On Sunday, the Israeli-appointed mayor of Nablus, Zafir Masri, was assassinated. Two anti- Arafat groups of Palestinian radicals claimed "credit." In the media it was at once suggested that this act was designed to discourage other Palestinian notables from accepting West Bank appointments from the Israeli government. No doubt that is part, but only part, of the truth.
Ten days before his violent death, I had a long conversation with Zafir Masri in his modest office in the city hall of Nablus, the largest Palestinian town on the West Bank. He had just come from a meeting with Israeli military occupation officials, and had noticed some progress over his complaint regarding unequal taxation. Beyond the immediate concern, he explained that there had been a good deal of opposition to hiappointment. Many fellow Palestinians had called him a traitor, but he felt he had gained wide acceptance since then.
He had been well known before his appointment. He was the (appointed) president of the city's chamber of commerce and was a member of the prominent family that produced both the current Jordanian foreign minister, Taher Masri, and the senior West Bank leader Kikmat Masri. He also had both tacit PLO and Jordanian support, considered essential by all West Bank leaders.
He stated that it was, of course, the aim of all West Bank Palestinians to get rid of the Israelis. But in the meantime his people were suffering under an immensely disliked occupation, and the quality of life of the inhabitants needed the improvements he was trying to achieve. He was convinced that he had made enough progress to have overwhelming support now.
I asked him whether he did not fear for his safety. He replied that his support in Nablus was his security. I wished him luck and long life.
When I asked whether other Palestinians would accept appointment from the Israelis, he thought this could not easily happen. His case was unique because he started from a basis of support on which he could build. Others were not in such a position. He and all other West Bank notables with whom I spoke agreed that no other Palestinian could be certain of wide popular support and hence legitimacy. Such legitimacy could come only from elections such as a previous Israeli government had granted in 1976 but had then undone by the removal of all but one of those elected mayors.
But, added the West Bank notables, the Israelis would never permit elections now because the outcome was a foregone conclusion -- namely, that all elected officials would be affiliated in one way or another with the PLO.
Thus the Israeli-sponsored attempt to create a new Palestinian leadership as an alternative to the PLO was doomed to failure even before Zafir Masri's death.
Zafir Masri's murder was not directed only or primarily against the willingness of other Palestinians to accept West Bank appointments by the Israelis, but against the possibility of elections and of success in them by Yasser Arafat's mainline leadership.
The Israeli government led by Shimon Peres, or at least its Labor component, has come to recognize that peace cannot be negotiated without representative Palestinians. If it could bring itself to accept that there is no way around the PLO, and that the PLO's nature can be modified by the election of pragmatic West Bank Palestinians, Zafir Masri will not have died in vain.