- Palestinian-Israeli crossfire on
"Elections and the conflict"

September 2, 2002 Edition 33

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>< “Elections can cut both ways” - by Ghassan Khatib
Populist politics is not always conducive to the real interest of Palestinians and Israelis.

>< “January 1996 and January 2003” - by Yossi Alpher
When it comes to Israel's elections, Arafat is really Sharon's best ally.

>< “Elections are an instrument in struggle” - interview with Azmi Shuaibi
Even before the outbreak of the Al Aqsa Intifada, Palestinian elections were a public demand.

>< “Political deadlock generated by election calculations” - by Aluf Benn
The stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian process will prevail at least until elections in Israel, or until the war in Iraq.

Elections can cut both ways

by Ghassan Khatib

Democracy and democratic elections are in theory a vehicle towards progress in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict simply because they empower the public, which is presumably interested in peace. In practice, however, democracy and elections can be a double-edged sword.

Our concrete and practical experience shows us that democratic competition and elections increase the politicians’ appetite for gaining public support by pleasing the public, which is sometimes led by emotional motives and short-sighted considerations. Populist politics can sometimes be driven by a lack of knowledge and is not always conducive to the real interest of Palestinians and Israelis, which is reducing tension rather than increasing it.

The Israeli experience shows that elections sometimes have had positive consequences in the cause of peace, while other times they have proved disastrous. The conclusion of many significant sectors in the Israeli public that Yitzhak Shamir was not doing enough to seize the first-ever opportunity for peace, the opportunity opened in Madrid and Washington, led to the election of Yitzhak Rabin--someone more likely to take advantage of the cracked door.

On the other hand, an enemy of peace like Ariel Sharon was also able to manipulate the public in order to create an anti-peace government through elections, successfully exploiting the difficulties of trying to make peace. As history has unfortunately shown, the phenomenon of democratic elections producing anti-peace and anti-democracy and sometimes anti-humanity leadership is not unique to Israel.

The sword cuts both ways on the Palestinian side, as well. The first and last elections that the Palestinians were guaranteed produced a victory for the peace camp and a big victory for democratic elections. Of course, that wasn’t a coincidence, but rather the result of achievements by that same peace camp, seen in the Oslo Agreements and the beginning of Israel’s gradual withdrawal from the Palestinian territories. There was hope in 1996 (or maybe the illusion) that the peace process introduced by that leadership could bring about an end to Israeli occupation.

Unfortunately, the repetition of those democratic elections within the current atmosphere, one in which the peace process has failed and a political vacuum has taken over, will give the upper hand in any future elections to a very different camp in Palestinian politics. I don’t mean Hamas, because Hamas is unlikely to participate in the elections. But the political center of Palestinian life has growing increasingly skeptical about this political process--the only kind of “peace” Palestinians have ever known.

In other words, while democracy and elections can be an important vehicle towards solving the conflict, they must be accompanied by the kind of political atmosphere conducive to enhancing the opportunities for peace. Indeed, if elections here are pursued in the wrong political atmosphere, they might backfire. That is no reason to argue against holding elections, but it is reason to nurture political initiative and process that can equip the right camp on both sides to take advantage of elections in the cause of peace.-Published 2/9/02©

Ghassan Khatib is minister of labor in the new Palestinian Authority cabinet. He has served for many years as a political analyst and media contact.

January 1996 and January 2003

by Yossi Alpher

The first (and thus far only) Palestinian Authority elections were held in January 1996. During the countdown to those elections, in late 1995, I was involved in convening and coordinating a series of meetings between political and intellectual leaders of the settler community in the West Bank, and senior Palestinian officials and intellectuals from the nascent Palestinian Authority. This unique episode in informal Israeli-Palestinian dialogue is chronicled in a book I published in Hebrew several months ago, And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: the Settlers and the Palestinians. Several of the Palestinian participants in those meetings, such as Hassan Asfour and Sufian Abu Zaida, were actually campaigning for election to the Palestinian Assembly.

