November 14, 2004

Hoping Democracy Can Replace a Palestinian Icon


RAMALLAH, West Bank The post-Arafat era will be the latest test of a quintessentially American article of faith: that elections provide legitimacy even to the frailest institutions.

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.

The Palestinians say they are enthusiastic about embracing democracy, and that it is the Israelis and the occupation that have made free and fair elections impossible.

"Palestinians 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.''

The Palestinians 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.

The Israeli 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.

Still, under 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 Palestinian state.

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.

Right now, the Palestinians are worried about stability and a challenge from young militants and those sworn to Israel's destruction, like Hamas.

Hanan Ashrawi, 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.

To rebuild 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 it tomorrow.

The paradox 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.

Different times, different mores.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company