Casting a Vote for Peace

By JIMMY CARTER

New York Times

November 12, 2004

Atlanta

For more than 40 years, Yasir Arafat was the undisputed leader of the fragmented and widely dispersed Palestinian community and the symbol of its cause. His pre-eminent role was not perpetuated by his boldness or clarity of purpose, but was protected from challenge by his status as the only common denominator around which the disparate factions could find a rallying point.

It was very frustrating to deal with Mr. Arafat in seeking a clear position of the Palestinians, because he was very careful to avoid making a final decision that, when revealed, might arouse intense opposition or rebellion from one of the many competing groups that accepted him as its spokesman. At the same time, his sensitive political antennas endowed him with the ability to enunciate a consensus with reasonable accuracy.

When given a chance by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel, Mr. Arafat responded well by concluding the Oslo Agreement of 1993, which spelled out a mutually satisfactory relationship on geographical boundaries between Israel and the Palestinians. The resulting absence of serious violence by either side was broken when a Jewish nationalist assassinated Mr. Rabin. Mr. Arafat later rejected a proposal devised by President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel, but its basic terms have led to positive initiatives between private groups of Israelis and Palestinians, in particular one known as the Geneva Accords. This proposal addresses the major issues that must be resolved through further official negotiations before a permanent peace can be realized.

In effect, peace efforts of a long line of previous administrations have been abandoned by President Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. For the last three years of his life, Mr. Arafat was incapacitated and held as a prisoner, humiliated by his physical incarceration and excluded by the other two leaders from any recognition as the legitimate head of the Palestinian community. Recognizing Mr. Arafat's failure to control violence among his people or to initiate helpful peace proposals, I use the word "legitimate" based on his victory in January 1996 by a strong majority of votes in an election monitored by the Carter Center and approved by the occupying Israelis.

Lately, with Mr. Arafat politically and physically debilitated, the resulting leadership vacuum has been filled by factions, some of which have resorted to unconscionable acts of terrorism. The Israelis have used this political interregnum to impose their will unilaterally throughout Palestinian territories, with undeviating support from Washington. When the widely respected leader Mahmoud Abbas was chosen by the Palestinian governing authority to act as its alternative peace negotiator, his effectiveness was undermined by both Mr. Arafat (who saw his authority threatened) and by Mr. Sharon (who preferred to make decisions without considering a strong Palestinian voice).

If a respected successor to Mr. Arafat can be chosen by the Palestinians (not by the Israelis or Americans), then there is a new opportunity to initiate peace negotiations. While Mr. Abbas was elected by the organization yesterday as the chairman, it is unlikely that he or any other leader can achieve political legitimacy unless chosen through a democratic process.

Moreover, serious obstacles exist now that were not present in 1996. At that time, Palestinians were permitted to move freely, to campaign and to vote throughout Gaza and the West Bank. This included East Jerusalem, despite a last-minute altercation about whether votes were being "cast in" or "mailed from" voting places in post offices. Now, many more illegal Israeli settlements have been built throughout the West Bank, a road system connects them like a spider web, and a wall is being constructed that encroaches in substantial ways into Palestinian territory from the internationally accepted boundary.

Another deeply disturbing change is the decision by Hamas and other militant factions to resort to suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism, whereas the hope for peace and justice discouraged such violence eight years ago. After that election, Hamas representatives rejected my efforts to have them accept Mr. Arafat as their political leader, and they continue to act independently.

Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain has stated recently that peace in the Middle East is the most important international issue. It is to be hoped that, in Washington and Jerusalem, there is also recognition that a bold and balanced move to achieve this goal will help to attenuate the Middle East tension and hatred that exacerbates the global threat of terrorism.

Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States, is chairman of the Carter Center and winner of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize.