Palestinian Elections: A Test for Palestinians, the United States and Israel


The interim Palestinian leadership announced recently that Palestinian Authority (PA) presidential elections will be held on 9 January 2005. The elections are potentially the most significant step forward for Palestinians in the post-Arafat era, but their fate rests in the hands of Israel and the United States, to the extent to which the latter is willing to invest its diplomatic resources. Israel’s refusal to allow elections in East Jerusalem and Palestinian insistence that Arab Jerusalemites participate could bring the election process to a screeching halt.

Israel, the U.S. and East Jerusalem

The involvement of East Jerusalem residents in the upcoming Palestinian election may become Condoleezza Rice’s first challenge in Middle East peace-making as Secretary of State. U.S. action on the issue will set the tone for how the new Bush administration will deal with Israeli violations of international law and terms of reference (TOR) established in past negotiations.

In the 1996 national elections, Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem headed to election booths in post offices and schools and elected seven representatives to the Palestinian Legislative Council. The Jerusalem elections were held after Israel and the Palestinians carefully drafted TOR with the help of the United States. Palestinian officials hold today that the same TOR can be used for the January 2005 elections.

Ahmed Qurai, an elected Jerusalem representative, is the current Palestinian prime minister. Another well known Jerusalem representative is Hanan Ashrawi. Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem have the same legal status as Palestinians in the rest of the Occupied Territories.

On 13 October 2004, the Palestinian Central Elections Committee (ECE) concluded voter registration in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Israel did not allow registration in East Jerusalem and it will likely try to convince Palestinians and the world that without registered voters in Jerusalem legitimate elections in the city cannot be held. Palestinians must address this issue immediately in order to get eligible voters (age 17 and over) to register and to give anyone over 35 years old who wants to run for office time to announce their candidacy.

Palestinians and the U.S.

The Palestinians will look to the U.S. to exert the same effort toward them as it did toward Afghan elections and the current effort in Iraq. However, where as the U.S. sent troops into the cities of Afghanistan and Iraq to secure the elections, in the Occupied Territories the U.S. must work with Israel to get troops out of the cities so that Palestinians can get to the polls.

To facilitate the elections, the U.S. must demand that Israel lift its closure on the Occupied Territories, remove the military checkpoints that restrict movement within the West Bank and parts of the Gaza Strip, and refrain from intimidating and/or arresting campaign workers, election volunteers, and the candidates themselves including Hamas candidates and supporters. Palestinians will closely follow the way the interim leadership deals with elections in Jerusalem. A compromise on the issue by PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas and PA Prime Minister Ahmed Qurai will be perceived as a sign of weakness and imminent compromises over key Palestinian rights.

Without elections, the fragile interim Palestinian leadership will be denied the legitimacy it desperately needs to carry out the day-to-day duties of governing and maintaining order through the rule of law. Most importantly, it will lack the proper mandate needed to negotiate the future of the Palestinian people. Without enabling free elections, Israel will lose its claim to have been waiting for a “partner in peace” and the Bush administration will lose a crucial opportunity to reengage in the Middle East.

Presidents in Waiting

Candidates have until 20 November 2004 to announce their candidacy. Campaigning is scheduled to last from 27 December 2004 to 8 January 2005.

Although no official announcement has been made and despite the differences within Fatah, it is most likely that Abbas will win the party’s nomination. Abbas’ candidacy will be official only after the 21-member Fatah Central Committee (of whom only 13 remain alive) nominates him and the majority of the 163-member Fatah Revolutionary Council (of whom five are dead and over half live in the Occupied Territories) approves the nomination.

Farouk Qaddumi, the new Fatah leader who chose to remain in exile, has endorsed Abbas. Abbas has also received the endorsement of former Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan, who some thought might compete for the top position. Qurai, another possible successor, has announced that he does not plan to run for president. Interim PA President Rawhi Fattooh has also said he has no interest in the job beyond the 60 day interim period.

