Prime Minister of What?

After the Israelis have succeeded in bringing about the disintegration of most of the functions of the Palestinian Authority, does anyone still think that the appointment of Abu Mazen as prime minister is likely to turn over a new leaf?

To judge by the interest being displayed in the appointment of Abu Mazen as prime minister of the Palestinian Authority [PA], this is an historic event, a crucial step on the way to implementing reforms essential to the functioning of the Palestinian government. Israel's president and prime minister welcomed the appointment - of course, adding a warning that the attitude toward Abu Mazen is conditional on his success in "wiping out terrorism" - whereas right-wing circles recycled accusations about his being a "Holocaust-denier" and an inciter "for the continuation of the armed struggle." The Palestinians - although they were well aware that the true aim of the revolution was to find favor in the eyes of the Americans - treated the appointment with profound seriousness, and argued as to whether to adopt the Egyptian, the Jordanian, or perhaps the Lebanese model.

The Americans spoiled the show somewhat, since they have already promised Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that no political step will be taken until the conclusion of the Iraqi crisis, and therefore their attitude toward the appointment of Abu Mazen (which, as mentioned, was the reason why the Palestinians agreed to a "governmental revolution") will be frozen for the time being. The serious and profound discussion regarding the appointment of a Palestinian "prime minister," which took place in the "legislative council" and requires a change in the "basic law" continued with no relation to the fact that the violence in the territories and in Israel took a terrible toll and that collective punishment, in the guise of closures, encirclements, the destruction of homes and "pinpoint prevention," reached new heights.

There is something hallucinatory about the very fact that this discussion took place, in besieged Ramallah - with the Israeli Shin Bet security services approving the arrival of members of the "Palestinian parliament," and a prominent member (Marwan Barghouti) on trial in Israel on criminal charges. With the West Bank divided into more than 50 cantons, and movement between them conditional on an arbitrary system of permits, with 580 schools closed because a quarter of a million students and thousands of teachers can't get to them, with hundreds of thousands under curfew, with health and welfare systems that have fallen apart and with an economic situation that has deteriorated into utter catastrophe - do elected Palestinian officials have nothing better to do that to deal with the authority of a "prime minister"?

After the Israelis have succeeded in bringing about the disintegration of most of the functions of the Palestinian Authority and in destroying its infrastructure, undermining the status of Chairman Yasser Arafat and turning the PA into a "terrorist organization" that must be fought to the bitter end - after all this, does anyone still think that the appointment of Abu Mazen as prime minister is likely to turn over a new leaf?

It's hard to criticize the Palestinians, whose weakness and despair force them to grab at any straw; but they have to understand that the discussion, the appointment and the celebration serve only the Israeli government. It's no coincidence that Israeli officials are suddenly treating the Palestinian authorities as though they were a sovereign state; in the past they were careful to call President Arafat "rosh," or head (his title in the agreement's English master text is the Arabic "rais" [head, and also president], in order to blur the difference), and they never called the PA council a "government." Now it's important to nurture the illusion of a sovereign authority that has a "prime minister," in order to camouflage the character of the direct military occupation carried out by Israel in the wake of Operation Defensive Shield.

This is a deluxe occupation, in which the occupier takes no responsibility for the fate of the occupied population, and gets off scot-free from all the terrible results of brutal policing and collective punishment. An entire bureaucracy is applying a "carrot and stick" method: economic pressure, travel permits, curfew and the denial of services, incentives for collaborators and punishments for those who refuse, and all this - while relying on the PA and aid organizations from abroad, who cannot bear to see an entire nation dying of hunger, and therefore help as much as they can. This cynical reliance does not prevent Israeli officials from "condemning" the "aid to terror" supplied by international welfare organizations, and even interfering with their humanitarian activity.

As long as it is possible to wave around the empty concepts of a "Palestinian parliament" and a "prime minister" - and to use the old formulas of the Oslo Accords, which the Sharon government crushed beyond recognition - it is possible to maintain the illusion that there is a chance for a "political horizon." The Sharon government, with the generous assistance of members of the Palestinian "legislative council," is managing to evade its responsibility for the unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and the welcome with which it received Abu Mazen is justified: He serves its purposes, without causing any political problem; and it will always be possible to say that he didn't manage to wipe out terror, and therefore must be replaced, and so on. And perhaps the preoccupation with Abu Mazen stems from other reasons entirely: The despair is so profound that everyone is clutching at any straw.