The first Palestinian election marked a modest start in the establishment of a democratic culture. But its aim, says Ian Black, was to legitimise peace with Israel, not to establish democracyby Ian Black / February 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in February 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
The 1993 Oslo agreement between Israel and the PLO stated that Palestinian elections would “provide a democratic basis for the establishment of Palestinian institutions.” “Basis” is a mercifully vague term: before polling day on January 20th independent observers were highly critical of arbitrary changes in dates for nominations, campaigning rules and even the number of seats. All these changes originated with Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority-the embryonic form of whatever entity finally emerges from the peace process. Elections have taken place not to establish democracy but to legitimise this peace process among the Palestinians. Many of the 700 candidates were either from Arafat’s own Fatah movement-the historic core of the PLO-or Fatah people running as independents. The main opposition group, the Islamic resistance movement, Hamas, stayed away. So did the two Damascus-based left wing “fronts” which have always rejected the Oslo agreement. Not all Palestinians were dismayed by the apparent lack of choice: for a people who have known only dispersal and occupation, a quasi-national election on their own soil is a big deal. Many candidates attracted lively interest from voters, and some likely members of the 88-seat legislative council will make a difference: Hanan Ashrawi-telegenic spokeswoman for the Palestinians at the 1991 Madrid peace conference-will be nobody’s rubber stamp, with her talk of building civil society and accountability. Nor will Haydar-Abdel Shafi, the left wing Gazan physician and a leading critic of Arafat. Candidates from East Jerusalem, where the writ of the PLO’s small army of secret and not so secret policemen does not run, will be bolder than most. The Palestinian People’s Party-ex-communists-have some experienced voices too. Divisions within Fatah could provide challenges. But great expectations will not be met: this modest start to democratic practice reveals a society where personalities-and sometimes money-loom larger than ideas, and where political mobilisation is still based on clans: the decision to opt for 16 constituencies with first-past-the-post voting was designed to favour the big battalions. Palestinian sociologists observe regression from the days of the intifada, when the leading role of young people and women was reflected in local politics: now PLO bureaucrats returning from abroad have supplanted the “children of the stones” whose uprising made the occupation untenable for Israel and undermined traditional authority. Only 22 women ran for the council. Inevitably, national questions predominated in the campaign: how significant was the Israeli withdrawal from six large West Bank towns? What about the next stage of negotiations? And prisoners? What did the assassination of the Islamist bomb-maker Yahya Ayyash imply about Israel’s true intentions? Social and economic issues barely surfaced, though “clean” government-a coded reference to concern about present and future corruption-was much discussed. Arafat’s position-the Arabic ra’is can happily mean both president and the more anodyne, less sovereign “head”-was unassailable. He engineered one opponent, a fiery grandmother called Samiha Khalil, to provide a fig leaf of competition. In the short term “Mr Palestine” will not face serious parliamentary problems: democracy, as Churchill quipped during the Greek civil war, is not a harlot waiting to be picked up in the street by a gangster with a tommy gun. Neither will the presence of Jimmy Carter, European Union observers and Reporters Sans Fronti?es ensure the arrival of a democratic culture. Vital questions remain unsolved: how will the council address the final status talks with Israel, due to start in May? What will the relationship be between the legislature (its powers limited in advance to domestic issues), and the executive? And between the new council and the Palestinian National Council; and the Palestinian diaspora-left out in the cold at Oslo? Who will be elected speaker-designated to become acting president if the incumbent dies, is incapacitated or resigns? Arafat’s critics say his years of running a national liberation movement in exile have made him unfit for democratic life. Anyone who doubts where his instincts lie need only glance at the case of Maher al-Alami, a senior journalist on the Al-Quds newspaper, arrested at Christmas for failing to report Arafat’s visit to liberated Bethlehem on the front page. Alami was held for a few days, then freed with gushing apologies from the ra’is. The pattern is familiar: put on the frighteners and then embrace. The result will be a press, familiar in the Arab world, which splashes daily with the presidential (or royal) schedule. Ominously, not one Palestinian paper reported the