Palestinian Elections: Actions Speak Louder Than Tours

Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk Former Brookings Expert, Distinguished Fellow - The Council on Foreign Relations

December 6, 2004

A trickle of Palestinians pay their respects at Yasir Arafat’s graveside, where mountains of rubble and trash serve as a reminder of the wasteland Mr. Arafat bequeathed them. Two weeks after his death, however, cautious optimism is beginning to take hold on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. Mr. Arafat’s death has given birth to new hope.

Freed of the burden of a dysfunctional governing style that set them against one another, Palestinian officials are carefully edging their way toward cooperation. It’s an extremely fragile process. On the one side are the members of the old guard who came with Mr. Arafat from Tunis, and who are determined to protect their positions of privilege. On the other are the members of the young guard and their imprisoned leader Marwan Barghouti, determined to gain the positions of power that Mr. Arafat had denied them for so long. They are joined by an array of power brokers maneuvering for advantage: leaders of the Aqsa terrorist brigades, Gaza warlords and the chiefs of nine separate security organizations maintained by Mr. Arafat. And then there’s Hamas, weakened by Israel’s elimination of its leadership and militant cadres, but eyeing the chance to convert its street popularity into political power.

Nonetheless, left to their own devices, Palestinians are consciously making an effort to favor the rule of law over the law of the jungle, actually using democratic procedures to resolve the battle over Mr. Arafat’s succession. The Palestinian leadership sent an early signal about the role of elections in a post-Arafat era by sticking with constitutional rules that required presidential elections in 60 days. Palestinians will vote for president in January, legislators in May, and a central committee for the Fatah ruling party in August. This is a political watershed. There have been no elections in the Palestinian Authority for eight years; the last Fatah election was 16 years ago.

This acceptance of elections as the route to power has already begun to channel the energies of the competing forces. The young guard are using the candidacy of the popular but imprisoned Mr. Barghouti as a threat to extract pledges from the old guard for cabinet posts and the Fatah elections. But when Mr. Barghouti understandably sought his own release as well, they turned on him lest he undermine their election game plan. While Hamas will boycott presidential elections (since that would involve it in legitimizing the Palestinian Authority), it has focused on amending the electoral laws to maximize its influence in the legislative elections. Lobbying for changes in the political rules rather than lobbing Kassem rockets into Israel can be counted as progress. Hamas leaders are now pondering a moratorium on terrorism in exchange for a share of the political power that could come from the ballot box.

Embracing the tools of a democratic process is also helping Mahmoud Abbas re-establish order and put an end to terrorist attacks in the run-up to the presidential elections on Jan. 9. His biggest immediate challenge comes from the diffuse gangs of the Aqsa brigades who have carried out some of the bloodiest terrorist attacks. These gangs depended on financing from both Mr. Arafat and the terrorist group Hezbollah. If they become solely dependent on Hezbollah – with its aggressive, Iranian-dictated agenda of continued terrorist attacks – a stable succession will be an immense challenge. But if Mr. Abbas can co-opt them, he may gain a period of calm in which to cement his legitimacy and rebuild the security forces. He is offering them a deal: put down your arms and take up jobs in the security services, and you will have both salaries and amnesty from Israeli attack. He is offering a similar amnesty to Hamas.

Adding to the new hopeful mood, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Israeli military seem willing to go along, in contrast to their skeptical dismissal of Mr. Abbas’s efforts when he was, briefly, prime minister. In the past three weeks, the military has limited its activities against Palestinian terrorists. Meanwhile, Mr. Sharon deliberately lowered the bar on antiterrorist activities. He told the hard-liners in his Likud Party Central Committee that Mr. Abbas should not be expected right now to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure. Instead, he urged the Palestinian leadership to stop incitement in the Palestinian news media and education system, something Mr. Abbas has already taken steps to do.

To help pay salaries to newly co-opted militants, Mr. Sharon’s government is quietly transferring tax revenues Israel collects for the Palestinian Authority. Mr. Sharon has also finessed the potentially explosive issue of whether Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem should be allowed to vote in the coming presidential elections.

In short, after four years of the bloodiest conflict, the mood is lifting in Ramallah and Jerusalem, a shift that should encourage the Bush administration to follow Mr. Sharon’s lead rather than to rely on overtures like the hasty visit of Secretary of State Colin Powell. His rush to embrace the Palestinian leadership now, during his final days as secretary, has raised eyebrows in Ramallah, especially since he was essentially AWOL when his intervention was sorely needed during the intifada. Busy maneuvering the varied Palestinian parties, the Palestinian Authority’s leadership does not have time for this distraction.

And, of course, once Mr. Powell turned up in Ramallah, every other would-be statesman who aspires to play a role in this peacemaking opportunity has to follow suit, so European foreign ministers have been descending on the West Bank. Mr. Powell would have been better off focusing their collective attention on the Persian Gulf sheiks who haven’t fulfilled their financial pledges to the Palestinian Authority.

While President Bush insists that the Palestinians democratize first, his administration has its own promises to fulfill. The new hope can easily be dashed by another wave of terrorist attacks. As Mr. Sharon is now attesting, Mr. Abbas has yet to amass the capability to crack down on terrorists. Few remember that President Bush, in embracing the road map to peace, promised that the United States would assume specific responsibility for “training and rebuilding” Palestinian security forces. Mr. Arafat is no longer able to obstruct that process and Mr. Sharon is willing to cooperate. But can the United States do so when the Central Intelligence Agency, which was assigned this task, has so much else to do and is in such disarray?

Beyond that, the Bush administration needs to lead an international effort to help rebuild the Palestinian Authority’s institutions. With Israel’s disengagement from Gaza set to proceed over the next nine months, Mr. Abbas will be hard pressed to fill the vacuum, notwithstanding Mr. Sharon’s new willingness to coordinate the handover. Anarchy and warlords have replaced the Palestinian Authority’s institutions in Gaza. And until now, the Bush administration has preferred to leave the job of rebuilding Gaza and restoring order there to the World Bank and Egypt, who are hard-pressed to handle the job.

And then there is the politically challenging task of synchronizing resumption of the road map with Gaza disengagement and the Palestinian elections. Mr. Sharon is likely to insist that after the withdrawal from Gaza, negotiations should focus on establishing a Palestinian state with provisional borders, as provided for in the second phase of the road map. The Palestinians are likely to insist on moving straight to final status talks to establish the permanent borders between the Palestinian state and Israel.

This is a delicate, complicated process, still vulnerable to the disruptive violence of terrorists and their sponsors. But it is no longer hopeless. If the Bush administration now hangs back, putting the onus on the Palestinians to democratize before the president engages, the opportunity could be lost. Peacemaking, nation-building and democratization need to go hand in hand. What’s needed now is a strategic commitment from President Bush to suspend the caution and skepticism that were the leitmotif of his first term, in favor of a sustained second-term effort to redeem his two-state vision of a democratic Palestine living peacefully alongside a secure Jewish state of Israel.