At one of these unusual meetings, Asfour and Gazan security chief Muhammad Dahlan turned to Yisrael Harel, then Chairman of the Council of Settlers, and Uri Elizur, then editor of Nekuda, the settlers' monthly publication, and made a request. Extremist settlers were threatening to disrupt the Palestinian elections. Would Harel and Elizur intervene, restrain their constituents from interfering with the approaching election campaign, and induce them to prevent violence and to maintain a low profile on election day, January 20? "You have an interest in supporting our free and democratic elections," Asfour explained.

In the ensuing days Harel and Elizur spoke with additional settler leaders regarding their obligation to honor the Palestinians' democratic process and not interfere with their elections. Indeed, the PA elections were held on January 20 with minimal settler interference, and were certified by international observers as having been by and large fair and democratic. The elections confirmed Yasir Arafat as the undisputed leader of the Palestinians.

The second PA elections are currently scheduled--by a seemingly powerless veteran Palestinian leadership--for January 15, 2002. A lot has happened in the intervening six years. Israel and the Palestinians have been at war for two of them. The very notion of settlers facilitating a Palestinian election now sounds like a bad joke. Arafat has single-handedly destroyed his own credibility among Israelis, among many Arabs, including Palestinians, and with the rest of the world. The PA is broadly considered a terrorist entity, rife with corruption. Israel--hurting and angry from suicide bombings, feeling betrayed by Arafat and his cronies--has reoccupied most of areas A and B, imposing curfews and other sharp restrictions on movement, and the world has acquiesced. Daily life for most Palestinians has become hell. Some members of the Israeli security and political elite now openly advocate yet more extreme measures--everything from "transfer" to the virtual "denazification" of the Palestinian leadership structure.

It is striking to note that six short years ago Israelis, even extremist Israelis like the settlers, along with the US administration and many others on the international scene, openly supported or acquiesced in the election of Yasir Arafat. Today, in contrast, many of these same parties take an essentially cynical and manipulative attitude: if Palestinian elections can be guaranteed to produce a squeaky clean replacement for Arafat in an atmosphere devoid of violence, fine; if not, then best postpone them, or ensure that they are never held. In any case, ongoing Palestinian violence means continued Israeli occupation, which in turn means that it is impossible for Palestinians to hold elections. And even if Israel withdraws in time, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's refusal to allow East Jerusalem Palestinians to participate in such elections (as they did in 1996) would probably constitute sufficient cause for Arafat not to hold them.

These circumstances strengthen the assessment, attributed to Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, that when it comes to Israel's elections, Arafat is really Sharon's best ally. Not only did Arafat's support for Palestinian violence get Sharon elected in the first place. As long as Arafat is in power and there is no genuine reform of Palestinian ruling institutions, there will be little pressure on Sharon--from the Bush administration and the Israeli public--to reconstitute a genuine peace process. And as long as there is no prospect of a peace process, Israeli left wing and centrist voters who elected Sharon in early 2001 are less likely to revert to a left wing candidate in Israel's elections of 2003, and Israeli right-wingers are less likely to abandon Sharon in favor of Netanyahu.

The notion of symbiosis between Palestinian and Israeli political behavior is nothing new. Through his actions and inactions, Arafat has been electing and dethroning Israeli prime ministers for about a decade. That this is still the case is perhaps the best proof of all that the man is not "irrelevant."-Published 2/9/2002©

Yossi Alpher is an Israeli strategic analyst. He is a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv University.

Elections are an instrument in struggle

an interview with Azmi al Shuaibi
================================= A new draft elections law was crafted recently for the Palestinian Legislative Council. What are the features of that draft?

Shuaibi: This new draft law is concerned with the general context and the developments that have occurred on the ground. As such, the proposed draft allows the Legislative Council to enter the coming elections in the context of numerous perspectives--Palestinian, Israeli and international.

Previous experiences were evaluated in order to address the obstacles facing the PLC resulting from the electoral system and the old elections law (Law Number 13, 1995), which was the basis for the 1996 elections. That [law], especially the elections protocol (Appendix Two in the agreements signed on September 28, 1995 in Washington), emphasized Palestinian-Israeli agreements. Why have these changes been proposed at this particular time? Are there problems with the old law, or does this relate to developments on the ground?

