Even as the
United States presses ahead with plans for elections in Iraq despite
the conditions of insurgency and chaos prevailing in large parts
of that country, it is now advocating elections here among the Palestinians,
too - as the best way to consolidate the weak authority possessed
by the colorless political heirs of Yasir Arafat.
say they are enthusiastic about embracing democracy, and that it
is the Israelis and the occupation that have made free and fair
respect authority and the hierarchy of institutions,'' said Ziad
Abu Amr, an American-educated Palestinian legislator from Gaza.
"But we need free and fair elections to establish a consensus. Elections
are the arbiter of disputes in free societies. And we need to establish
elections as the only arbiter for power-sharing, to undermine the
power of those with guns.''
are required under the basic law of the Palestinian Authority to
have elections to fill Mr. Arafat's presidency within 60 days. Hassan
Khreisheh, the new speaker of the Palestinian parliament, says that
international pressure will be required to make this democratic
franchise possible. "We want and need democracy, but it is the Israelis
who don't allow us to have it,'' he said.
In fact, free
and fair elections involving all Palestinians, including those in
East Jerusalem, will be difficult at best if the Israeli army continues
regular incursions into Gaza and all the towns of the West Bank,
while maintaining its intricate system of roadblocks and closures
that hinder free passage of Palestinians.
government of Ariel Sharon values security against Palestinian terrorism
above most other goals, and the Israelis will argue that too loose
a grip on Palestinian movement would only allow those Palestinians
committed to blowing up Israeli civilians too easy an opportunity.
The argument echoes a debate within the Israeli government over
whether to make concessions like prisoner releases to the new Palestinian
leadership at the risk of undermining Israel's own security.
significant pressure from the weakened British prime minister, Tony
Blair, a re-elected President George
W. Bush committed himself on Friday to a serious effort to find
a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem that produces an independent
Mr. Bush said
that he intended "to use the next four years to spend the capital
of the United States'' toward that goal. But such an outcome will
be remotely possible only if the new Palestinian leadership can
establish its authority strongly enough to make serious compromises
with the principles and practices of the now-revered Mr. Arafat
himself - to make a deal on the status of Jerusalem, on final borders
and on the status of refugees that Mr. Arafat never countenanced.
Even more important,
any such deal would have to be accepted by a Palestinian people
that would have had trouble accepting compromise on those articles
of faith even if Mr. Arafat himself had told them to do so.
Now, with Mr.
Arafat gone, a relatively colorless collective is trying to put
new life and credibility into the Palestinian institutions he dominated,
and through which they rose to power. The way Mahmoud Abbas, Mr.
Arafat's most prominent successor and now the head of the Palestine
Liberation Organization, was given his job is illustrative: by a
secret vote of the executive committee - 14 people, of whom only
10 were present and another of whom voted from jail. A democratic
mandate for him in presidential elections would go a long way toward
reconciling Palestinians to his new and powerful role.
But he would
not quickly have the authority to make and carry out a comprehensive
peace that would settle for less than Mr. Arafat would.
the Palestinians are worried about stability and a challenge from
young militants and those sworn to Israel's destruction, like Hamas.
a Palestinian legislator who favors more openness, says that elections
now are more urgent than before. "With Mr. Arafat, the institutions
were rather weak, but there was one address everyone knew - the
president's, and he didn't work constitutionally,'' she said with
a smile. "But now there's a real chance to work institutionally
and make it matter. I think elections are the crucial first step
- that is the road to legitimacy, and a new source of it. And if
Hamas wants to be part of the leadership, it must run in elections
and try to get a mandate from the people. They need to run and argue
their positions, and they can run for the legislative council, too.
That should be the only way to be part of the political system.''
From the Israeli
point of view, even the death of Mr. Arafat does not necessarily
bring peace much closer. The last four years of the intifada have
seen a wide loss of faith from the Israeli public, even on the left,
that the Palestinians accept Israel's right to exist, let alone
want to live in peace alongside it. Mr. Arafat's "no'' to President
Clinton's last peace effort was the death knell of the Oslo process
for many Israelis, and it deeply damaged Israel's Labor Party.
Israeli trust from the depths of this intifada, with its suicide
bombings and cult of death, will take more than a few promises from
even the best-intentioned new Palestinian leadership. Israel wants
the kind of action against terrorism that Mr. Abbas and his allies
do not yet have the authority to carry out, even if they ordered
for the Palestinians is rich, however. In the past, the Bush administration
resisted new national elections among the Palestinians. The thought
then was that the elections would make Mr. Arafat look better and
give him a fresher mandate, and might help give credibility and
authority to Hamas. In those days Khalil Shikaki, a noted Palestinian
pollster and analyst, offered the counter-argument that even if
elections helped Mr. Arafat, they could also strengthen potential
challengers to him, by giving fresh mandates and legitimacy to the
Palestinian parliament and thereby empowering a prime minister who
otherwise had no independent political base.