December 15, 2004 | Scripps Howard News Service

Shouldn’t Palestinians Have a Real Election?

Shouldn't Palestinians Have a Real Election? In Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai defeated a raft of candidates to win his historic election.

In Iraq, more than 200 political parties have registered for next month's elections.

And in the West Bank and Gaza? Well, Fatah is offering a single candidate, Mahmoud Abbas, A.K.A. Abu Mazen. “One man, one vote,” is a venerable definition of democracy. But when did “one party, one candidate” become an acceptable alternative?

What's happening here is not mysterious. In Washington and in European capitals – and in Jerusalem, as well – Abbas is regarded as the best Palestinian leader available, the one most likely to move ahead with a peace process. So why fret if he runs uncontested? 

It's not like anyone worried about such niceties in the past. For more than forty years, Yasser Arafat was the unchallengeable Palestinian leader. Ten years ago, the Israelis brought him from exile in Tunisia and installed him in the West Bank and Gaza. Eight years ago, a single election was held. And in that election, too, “Arafat ran virtually unopposed,” as Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, acknowledged recently.

Despite that, diplomats and journalists repeatedly referred to Arafat as an “elected” leader, suggesting a legitimacy that Arafat had not, in fact, earned.

If Abbas wins the same kind of election, he too will be an “elected leader” with an asterisk by his name. But that's not the real problem.

The more important point is that when candidates face serious competition they come under pressure to take positions – to tell voters how their policies differ from those of their opponents, and how voting for them will shape the future.

But with only token opposition, a candidate can argue both sides of every issue and voters don't have to decide. 

Abbas is already straddling fences. For example, he has said that the “intifada” — the terrorist war that began after Arafat turned down Israel's peace offer at Camp David in 2000 – has failed. “The use of arms has caused damage and must be stopped in order to calm the atmosphere on the Palestinian street,” he told the London-based Arab daily Al-Sharq Al –Awsat. 

But last week, Abbas refused to condemn an attack carried out jointly by Fatah and Hamas in Gaza that killed five Israeli soldiers (all of them, by the way, Israeli Arabs). The Palestinian Authority even called the perpetrators “martyrs.”

This recalls the Arafat model: Encourage terrorism, then denounce it to Western journalists while praising the terrorists in the Arab media — and rewarding the terrorists' families.

For a while, it appeared that Marwan Barghouti was going to run against Abbas. He, too, is a Fatah leader but he is considered more of a “firebrand” than Abbas. He also happens to be sitting in an Israeli jail, having received five life sentences for five murders. 

Last weekend, Barghouti announced he would not oppose Abbas. Many Palestinians and many Israelis breathed a sigh of relief. A campaign by a convicted murderer from inside a prison cell would present problems for just about everyone. 

But surely someone should run against Abbas. It would be great if such a candidate was a true moderate – morally opposed to terrorism and willing to acknowledge Israel's right to exist. But even if that candidate was, like Barghouti, in favor of continuing the terrorist war to wipe out Israel, it would still be instructive.  

In such a campaign, Abbas might at least make the pragmatic argument — that a victory by his pro-terrorism opponent would mean more Israeli tanks in the streets of Palestinian cities, more bloodshed and the sacrifice of another generation of Palestinian children with no realistic prospect of destroying Israel, at least not anytime soon.

In other words, Palestinians would have to make a decision – and for many it would be tough. According to a poll conducted this month by Shikaki, a race between Abbas and Barghouti would be a dead heat. Yet Shikaki also found that “more than 80 percent support a mutual cessation of violence and an immediate return to negotiations.” In other words, many Palestinians who want to stop the violence prefer a candidate who would prolong the violence.

But why should Palestinians make hard choices if they don't have to and they're not being asked to? What's the point if, at the end of the “campaign,” there's only one candidate who stands any chance of winning and he is arguing for resolving the conflict while praising those continuing the conflict?

In a free and fair election, by contrast, Palestinians would have to make up their minds: Fight till the end no matter how bitter and risk losing everything; or agree to compromise, accept your enemy as your neighbor, and give your children a chance to live a decent life.

Isn't it time Palestinians were given that opportunity – and burdened with that responsibility? Isn't that what democracy is all about? 

– Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.



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