Salim Tamari, a contributing editor of this magazine, teaches sociology at Birzeit University. He also heads the Palestinian delegation to the multilateral talks on refugees. He spoke with Joe Stork in Ramallah in late October 1993.
Some people here argue that there’s quite a lot of opposition to the Oslo agreement, but it’s an unmobilized opposition. The Damascus-based opposition has little credibility, but the critical position vis-a-vis Arafat is considerable.
Mass sentiment, in my opinion, largely supports the agreement. The intellectuals are about evenly split. The opposition now is really against the arrangements which the agreement is bringing about, in particular against the manner in which the Palestinian leadership is conducting the issue. That’s a completely legitimate opposition. But it’s like a flood: There’s nothing you can do about it. My position is that the agreement is going to bring the Palestinian bureaucracy here. People don’t like it, but the alternative to the Tunis apparatus is much worse — the Damascus-based leadership [PFLP and DFLP] or Hamas.
This agreement has made it much more possible to focus on the question of existing Palestinian structures of authority.
This is the real challenge now, to fight for democracy in Palestine. We have the possibility of building our own system. The people who are against the agreement are afraid of the challenges and the tasks of becoming an oppositional force in a civil society, which is ruled by their own bourgeoisie, their own state, their own repressive authority. We have an intelligentsia that is not willing to fight the fight that all Third World intellectuals and political activists are fighting today. They want to go back to the nostalgia of the liberation struggle, because they got addicted to being resistance forces against foreign occupation. The new situation is one which is going to bring the beginning of the struggle for a national authority.
What is this new Palestine going to look like, in the next three to five years?
The transitional phase will be very chaotic. The structures of power and procedures of the new regime will have to be established in a country lacking the institutions of a central authority. The Tunis leadership will have to consolidate its power in conjunction with local power groups — parties and traditional elites — under a formula yet to be determined.
Who’s going to be in charge? Who are the critics?
There are political parties which are restructuring themselves for the coming period. Whether they are in opposition to the agreement or for it, they will be having a niche in this new order. This is true also of the Popular Front and the Democratic Front. They’ll have to rearrange themselves. But they are doing it too late. They’re still thinking that they can undermine the agreement itself, which is a fruitless fight.
But there’s another group emerging, namely political factions of Fatah inside who are being edged out by the Tunis leadership. They have a vision, which I think is false, that Tunis will come here, shove everyone aside and establish itself as the ruling power. Arafat is too smart to do this. He’s bound to establish a regime which is synthetic, made up of local power groups integrated into an apparatus which at the moment is based in Tunis. The apparatus will not move in here in toto. A new state, to be efficient, has to rely on a technocratic elite. Arafat cannot use the same people who fought the old struggle.
Stability needs some clear lines of authority. He has three components: He had the old guard — the veterans — with him. He has the local power groups — both the traditional elites and the political parties. And he needs the technocracy in the diaspora, the professional class and capital, to create an atmosphere which will unite these three elements.
Repression won’t work. It cannot be a Lebanon-style guerrilla-in-residence type of structure. He will draw inspiration from the state of Jordan, not only because it is a model but because he has actual agreements with Jordan that will force some kind of standard on him. So I have no fear that it will be a police force that will start chopping off the heads of the opposition. More likely Arafat will reach an agreement with Hamas which will set the pace for the other oppositions. He will give them a piece of the pie. It could mean a niche in the opposition in which they can work, their own deputies in the parliament.
Once he does that, the state may be authoritarian, but it will not be an Asad-like regime. He does not have the center of authority that Asad has.
There is going to be a Fatah-dominated police force. I don’t see why Arafat has to do what we think he should do in terms of building the broadest possible base. I need to be persuaded that he shares your sense of what has to be done.
The fact that he is not talking about this is because he has priorities that are not our priorities. He has to clinch deals with Arab regimes, he has to make sure his posterior is protected from Asad. He has to make sure he has good relations with Jordan. He has to stabilize his relations with the Egyptians and the Americans. He still has not focused on the internal arrangements.
He is not going to continue to do this the way he runs the PLO in Tunis. It is too complicated for him. An authoritarian power structure as in Syria is theoretically possible, but the local fabric will not allow that. It will widen the circle of opposition. It will undermine his authority, and he knows it. That’s why he has to resort to some kind of democracy. Democracy is an option that he will take — not because he likes it….
You mean democracy, not just elections?
The internal political situation is too complex and there are too many political groups for Arafat to establish a one-party state. But he might try to postpone the elections for a considerable period. This would create a crisis of legitimacy for the provisional government and for the agreement itself.
There are Fatah people, as I understand it, whom Arafat is appointing to head committees and such, who are not the people who were making sacrifices during the occupation. They are being put in by the outsiders, but they are insiders.
Exactly. People who are neither Fatah historically nor outsiders. People who are climbers, who joined Fatah because that is the name of the game. People with social and economic weight, be they nouveau riche businessmen who made it during the occupation, or clan leaders in rural towns. But he has to build coalitions. That’s why I believe the Palestinian provisional government will end up creating an essentially democratic field in which these contending forces will maneuver in their search for a political space.
Much of the opposition does not think in terms of historical necessity. They think in terms of another leadership which does not exist. They really think there is an ideal leadership which is Western and democratic and all that, that understands what has to be done. Arafat, with all his faults, is one of the few people in the leadership with a long-term vision. There is no other person who could grasp the nature of the moment. He is a totally political animal. He understands exactly his limitations and what he can do, and he is willing to gamble. Nobody else was willing to do it.
He did succeed in his own terms, and certainly in rescuing himself and his circle from the predicament he was in after the Gulf war.
And us. He rescued us. We were not getting anywhere by the terms of the negotiations in Washington — which he also dictated, by the way.