Fifteen months after the signing of the Oslo agreement, and about half a year into its implementation, there is frustration among both Palestinians and Israelis that the promised fruits of peace and prosperity are still far beyond their reach.
In a situation complicated by serious security problems and instability for both peoples, where violence and an oppressive occupation in more than 90% of the West Bank and Gaza Strip are the daily facts of life, a dangerous polarization is taking place between the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas fundamentalist group. At this stage, Hamas is successfully using the authority's failure to meet the people's very basic needs, presenting its ideas as the only alternative to a harsh and disappointing situation.
One of the main reasons for this challenge to political stability is the failure of both Israeli and Palestinian leaders to create an environment conducive to economic growth. There is a lack of effective systems to use the substantial base of Palestinian expertise. Such systems are necessary to encourage investment and development. This process will not take place as long as investors are insecure about how their money is used and while there is an absence of clear regulations and standards to guard against abuse.
So far, the only source of authority on the Palestinian side lies within the office of Yasser Arafat. Despite many appointments made by the Palestinian Authority, those in positions of responsibility lack a clear mandate, job description or the necessary authority to allow them to perform their jobs. Many of the appointments have been based largely on patronage and status in the 30-year-old PLO bureaucracy. The result has led to the marginalization of many national and secular leaders who could provide a wealth of expertise if empowered. To add to the confusion, multiple appointments have been made to fill single positions. In the Health Ministry, for example, there are three appointed directors and no one knows who is in charge. The poor handling of the recent outbreak of cholera, which surfaced in Gaza for the first time in more than 25 years, illustrates the risks inherent in this situation.
Consequently, the popularity of the governing authority and the peace process itself is dwindling. Individual income continues to diminish and unemployment sits at around 50%. In a recent public-opinion poll conducted by the Center for Palestine Research and Studies, 40% of the respondents said that the general living and economic conditions have worsened since the signing of the Oslo agreement; only 31% said that they were satisfied with the performance of the Palestinian Authority. About 80% of the respondents agreed that elections are a better alternative to appointments.
Today, sizable segments of the democratic forces of the country, having in the past advocated a peaceful but just solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, are now paralyzed because of the behavior of the Palestinian Authority. Such forces are torn between rightful dissatisfaction with the authority's unprofessional and undemocratic methods and, on the other hand, apprehension that criticism will be viewed as an obstruction to peace.
Increasing the pressure on Arafat to modify his behavior will not alone rectify this degenerating situation. In the eyes of many Palestinians, one of the major underlying causes of this sad state of affairs lies in the undemocratic nature of the Gaza-Jericho agreement (known commonly as the Cairo agreement), signed by Israel and the Palestinians last May. The agreement denies the Palestinians the right to have legislative elections; it talks about electing only a small executive body with no or very limited legislative powers.
This restriction preempts comprehensive general elections in three ways: by not allowing Palestinians to elect representatives to negotiate on their behalf as legitimate, democratically elected leaders; by not allowing the separation of legislative, executive and judiciary powers, which is crucial to remedy the long history of Palestinian suffering from power abuse and by not including the Palestinian people, through elections, in the process of peace and development.