It was a thoughtless act when 94 U.S. senators called on Secretary of State James A. Baker III to "strongly endorse" the Israeli prime minister's proposal for elections in the West Bank and Gaza. The plan is seriously flawed, and it will not go forward unless Baker can get the Israelis to make changes. Unfortunately, the message of the senators is that the plan is fine as it is. Their endorsement weakens the secretary's leverage with both the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Israelis.
The most important point to understand is that the Palestinians see the proposed elections as a trick, not a solution. Americans look to elections as a way of solving conflicts. There is some evidence of their value in deciding who will rule in countries wracked by civil war. But that is not the situation in the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinians are not fighting each other. They are fighting the Israelis.
The Palestinians already have an established leadership, the PLO, which is prepared to negotiate with the Israelis. The elections idea emerged because Israel won't talk to the PLO. If it goes forward, it will be because the Palestinians bend to American arguments that they accept elections as a fig leaf.
If there is any doubt about whether the PLO represents the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, the appropriate test is a referendum on the PLO. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's plan proposes nothing of the sort. In fact, the people in the territories would not be allowed to vote for Yasser Arafat or any other PLO leader. Under present law, any candidate who announced that he is a member of the PLO would be disqualified and subject to arrest as a member of a terrorist organization. Thus, the entire elections proposal is suspect as an attempt to separate local Palestinians from their leaders of longstanding.
In bypassing the PLO, Shamir's proposal provides no way in which diaspora Palestinians would be represented. The status of stateless Palestinians throughout the world and their claimed "right of return" are at the emotional and political core of the conflict. Local Palestinians cannot go forward on their own accord. To do so would be to divide the Palestinian people and arrogate to themselves a decision-making authority that they do not have. An end to the conflict cannot be negotiated unless the party that signs for the Palestinians truly represents those inside and those outside.
The Israeli plan does not firmly close the door on the involvement of diaspora Palestinians. It refers to the local Palestinians who administer the transition phase as "the central Palestinian component" in the final status negotiations. This is a crack in the door that needs expanding. Several alternatives are possible. A referendum on the PLO could be used to establish who will negotiate final status issues. Or Israel could permit candidates to identify themselves as members of the PLO and to run on that basis. Or local Palestinians could be elected to a transnational Palestinian body that would itself select the actual negotiators.
The Shamir proposal calls for a 5-year transition period leading to the final settlement; negotiations of substance would not begin until well into this period. To Palestinians this looks like a proposal for replacing the intifada with years of fruitless negotiations. Since their situation had long been ignored by both the Arab world and the Israelis before the intifada, relinquishing it would be a major risk.
Some Palestinians have responded by calling for Israel to withdraw from the territories before the elections. This is a nonstarter from the Israeli point of view, since withdrawal would ensure the emergence of a Palestinian state prior to negotiations.
While the Palestinians cannot be guaranteed a state before negotiations, the Israelis must agree that the point of the negotiations is to find a way both to end the occupation and guarantee Israel's security. The negotiations must be clearly based on the formula "land for peace." The Israelis could be asked to demonstrate acceptance of this principle by an early redeployment of troops from populated areas to security zones.
Further, the Palestinians could reasonably insist that while they accept the idea of a transition period, the final status negotiations should begin at once, or within a year. They could also reasonably demand a halt to settlement activity by the Israelis, as Secretary Baker has suggested.
A third problem with the Shamir plan is that it doesn't provide an acceptable environment for elections. There can't be free elections without freedom of speech and assembly. Palestinians can't be expected to participate in the electoral process as long as the present level of violence continues. And how will Palestinians who emerge from underground to run for office be protected from arrest?