it a bit but I heard several people say that after his plane crash [in Libya] two or three years ago, he started having this feeling of invincibility, that God sent him to complete the job of Palestinian self-determination.
Q: Can Hamas be integrated into a democratic Palestinian system?
KHAZEN: Well it's difficult with Hamas because Hamas at the end of the day is a fundamentalist organization. Muslim fundamentalist parties are undemocratic, no matter what they say. If Arafat can work out a consensus with Hamas, it will be for the good of the Palestinians because Hamas exists and, like all oppositions, they are benefiting from the mistakes of the government. Arafat has been in office for such a long time, Hamas can easily count out his mistakes and win sympathy, but come election day there's no reason to doubt that Arafat and his allies will win handsomely. This alone should give him the confidence to try to strike a deal with Hamas, to let them work from within the system. Otherwise there will be intermittent violence.
Arafat is in a very difficult position. If the Israelis are interested in peace, they should make it easier for him. But I don't expect him to get a good peace. The Arabs are in this whole process because they lost a war, not because they won one. My only hope is that it will not be a very bad peace.
Q: What would a very bad peace be?
KHAZEN: A very bad peace would meet all the conditions of the Israelis-there would be no real Palestinian independence, or self-rule for that matter. Instead of Arafat's being a head of state, he'd be a mayor or a mukhtar of a village and just running garbage collecting and sewage. I'm not being very specific, but under a bad peace that the two peoples could live with, the Palestinians would be masters of their own home, although not necessarily of their foreign affairs or with a full-fledged army. I don't expect it to be a good peace for the Palestinians from an Arab point of view, but I hope it's not a very bad peace. A bad peace you can live with but a very bad peace could encourage extremists.
Q: The PLO is today a weakened institution. Is it still capable of guaranteeing a process of orderly succession? For example, what if Arafat were to die today, or become incapacitated, or suffer a kind of democratic defeat. Who would assume his leadership position?
KHAZEN: I think Abu Mazen, the architect of the peace deal with the Israelis, would take over. Abu Mazen is a very qualified person. At the moment he is on the sidelines, mainly because he is disgusted with what's going on, and he is not a very aggressive man, but I think he could unify enough of the Palestinians, the Fatah people, around him.
Q: But does the political machinery still exist for choosing a credible new leader?
KHAZEN: Fatah has a close company, the Fatah founding members. I think that those who are left and the others who were introduced into it in the 1970s and 1980s would vote a successor within a few days, and that that successor would then be able to rally the Palestinians around him. He would not have the cause that Arafat has built over the years, but the Palestinians as a people are moderate. They're mainly Sunni Muslims and Greek Orthodox Christians, and it should be easier for them to reach a unified stand than it would be for many other Arab peoples.
Q: In the short-term, what are the options? What has to be done to get things back on track? With the elections presumably coming up, what should we look for?
KHAZEN: The Israelis want to supervise the elections with the Palestinians, but to date the PNA exercises no supervision outside of Gaza and Jericho. The Palestinian police force is still small, and I'd say untrained. Conditions are not conducive to really fair and independent elections. But if there are elections, Arafat will win easily. Maybe this will give him the confidence to relax a little bit, to allow better-qualified people to run some of the offices. He has some good people, but then again he's surrounded by some really second-class types who are not doing him any favors.
Q: What accounts for the slow pace in delivery of the long-promised start-up and developmental aid for the PNA? Has it been a case of unnecessary red tape on the part of the World Bank and other international donors, or has Arafat's PNA failed to guarantee reasonable transparency and accountability as to its channeling of the aid.?
KHAZEN: Abu Ammar right now has three different organizations running the economy, and they are operating in competition with each other. Remember that this is a completely new national entity, new bureaucracy, new system, and the rules and regulations overlap and conflict with one another. The World Bank made it very clear that it wasn't going to give Arafat money until he established institutions [that adhered to internationally recognized accounting principles]. PECDAR [Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction, the Palestinian self-rule agency for receiving and disbursing development financing] was created, but when Arafat started reducing its powers to bring it under his own authority, some people in PECDAR protested. The World Bank and IMF [International Monetary Fund] have Palestinians working for them, very qualified people, but instead of relying on them, Arafat appointed other people to positions in PECDAR who are not really qualified and who are not trusted by the World Bank. Hence there is a kind of stalemate. Arafat is not completely in the wrong. It's a Catch-22 situation: they tell him to establish the institutions and that they'll then give him money; he says, I need the money to establish the institutions. Maybe both sides are right.
To be fair to Arafat, it's very, very difficult. Normally he'd go to the Arab countries and get money, but the PLO's position in supporting Iraq during the Persian Gulf War alienated many countries, especially Kuwait. On top of this, there is an economic crisis in the rich Arab countries that traditionally financed the PLO, so he's not getting money from any side, and he is expected to make miracles.
Q: Arafat can't go on like this,· he's got to make some adjustments; at what point does he necessarily have to make those adjustments?
KHAZEN: I understand the question fully; I just don't know the answer. I agree with you that he has to make changes. I don't know that he's going to make them. I hope he won't make them when it's too late, and I hope he doesn't have to make them in the face of threats, such as a collapse of the whole peace process. We [at al-Hayat] question Abu Ammar now and then, but he's very elusive, and he answers the questions as he sees fit. You don't get a straight answer on which you can build your analysis for the future. I don't know what he wants to do next. I know that he needs to do something.