The most important endorsement Abbas needs is from Marwan Bargouthi. Bargouthi is serving five consecutive life sentences in an Israeli prison for the charge of leading an armed resistance against the Israeli occupation. Bargouthi, an elected lawmaker representing the Ramallah district, maintains that he is a political prisoner whom Israel abducted from Palestinian-controlled Ramallah in 2002. He argued during his trial that as long as Palestinians are under occupation they have the right to resist that occupation.

Bargouthi is the most popular leader of Fatah among the party’s young generation of Fatah known as the “young guards.” Commanders of the Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade and Fatah’s “young guards” see Bargouthi as the Palestinian most fit to lead after Arafat. Leaders of the Brigade have sent mixed signals regarding Abbas. Some said they will support Abbas as long as he remains in line with basic Palestinian principles on all the key issues especially Jerusalem, the right of return, and sovereignty. Others demand that Arafat’s medical records be released before elections are held, while others are waiting for word from Bargouthi.

Bargouthi himself has not said whether or not he will run for president. He is aware that the Palestinian people need a hands-on leadership to deal with the challenges ahead. His loyalty to a united Fatah, where its members are not forced to choose between two of its leaders, is another reason why he will not likely run.

Bragouthi’s endorsement of Abbas would strengthen Abbas among the “young guards” who Abbas needs to carry out his election campaign and persuade Palestinians to vote. In exchange Abbas will have to give the young guard assurances that their voices will be heard when it comes time for decision making. One of the first conditions the young guard may demand is that Abbas work on a prisoner release that would include Bargouthi. Whether or not Bargouthi himself would accept being released through a deal with Israel remains to be seen. Bargouthi’s influence over the Fatah base and his popularity among Palestinians will be stronger in prison.

While Abbas may be the only Fatah candidate, two independent candidates have announced their intention to run and a third is weighing the possibility. Former Hamas supporter Talal Sader announced his candidacy. In 1993, Sader dissolved his ties with Hamas and joined the PA as its Minister of Youth and Sports. After a year in the post, he became Arafat’s Advisor on religious affairs. He is a resident of the West Bank town of Hebron.

Abdel Sattar Qassem, a political science professor at the West Bank An-Najah University in Nablus has also thrown his hat in the ring. He describes himself as an independent nationalist and has been a strong voice against corruption in the PA.

Palestinian millionaire and Arafat’s long-time friend Munib al-Masri, also from Nablus, is considering running as an independent with a priority on building the Palestinian economy.

A coalition of leftist and independent groups are also studying the possibility of nominating a candidate.

Hamas has said it will not put forth a presidential candidate and has conditioned its cooperation with the interim leadership on having legislative elections. Parliamentary elections are to take place within the first half of 2005.

Arafat and the Elections

Even in his death, Arafat will have an influence over the new leadership and the course of action it takes. The proposals Arafat rejected at Camp David 2000 cannot be accepted by the new leadership if not amended to fulfill Palestinian rights and come in line with international law. Arafat has died, but the 37-year occupation lives and is showing no signs of weakening.

Arafat’s death, unless clarified, will remain a source of suspicion and mistrust that could trigger protest against the new leadership. The outpour of emotion and loyalty toward Arafat when his remains arrived in Ramallah showed that whomever runs, Arafat will retain the popular vote.

After the last ballot is counted and the new Palestinian leadership assumes its powers, it will find that the issues that plagued Arafat remain the same. Arafat’s “failure” in state building was enabled in no small part by the Israeli occupation, an increase in the size and number of Israeli settlements, and continued restrictions on movement that debilitated the economy and civil institutions. Palestinians were pressured with the task of state-building while under occupation; this remains the case.

The U.S. must avoid the mistakes of the past. Now with Arafat no longer the primary focus, the U.S. must address the real issue: the occupation. While the new Palestinian leadership “gets its house in order” the U.S. must work with Israel to improve the daily lives of the Palestinian people and to address the causes for the violence.