harsh criticism of the election process by the Swedish head of the EU observer mission. Other glaring human rights abuses have attracted little attention. Arafat already has his own paper, Al-Ayyam, just starting out in Ramallah, de facto capital of the West Bank, with rows of gleaming Apple Macs and an ultra-modern printing press. Its editor was expelled by Israel in the mid-1980s, went to Tunis to advise the PLO chief and now chairs a board made up of wealthy local investors anxious to run the government’s house journal. Arafat’s supporters are defensive: vital issues still have to be resolved, they say; 28 years of occupation took its toll and democracy is not the highest priority: “We are like a man on a tightrope walking between two high buildings,” argues Mahdi Abdel-Hadi, a political scientist. “We can’t look back and we can’t look down. We have to go on, however strong the winds.” Like the “keep bicycling or fall over” argument about European integration, this popular image is misleading. Palestinian strategists are hoping for a process which has a dynamic of its own as the mutual benefits of separation become clear: but what if Israel had reached the limit, conceptual if not territorial, of what it is prepared to do? What if Arafat did make a fateful error in trading the recognition he had always craved for the autonomy Israel had offered since 1967? “If my pen signs this document it will lead us to a Palestinian state,” Arafat reportedly told a colleague as he agonised over the Oslo agreement. “If any other pen signs it, God help us.” Final status talks will quickly come up against the two most difficult issues on the Israeli-Palestinian agenda: settlements and Jerusalem. Shimon Peres is handling the settlers with kid gloves: after the trauma of the Rabin assassination, “dialogue” is the word and the government is signalling that the big settlement blocs are there to stay, and not just as a ploy to woo religious parties from the opposition Likud in the next general election. Big expenditure on new bypass roads is drawing the final border between Israel and Palestine long before a formal agreement will be reached: some isolated outposts will go, but in terms of land-the only truly hard currency in this conflict-the end result looks like a compromise between a truncated Greater Israel and a stunted Palestine. In East Jerusalem, now surrounded by immovable Jewish neighbourhoods, the Palestinians will achieve more by the old Zionist method of creating facts, of acquiring “one more dunam and one more goat,” than by insisting on a re-division of the city. Hard bargaining lies ahead. Arafat’s victory will not in itself help him with these problems. But it will consolidate his position: international economic support, now with very few strings attached, is already having its effect. Some 50,000 West Bankers and Gazans are employed by the authority-creating a huge, typically third world state sector. So on top of his “national legitimacy” he has what loyalists call “social legitimacy” among at least 300,000 people-no mean power base in a population of 2m. “Dirty money”-the phrase is used by the Palestinians-has helped greatly in the struggle against Hamas, perfect terrain for the political gifts that allowed Arafat to keep the PLO together through the long years of setbacks and divisions. Publicly Arafat praised the “martyr” Ayyash; but he shares with Israel a strategic interest in the neutralisation of the fundamentalist movement’s military hard core. Already there are signs that with its “hard men” dead or in hiding, divisions with the external leadership in Syria and Sudan, and the arrival of a Palestinian middle class which yearns for economic stability and loathes the border closures-Israel’s instinctive response to terrorism-Hamas will revert to the tamer, social-oriented Muslim Brotherhood model from which it originally emerged to challenge the PLO’s impotence. The idea that it might become a loyal opposition party-even an object lesson in how Arab regimes should co-opt Islamist enemies-is not impossible. Peres has helped Arafat too: after the speedy Israeli withdrawal from Nablus, Ramallah and Bethlehem the cynics can no longer say, as so many did when the Oslo process began, that it was “Gaza and Jericho first and last.” Nothing, simply, succeeds like success. Thus Palestine’s limited exercise in democracy takes place at a moment of bewildering transition. You could almost hear the tectonic plates shifting as Palestinians take their children to see the cells where they were interrogated by the Shin Bet or return to homes sealed up during the dark days of the occupation. The euphoria will not last: Palestine has always been the heart of the Arab-Israeli dispute, but it looks less central now that peace with Jordan is taking root and US diplomacy presses hard on Syria to settle over the Golan Heights. Damascus’s response will determine the outcome of Israel’s next election, due by October. Palestinians will have to wait at least until then-if not much longer-for a clearer sign of how their hundred years war will end.