Elections can cut both ways

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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.

Mr. Ghassan Khatib is a Palestinian political analyst and director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.

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