Shuaibi: The new legal situation led us to review some of the old clauses, which eventually led to the presentation of a completely new draft law. The PLC approved that draft law during its session on Sunday, September 1 after a general reading, and then it was transferred to the Legal Committee for preparation for the first reading.

The impetus for this draft was that the old elections statute was based on a system of lists of individual nominations, and open lists, and immediate election for any number [of candidates] within the set ceiling. The nominees with the most votes won.

The new statute, however, is based on relative representation for lists of parties and blocs. This will encourage political activity and increase the importance of political parties in the PLC. This is necessary in order to transfer the mechanisms of revolution into that of civil society based on pluralism and political parties. It also requires the holding of regular elections every four years, contrary to the old law that tied the Council’s term to the interim period [of Palestinian-Israeli agreements]. Is it possible to hold elections, even if the proposed draft of the new law is approved, in light of the developments on the ground?

Shuaibi: Even before September 28, 2000 and the outbreak of the Al Aqsa Intifada and the beginning of the comprehensive Israeli aggressions against the Palestinian people, the authority and their institutions, Palestinian elections were a public demand--even as the Palestinian Authority was procrastinating on holding public elections. There was a mentality in the leadership that didn’t believe in institutionalized work. Rather, it held the conviction that direct administration of this “project” would strengthen its power over the political system.

Since the Intifada, however, and with the new, dangerous developments of the last two years, there are other parties that now have a relationship and an opinion on these things. These changes have altered the priorities of the average citizen. How does the involvement of parties other than Palestinians affect the elections process?

Shuaibi: Today the elections are seen as an instrument in the process of struggle, and not as an end in themselves.

Israel, represented by its prime minister, looks at the Palestinian elections as a means of ending the Palestinian Authority and the resistance and erasing the Oslo Accords and abrogating them. Ariel Sharon does not hide his animosity to these agreements, but for reasons of international public opinion he does not announce his position frankly--but he is quite active on the ground.

Sharon is floundering between two positions: allowing the holding of elections and how to deal with them if they are held. If he were to reveal his position, he would be forced to accept their results, including the reelection of [Palestinian President Yasser] Arafat. If he refuses, the changes in the elections law will force him to negotiate with the Authority and that will not be acceptable to him. How is the international community involved in the elections process?

Shuaibi: International involvement in these elections led by the United States via the Quartet, sees these elections as one way to get rid of Arafat. They are demanding that the law or constitution be changed before the elections are held in order to guarantee Arafat’s transformation into a mere symbolic figure, or he is pushed out of the Authority altogether.

The international community sees the proposed elections as a mechanism for bridging the time period set in US President Bush’s speech for creating a Palestinian state by 2005. In this context, the European initiative presented by Denmark ties the current situation to the coming three years, after which time a Palestinian state can be created.

The Palestinian view of the elections, both popular and official, would be accepting of “reform” if it were not for Israeli and American interventions. These interventions drive the Palestinian public to support the Palestinian president, Yasser Arafat. It sees these elections as an opportunity to renew the legitimacy of Arafat and reelect him.

Moreover, the holding of elections in accordance with the old rules requires an Israeli withdrawal from all the areas it has occupied, which will help the Palestinians to make use of international monitors. Palestinians see, in the idea of offering all Palestinians the right to elections, a means of facilitating their rights to the ground on which they stand and strengthening the concepts of independence and self-determination.-Published 2/9/02©

Azmi Shuaibi is a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and drafted the new election laws now under consideration by the Legislative Council.

Political deadlock generated by election calculations

by Aluf Benn

Today, the political timetable of elections in the United States, Israel and the Palestinian Authority is dictating the nature of attempts to stabilize the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation and to renew the peace process.

Elections influenced the peace process in the past, too. The best example is the postponement of the Israeli withdrawal from Hebron decided upon by the Peres government on the eve of the 1996 elections. The Taba talks held shortly before prime ministerial elections in 2001 were a last minute attempt to offer concessions to the Palestinians in order to strengthen Ehud Barak's chances among left-wing voters and with Arab voters who boycotted the elections.

