We must respect the choice of Palestinian voters

By Carl Bildt and Ana Palacio

Financial Times

Published: January 27 2006

Following one presidential and numerous local elections in the past year, parliamentary elections this week confirmed the Palestinian Territories as leaders in democracy in the Arab world. This is no small achievement for an area under military occupation, often characterised by disorder and strife and with unresolved economic and political issues of staggering dimensions.

Throughout the West Bank on Wednesday, we saw an election conducted in an order and spirit of which all participants can feel proud. Although it requires more than elections to build a democracy, we can no longer automatically say that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.

The election has certainly changed the political landscape in both the Palestinian Territories and the wider Middle East. It was a real contest between the more nationalist and secular forces of Fatah and the Islamist challenger, Hamas, reflecting the critical battle for hearts and minds raging throughout the Arab world today. That Hamas emerged the winner is no surprise. Its campaign seemed superior in every way to anything Fatah could offer. But it must be recognised that the Hamas vote was less a vote for the organisation’s Islamist social programme, or for its refusal to recognise the reality of Israel, than a protest against a Fatah rule seen as inefficient and corrupt. Fatah’s inability to secure order and deliver results in the peace process were undoubtedly factors in the outcome, as was discontent with the daily injustices of life under occupation.

We can only hope that the Hamas leadership will recognise the true nature of the support it gained. It did not seek, nor did it get, support for an agenda of Islamisation and conflict. The group’s main slogan in the campaign was reform – not revenge. There now must be formed a new government for the Palestinian Authority. It is incumbent on Mahmoud Abbas, the president, to assure a government truly in the interest of his country. There is a clear need for a strong, new prime minister truly committed to change and reform. The issues are obvious. After years of fiscal mismanagement the Palestinian Authority is near bankruptcy and should not expect the international community to bank- roll failure forever. It must also take a ­further decisive step to reform and strengthen the dysfunctional security system, enabling the dismantling of existing terrorist infrastructure. 

All eyes are now on Hamas. That it decided to enter the democratic political process is clearly positive, as is the fact it declared and has kept a ceasefire in the past year. But if Hamas really wants to distance itself from its terrorist past, and assume real responsibility, it must do so more unequivocally than we have seen so far. The burden of proof over its democratic intentions rests with its leaders.

We expect the European Union and others to follow this process as closely as possible, respect the voters’ democratic choice and remain engaged and ready to work with whatever government and individuals truly commit to embracing reform and distancing themselves from terrorism. We have dealt before with political forces making a transition from terrorism and violence to democracy. But we also now know to insist the transition really occurs. In spite of the obvious difficulties, there are no alternatives in the search for peace but ones that have clear majority support. It is easy to understand and share the apprehension of many Israelis over the election result, but ultimately everyone has an obligation to avoid a new cycle of confrontation.

The critical task ahead is to build a viable, democratic and stable state of Palestine that can be a partner for peace and security with Israel. Such a state must have a contiguous territory and free access to the outside world, and this will require Israel to shift from being an occupying power, relying on its hard powers, to becoming a state-building helper, relying on the enormous soft powers that the success of Israeli society represents.

Israel cannot just turn its back and expect that a high wall will keep it secure. History shows that, while borders are important for national security, the key is what is on the other side of those borders. This is no distraction from the critical task of fighting terrorism. On the contrary – the different tasks are all linked. The developing process of building a Palestinian state is incompatible with a continued occupation, and the building of a democratic state is incompatible with the toleration of terrorism, in whatever form or shape.

Carl Bildt is former prime minister of Sweden and Ana Palacio is former foreign minister of Spain; with former US president Jimmy Carter, they co-chaired an international election monitoring effort in the Palestinian Territories.