January 1996 and January 2003

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.”

Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”

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