Palestinians must go to the polls

By Yezid Sayigh

Financial Times

Published: November 22 2004

Yassir Arafat's personality and intentions will long be debated, but his death may not offer the widely- trumpeted opportunity to reform Palestinian national politics and, crucially, relaunch the peace process. This is partly because his domestic legacy of patronage-based politics and bloated bureaucracy had time to solidify during his decade as president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and will not be transcended easily. It is also because resumption of a credible peace process depends just as heavily on Israeli and US policy, neither of which gives cause for optimism.

Arafat's successors have so far ensured a smooth and largely violence-free transition, but their respite is likely to last a few months at best. The dangers were quickly illustrated when gunmen of Arafat's Fatah group denounced Mahmoud Abbas, the interim Palestinian leader, as a traitor and shot dead two of his bodyguards when he visited Gaza recently.

The transitional Palestinian leadership faces three main challenges: to reform PA governance, instilling far greater internal accountability; to end violence against the Israeli occupying power, while proposing effective means to counter ever-expanding Israeli colonisation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem; and to present clear parameters for an acceptable permanent solution to the conflict with Israel. No effective leadership or functioning government can emerge without meeting these challenges. However, acting on any of them will provoke powerful domestic resistance and possibly violence, as the Gaza incident demonstrated.

Legitimacy is a crucial factor. Holding long-overdue parliamentary and local elections would offer Arafat's successors a means of acquiring it. Even electoral defeat would be beneficial, by placing responsibility for steering the national course squarely on their opponents. Militant factions wishing to contest the elections would moreover have to suspend attacks on Israel, if only for fear that their candidates would suffer Israeli reprisals.

Hamas, the militant group widely seen by outsiders as the main spoiler, has said it will participate in both national and local elections and observe a ceasefire with Israel if allowed to share power in a new PA cabinet. The same applies to Fatah and especially, its affiliated al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades: having lost their political and financial patron, they are unlikely to coalesce in effective opposition to Arafat's successors.

The benefits of re-establishing legitimate and accountable government through elections are clear, not only for the Palestinians but also for the peace process and, hence, for Israel. Yet the election called for January 9 is intended only to select Arafat's successor as PA president. Parliamentary elections, let alone local ones, may not take place at all due to Israeli and US opposition. The omens are not good. In October, Dov Weisglass, former senior adviser to Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister, revealed that Israel's planned unilateral disengagement from Gaza in 2005 aims at "freezing" the political process: "And when you freeze that process you freeze the establishment of a Palestinian state and you prevent a discussion about issues such as the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. . . All this with a [US] presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress." His cocky confidence was quickly borne out: the Bush administration meekly if unconvincingly accepted Mr Sharon's reassurance of continuing commitment to the moribund "road map" for peace, a position echoed loyally by the UK.

Clearly, general Palestinian elections are not on Mr Sharon's agenda. Rather than oppose them openly, he is likely to block them by attaching conditions the PA cannot immediately deliver, such as meeting its security obligations with a police force that has been largely disarmed by Israel. Mr Sharon may also anticipate domestic and international pressure to resume meaningful peace talks with a new, elected Palestinian leadership by seeking prior concessions on the shape and substance of future negotiations in return for allowing elections to proceed. These concessions could include PA and, no less importantly, US agreement to limit provisional Palestinian statehood to the Gaza Strip and pockets of the West Bank for a long interim period, or leaving large settlement "blocs" such as Ariel out of future talks altogether, something George W. Bush has already endorsed.

The US, for its part, having originally insisted on scheduling general Palestinian elections as a means of replacing Arafat, has worked behind the scenes since 2002 to block them. The reason is simple: belated realisation that Arafat would win hands down, and that Hamas and Fatah militants could also make significant gains. This is why the US now supports a January PA presidential election but is likely to remain opposed to parliamentary and local elections. Allowing Hamas to join the elections will be hard to swallow, but if Israel and the US genuinely want a credible Palestinian interlocutor, the polls must be seen by the Palestinian public as inclusive and legitimate.

General Palestinian elections are not a panacea, but are vital if the PA is to deliver on its security obligations and assist in the relaunch of a credible peace process. The Quartet group of road map sponsors, especially the US, must therefore ensure elections take place and are free of restrictions that could deprive the process of legitimacy in advance. There are no short-cuts or cost-free exits for anyone, but unless credible polls are held, then talk by Mr Bush or Tony Blair, the UK prime minister, of renewing the peace process after Arafat is pious at best, hypocritical at worst.

The writer, a former Palestinian adviser and negotiator, is a visiting scholar at Pembroke College, Cambridge; he was principal author of the Report of the Independent Task Force on Strengthening Palestinian Public Institutions (Council on Foreign Relations, 1999), and a major history of the PLO (Oxford, 1997)