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Put Palestinian Elections on the Back Burner

The Bush plan is a recipe for failure.

July 05, 2002|BRIAN KATULIS | Brian Katulis worked on a number of democracy promotion programs in the West Bank, Gaza and Egypt for the National Democratic Institute from 1995 to 1998. He co-authored an NDI-Carter Center report on the 1996 Palestinian elections, based on an election monitoring mission headed by former President Carter. The views he expresses in this article are his alone.

President Bush's call for new Palestinian elections leaves the Middle East in a dangerous limbo.

The central concept in Bush's latest plan puts the cart before the horse--requiring free elections and a new Palestinian leadership as a precondition for moving forward. Yet, as a practical matter, no true democratic election can take place without serious negotiations between Israel and some sort of Palestinian leadership about specific details of these elections.

The first Palestinian general elections in 1996 took place only after protracted negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian leadership, at a time when the Oslo process was fresh and political negotiations and security cooperation were at their apex.

Special provisions for how Palestinians in East Jerusalem would vote, collection procedures for ballot boxes, security measures--all were subject to negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. With very little communication between Israel and Palestinian leaders today, how can new elections be organized?

There are numerous practical matters to consider:

* Who will administer these elections? The recent Israeli incursions into the West Bank destroyed several Palestinian Authority ministry buildings, many of them related to civil administration.

Do the Palestinians have a valid voter registry and the technical capacity to organize a free and fair election? If so, will Israel permit anyone connected with Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority to play a key role in organizing these elections? Who will adjudicate electoral disputes, which are as likely to happen in Gaza City as they are in Florida?

* Who can run for office? Will Israel and the U.S. accept no limitations on who can run for office? Will they leave the ballot open to Hamas militants and Islamic Jihad extremists? If they attempt to control who runs, then they risk compromising the open nature of democracy. However, if restrictions are not set, leaders worse than Arafat may emerge as victors.

* Will there be a free and open debate? Will Israel and the U.S. demand restrictions on certain types of campaign speech--red lines that candidates cannot cross when it comes to Israel and the peace process?

If limits are introduced, then the legitimacy of a new Palestinian democracy may be compromised. On the other hand, without limits on anti-Israel hate speech, the campaign may become one big incitement rally for further violence against Israeli civilians.

* Who can vote? In 1996, special provisions were made for the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, an area that Israel considers to be part of its undivided capital. But in 1996 less than half the eligible voters in East Jerusalem cast a ballot--largely a result of a large Israeli security presence at East Jerusalem polling sites--compared with a 73.5% voter turnout in the West Bank and Gaza. Will there be guarantees of access to the polls for the 200,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem?

* Will Palestinian voters have unimpeded access to the polls? In the years since the first Palestinian elections, Israel has built new settlements and created a new network of roads that extend across the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The access roads that connect settlements with Israel proper are frequently closed at a moment's notice, leaving Palestinians stranded at checkpoints for hours on end in the Israeli effort to ensure the settlers' safety.

In addition, as a result of Israel's recent incursions, the portions of the West Bank once partly controlled by the Palestinian Authority are divided into at least eight zones with more than 100 Israeli checkpoints. Will Israel be willing to close these roads to settlers on election day to ensure unfettered access to the polling stations for all eligible Palestinian voters?

Beyond these basic logistical questions, there are obvious, broader questions, such as what to do if Arafat is reelected.

The call for Palestinian democracy is noble, but it is not a strategy for peace.

Without making a serious effort to restart political negotiations and security cooperation, and integrating the drive for democracy with broader diplomatic efforts, the Bush plan is a recipe for failure, destined to meet the fate of previous American Middle East peace plans.

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