In Search of Trust

RAMALLAH — Palestinians, as a rule, do not trust their leaders. Even Palestinian leaders do not trust their leaders. “We need new leadership,” one member of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) told me. “We must all resign.” He didn’t volunteer, though.

The day before the deadline for the new Palestinian prime minister, Abu Mazen, to present his cabinet to the PLC, I drove around Ramallah from one PLC member to another, getting each one’s take on the two weeks of drama leading up to the deadline: Yasir Arafat kept trying to pack the new cabinet with his own cronies and keep some powers himself, Abu Mazen kept threatening to quit, meetings were stormed out of, Koranic verses were quoted, teams of mediators were formed and dispatched. Palestinians, meanwhile, remained skeptical about whether the battle even mattered; a poll released last week found that less than half of Palestinians thought Abu Mazen, also known as Mahmoud Abbas, would create a government that the public could trust.

I met with three PLC members, hoping to find someone who seemed trustworthy. I went with another reporter and a translator.

We stopped first at Nabil Amr’s office. He’s a handsome guy in his 50s with a fleshy face, deep worry lines in his forehead and a smoker’s deep rasp. He wore a natty suit and a tie. He’s a PLC member and used to be Arafat’s minister of parliamentary affairs, but he resigned last spring. “I said to [Arafat] directly, ‘we need large reforms. We need new policies.’ He refused.” Why? “I don’t know.”

Abu Mazen proposed Amr as his information minister; Arafat was against it. Amr said he didn’t care whether he got the job (why do politicians all over the world feel the need to say this?), but he said if he did, his main goal would be not to emulate the Iraqi minister of information, who became famous during the war for press-conference quotes like “God will roast their stomachs in hell.”

“This is also our language during the Intifada,” Amr said. “’We will open the doors of the hell’ and all that. I think we must change this. I will not accept the [Iraqi Minister of Information] Sahaf way of exaggerating about everything. I will give my people the real and accurate information about everything.”

I was impressed. That seemed like a worthy goal to me; Palestinians are sorely in need of information rather than rumors and political speeches. I was also impressed because I knew that when Amr resigned, he published a detailed account of why he was resigning, an unprecedented move by a former cabinet minister.

He seemed to take the Arafat/Abu Mazen struggle in stride, like most Palestinians. He joked that the latest development was that everyone in the government was pretending to be having a lot of important meetings about the whole thing. “But there are no meetings,” he said. “Just four [mediators] going back and forth between Arafat and Abu Mazen, and they are saying nothing because they don’t know what is here [he poked at his own chest], in his heart.”

In Arafat’s heart? I asked. He nodded.

Next, we went to see Qadura Faris. He was up front: “I have no idea what’s going on.” I liked him. He chain-smoked Dunhills and said he couldn’t figure out why Abu Mazen was bothering to go head-to-head with Arafat, instead of just letting Arafat put all his friends in the cabinet, “and then Abu Mazen can come back a week later and say I want to reshuffle.”

Faris wore glasses, a blue shirt with no tie, and an outdoor jacket. He’s 41 years old but has deep worry lines in his forehead too. He tended toward understatement and was a bit formal in his answers, but he did not pull punches. Abu Mazen is not a reformer, he said. He’s just the guy we have to support because we need international help to make peace with Israel. He said this whole Arafat/Abu Mazen struggle isn’t going to change much, because Arafat and Abu Mazen are part of the same generation — the old guard.

They’re also in the same political party. Then again, so are Faris, and Amr, and everybody in Palestinian politics who isn’t marginal. In the U.S., people sometimes complain that there aren’t two political parties anymore, but in Palestinian politics there truly is only one party: Fatah, Arafat’s party. The young-guard/old-guard split within the party is the closest thing to another political party that exists here (besides Hamas, which doesn’t participate in elections). But of course the party hasn’t actually split, so the differences are all a matter of simmering resentments and internal power grabs that are as likely to be personal as political, and it’s very difficult, as an outsider, to tell which is which.

For instance, we asked Faris what he thought of Nabil Amr.

“He is a good speaker who controls his tongue, and he is a well-educated person,” Faris smiled, without elaborating. I thought: I knew it! He was too smooth. With his fancy suit and his old-guard mentality. Then I thought: What do I know about the new guard except that it hasn’t had the chance to screw things up yet? And what’s wrong with being well-educated? What, for that matter, is Faris actually insinuating?

Is there anyone from the old guard that you trust? I asked Faris. He shook his head.

Our last stop was the Grand Park Hotel to meet a man who, I was surprised to see, had two big bodyguards. We sat down in the lobby, and his bodyguards settled in chairs across the room. Abbas Zaki, 63 years old, had small, dark eyes and what I now realized were standard PLC-issue worry lines. He seemed to have one main point: “There is no problem between [Abu Mazen] and Arafat.”

I think I raised my eyebrows. He said Arafat was just trying to make sure Abu Mazen picked a cabinet that the PLC would approve, because the cabinet Arafat proposed several months ago was rejected by the PLC.

I said that made no sense: If Arafat’s choice failed last time, what use would his help be now to Abu Mazen? “The failure of Arafat’s cabinet will be the failure of Abu Mazen’s cabinet,” he replied obscurely.

Zaki was the only one of the three that I felt confident was bullshitting me. I asked him about the young-guard/old-guard split Faris had talked about.

“If the young generation comes in front of us, they will make us like gods,” he said. “They will not say we want to replace you.”

I let it go, thinking, I don’t like you. Considering my day later, I thought: This is one of the reasons Americans are so out of our depth in the places we’re putting ourselves now. It’s all variations on the theme of Afghan warlords: We meet people and we hear stories about who’s good and who’s bad, and we go on our instinct about who’s right based on whether we like the person, and before we know it, we’re falling down a rabbit hole of decades-old rivalries, where everyone knows everyone else’s family and political history, and some people are tainted by being inside for too long and some by being outside for too long, and secret alliances are constantly shifting depending on where the money and power are coming from, and no one is completely clean, but there isn’t anyone else to run the country either. This is nation building.


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