Today the influence of elections on the peace process is evident long before election day. And a combination of political constraints felt by the three main actors in the arena is paralyzing the peace process.

The American administration's activities in the Middle East are heavily influenced by US election considerations. The Republicans need Jewish voters and contributors for the November 2002 midterm elections. President George W. Bush has no desire to enter into a dispute with Israel when polls show a rise in Jewish support for the Republicans during his tenure.

When the leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia presented Bush with their peace program, they took into account the "Jewish factor." They proposed declaring an interim Palestinian state after the upcoming congressional elections, while postponing a permanent status agreement until after the November 2004 presidential elections--when, they assumed, a second term president would be unencumbered by fears of Jewish retribution at the polls. Bush adopted part of their advice, and in his speech of June 24 proposed that a permanent status agreement be completed within three years, i.e., safely into his second term. Nor is the administration's growing involvement with a war against Iraq devoid of considerations involving the upcoming elections and the Republicans' desire to divert the public debate from economic problems to the war against terrorism.

In Israel we cannot know whether the current government will survive through to the completion of its term on October 28, 2003, or will hold early elections in the spring, or even in January. Against this uncertain background, preparations for primaries have begun in the Labor Party and the Likud. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, under pressure from his rival Binyamin Netanyahu, has been moving to the right; he no longer talks about a Palestinian state as he did last summer. In the Labor Party the dynamic is the opposite: party Chairman Binyamin Ben Eliezer has been obliged to move to the left by building a separation fence (to neutralize one rival, Haim Ramon) and engineering a local ceasefire and removing settlement outposts (against his new rival, Amram Mitzna).

Sharon is well aware of the influence of the ballot box on diplomacy. In his dealings with the US administration prior to the Bush speech of June 2002, he threatened to invoke his "doomsday weapon": early elections. "Of course I'll be reelected, but first we'll have six months of paralysis," he warned senior administration officials. The same tactic, only in reverse, is being invoked by Sharon's bitter enemy, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat. The Palestinian leader wants to use the ballot box to maneuver his way out of the international isolation that Bush and Sharon have imposed on him. Arafat and his entourage have decided on new elections for the PA on January 15, 2003, based on the Oslo formula. Under current circumstances, Arafat is expected to win a new mandate from the public that will oblige his supporters in Europe to lend him a helping hand.

This is why there is no enthusiasm in Israel for Palestinian elections. Sharon sees them as a trick to keep Arafat in power, while Foreign Minister Shimon Peres warns that the extreme positions the candidates will feel obliged to invoke will simply perpetuate the conflict. The Israel Defense Forces’ Planning Branch assesses that Palestinian elections will not take place before the end of 2003. This assessment was presented to the political echelon, and corresponds perfectly with the government's own constraints: the Palestinians will only vote after elections in Israel, and the decision regarding an IDF withdrawal from the PA in order to facilitate elections will fall upon the next government.

The US administration proposed a compromise: elections in the spring of 2003, after the Palestinian election law is changed and reforms are introduced that place a "prime minister" at the top of the PA pyramid and relegate Arafat to symbolic status. The main inducement for Palestinians is IDF withdrawal from their lands. But the current PA leadership, which does not want to commit political suicide, frowns upon the idea; nor is the extent of American determination clear.

When the leaders are busy with domestic constraints there is little likelihood of advancing the process. It seems probable that the stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian process will prevail at least until elections in Israel, or until the war in Iraq, which itself is not divorced from the electoral timetable. The anticipation of an American offensive that is liable to provoke Iraqi missile attacks on Israel tends to strengthen the cohesiveness of the Israeli government, and reduces the chances of early elections. And all this guarantees a prolonged period of political "treading water".-Published 2/8/2002©

Aluf Benn is the diplomatic correspondent for "Haaretz." He has been covering Israel's relationship with the Palestinians since 1993.

Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at and, respectively. is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.