LONDON - A bearded, balding man, who looked to be of Middle Eastern origin, approached the side table around which U.S. Vice President Richard Cheney and his senior advisers were dining 10 days ago. The Secret Service men allowed him through after a brief ID check. Cheney and his colleagues, including Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, had a good reason for inviting the Palestinian banker, whose name was familiar to few until then, to the meal in Colorado.
In the past year, Omar Karsou, who moved with his wife and four children from Ramallah to New York for fear of his life, has been engaged in an ambitious project: the establishment of a civic movement, Democracy in Palestine, which will establish a government system that is transparent and reliable, free of the presence and the influence of Palestinian Authority [PA] Chairman Yasser Arafat.
"The meeting with Vice President Cheney was the climax of a hard year of preparations; it has been a relentless process of buildup, of meetings and presentations, which finally paid off. This high-profile meeting encouraged us enormously; we are finally being recognized."
The timing of the meeting was not coincidental. Karsou, who says he represents a sizable but silent group in Palestinian society - including professionals and businessmen - has been preaching for months for the removal of Arafat. He has quickly gained a reputation as someone with a radical and progressive outlook. Had his words not come from the mouth of the son of Palestinian refugees, they could have been attributed to a member of the Israeli right.
The concept behind the Oslo Accords was, in his opinion, entirely off the mark. Israel knowingly encouraged a corrupt and murderous regime headed by a secular dictator, in the hope that he would keep dangerous Islamic fundamentalism at bay. This basic assumption turned out to be a dangerous illusion, and Israel is now paying the price. "Israel cannot rely on a corrupt Palestinian leadership, whose only interest is to stay in power," he said. For this purpose, says Karsou, Arafat nurtured an external enemy, Israel, as an outlet for the despair and frustration resulting from "failures of his brutal and abusive leadership, the worst the Palestinians could ever have." Karsou says that Israel made a colossal mistake by agreeing to negotiations with Arafat instead of continuing direct talks with an authentic local leadership that had emerged in the framework of the Madrid Conference.
"Arafat, at the time, was out of the diplomatic arena," says Karsou. "He did not want to be upstaged again, and was looking for a comeback. So he played a double game here; he said to the Palestinian delegation for Madrid, when they flew to see him in Tunis, that you should stick to your guns, be as tough as you can, but at the same time he secretly sent his delegates to Oslo, saying that we are more than willing to deal here, agreeing to generous concessions which led to the Oslo Accords of 1993."
Karsou claims that instead of staying away from Arafat and his tricky games, Israel fell captive to the concept expressed by then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin: Arafat will fight fundamentalist Islamic terror "without a Supreme Court and without B'Tselem" [a human rights organization active in the territories]. Karsou claims that this attitude betrayed a racist attitude on the part of the Israeli left, according to which forcing a dictatorial regime on the Palestinians was the right step, because the Arabs are unable to sustain a democracy. "To make sure that this would happen, Israel agreed to turn a blind eye to corruption and the tendency to militancy," says Karsou. "Israel gave Arafat guns and channeled money that belonged to the Palestinian people directly to his personal account in Bank Leumi."
Israel preferred to ignore the warning signs. "Arafat fears competition," says Karsou, "and the final decision is always his. He created dozens of governmental ministries, most with overlapping responsibilities, all of them answering to him directly; he established dozens of security organizations, the most important and effective ones were divided into two; one in Gaza, the other in the West Bank, to make sure that no one gains too much power or influence. The Palestinian Legislative Council criticized Arafat's style of leadership sharply, issued reports on corruption and called for the resignation of Arafat's people - the only Arab parliament that dared to do such a thing - but of course he didn't listen. He ignored them completely."
In fact, says Karsou, Arafat did as he pleased in the Palestinian Authority, with Israel's consent: "And this was all Israel's fault because it glorified and empowered these people. It gave them VIP passes to go in and out of Israel freely, and also awarded them lucrative contracts, which were no less than a license to exploit the Palestinian people even further.
"Arafat's regime legitimized itself by propping up rhetoric of liberation. So [for] years they were saying that they are engaged in a process of liberation, not in the process of reconciliation, of making peace with Israel. Every square meter that Israel was redeploying from, as a result of a direct peace agreement or a direct negotiation, was taken and presented by Arafat as a major victory. Arafat would go there and make big celebrations of the newly `liberated' land. Israel ignored all that."
Arafat incited the Palestinians to wage a war of sacrifice against Israel, with the false slogan "Liberation of the occupied land," says Karsou. Israel once again demonstrated the blindness, arrogance, complacency and the obtuseness that characterized its attitude to the growth of Hamas - which Israel furthered and harbored - as a rival to the Palestine Liberation Organization [PLO] in the Eighties. According to Karsou, Palestinian society is "more educated and pluralist than the rest of the Arab world; the Palestinians are secular and honest people by nature. Ramallah is probably one of the very few cities in the Middle East where you can freely walk into a bar and have a drink in the middle of Ramadan."
He points out that only two years ago, about 200,000 Palestinians went in and out of Israel every day, "and they were not all suicide bombers. Overwhelmingly, they are not." Karsou rejects the prevailing opinion in the defense establishment (most recently expressed by former prime minister Ehud Barak) that Palestinian society rejects commonly held Western moral values.
"This is a racist view," he said, "indeed, anti-Semitism in reverse. Remember, you are judging an entire nation, millions of people, by the actions of one person - Arafat. That is wrong, that is immoral, that is not true. We are not a nation of killers and liars and hypocrites. I refuse to accept that. On the contrary: Palestinians are simple, noble and honest people, and that's why we are being used and abused. Our simplicity allowed us to be used, to be exploited by extremists and the Arab world. It is not the other way round. A lot of people say that the Jews are liars, the Jews are greedy, and I am sure there are Israeli politicians who are also liars. So are we saying that all Jews or Israelis are liars as well?
"What we need to do it to meet two basic needs of each people. Our basic need as Palestinians is freedom, to get rid of the occupation and to establish a democratic state. Israel needs its security; its citizens should be safe everywhere, in the streets, in cafes and in discotheques. That is not too much to ask, and indeed these are compatible, complementary needs."
Karsou says that Palestinian society fell victim to the manipulation of vested interests - first and foremost the PA - that exploit the people's naivete, and the PA's absolute control of the media and the education system, to channel the despair and the frustration into actions against Israel. The terrorist acts and the waves of suicide bombers are the result of a destructive combination of continuing incitement and economic deterioration, which has validated the content of the incitement.
"The explosive cocktail of manipulated incitement, poverty and humiliating occupation is to blame for all that. Young Palestinians see that they have no hope; they see that they live under occupation and they see their parents being humiliated because they don't have bread to feed them. At the same time, people are being told by the media and speeches that Israel is to blame for all that. And because the underlying message is that Israel is going to kill them anyway, they might as well blow themselves up, taking along with them some Israelis, thus contributing to the Palestinian cause. This is a very strong message which is aimed at young, impressionable and impoverished Palestinians."
Karsou feels that this view is groundless, and is only a passing madness. He says that "to deal with that you need to deal with both the inciters as well as the direct causes of the problem. We definitely need separation of people and states, but we don't need a hateful separation. To achieve this we need to have a complete cessation of incitement and terror activities, a dramatic improvement of the economic conditions and a truly democratic Palestinian state.
"Arafat is a hopeless cause. His style of leadership and management proved to be disastrous, not just in the PA. He did so in Jordan, in Lebanon, in Tunisia, he did that everywhere he goes. This is his way, his style of management, and at 73 he's not going to change.
"He must be put under immense international pressure and to be confronted by two stark choices: either a ticket to Tunis, or staying in Palestine as a powerless figurehead, someone that is revered by the people, as the one who had been holding and carrying the torch of Palestinian nationalism. And because he never had a real successor, nor appointed one, we have now a real opportunity to appoint a pragmatic, forward-looking government to replace Arafat and his corrupt cronies. A government accountable to parliament that really cares about the Palestinian people, not about the dogma of pan-Arabism versus Zionism.
"Such leadership will derive its legitimacy from a democratic parliamentary system, along the lines of the British parliamentary electoral system. Contrary to conventional wisdom, we don't need a strong dictator, but rather a leader, who is heading a strong party, and not as part of a multi-party coalition, and in this way we may be able to sideline the extremists.
"Israel's electoral system is not appropriate for our purposes, because we still don't have strong democratic practices, and a proportional representation, multi-party system leads inevitably to political wheeling-dealing which is too much for us. In an emerging democracy, a proportional representation system might not leave a distinctive base of power; so what we definitely need at this stage is to have a strong leading party, but one that is not too strong."
Karsou's knowledge about what goes on in Israel comes from a long familiarity with Israeli politics. His family lived in Nablus. The father of the family founded the first company for money-changing in the West Bank, which quickly became the largest of its kind in the Middle East. The company opened branches all over the Arab world, in Abu Dhabi, Cairo, Kuwait and Amman. After studying economics at the University of Buckingham in England, Karsou returned to the family business, working in various managerial positions. The company thrived, but in 1986 the Jordanian prime minister ordered its assets frozen, in response to the decision by the Bank of Israel to grant it a banking license. The Jordanians, who refused at the time to obey the demand of the Arab League to sever themselves from the West Bank, didn't agree to independent Palestinian activity that was recognized by Israel. The Jordanian ruling led to the closing of the firm's branches, and to the loss of its assets.
Karsou turned to private business, and maintained contacts with Israeli businessmen. Arafat's regime and the deterioration in the quality of life motivated him to act. He says that he was tired of the moral and economic nadir to which Palestinian society had sunk. "One need not be a rocket scientist to realize that the current Palestinian leadership failed their own people miserably. When they came to power after Oslo, the GDP per capita was 40 percent of Israel's, and now it is 5 percent. Half of the people are below the poverty line, and there is 35 percent unemployment. We also lost international legitimacy because of a sick terror strategy. Can that be regarded as a success?"
U.S. President George W. Bush's Middle East vision, which called for a change in the PA regime and the founding of democratic institutions, played into Karsou's hands. The meeting with Cheney was preceded by thorough preparations. He met with senior officials in the State Department, the Defense Department and the National Security Council, and began to acquire their trust. Not only in Washington did he find a sympathetic ear: During the past year, he has found an enthusiastic supporter in the person of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Housing and Construction Natan Sharansky, who has met with him several times.
According to Sharansky, "Karsou represents an authentic position of the Palestinian middle class, who are familiar with the democratic experience from our side. The Palestinians have found themselves trapped in a corrupt dictatorship that strangles not only business initiative, but freedom of expression as well." For Sharansky, Karsou's position is a breath of fresh air, which should be encouraged.
"They said that there was no hope for democracy in Japan and Germany, because of their culture and their worldview. And lo and behold, today they are stable democracies," says Sharansky. "To achieve this change among the Palestinians as well, we must first and foremost rid ourselves of the policy that was an outcome of the Oslo Accords, which postulates that a strong dictator would guarantee our security. The Americans also understand now that there is an intimate connection between international security and the democratization of regimes - there are no wars between democracies - and only in Israel, for some reason, this realization has not yet been internalized. On this point, Karsou represents a healthy and very correct view, and we have developed a good relationship."
Karsou is encouraged by Sharansky's support. He hopes to meet with other politicians, from the right and the left, "to show to the Israelis that there are Palestinians with a different worldview; that essentially and intrinsically we are peaceful people."
He made a similar request to his American host: "I said to Vice President Cheney that their dialogue with Palestinians should be diverse and not confined to PA officials or representatives. They should be open and give a chance to independent people, to outsiders; they also have something to say, because this also is our society. We are not saying: Put us in power. Just listen to our ideas. By talking to the independent people, like myself, you legitimize them, and by this they have a fighting chance, if and when there are elections there. That will definitely help the democratic grassroots movement to emerge.
"While legitimizing alternative voices, the U.S. administration should sideline the current leadership, because those who come now to Washington as emissaries of Arafat or the PA are also compromised either by terror or corruption or both, and basically, they are more of the same old Arafat."
Karsou says that the circle of people in the PA who support the idea of democratization has grown, but they are very afraid of public exposure. "I am not worried," says Karsou. "The legitimacy and acknowledgement of the American government is the best protection and safeguard. Then we become untouchable."