Two Uncertain Elections Will Determine Future of Israeli-Palestinian Relations

Two upcoming elections in Israel and the Palestinian territories will play a major role determining the future course of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Israel’s March 28 elections, which once appeared likely to return Ariel Sharon as Prime Minister, now have been plunged into uncertainty by Sharon’s failing health. The Palestinian elections, scheduled for January 25, are even more uncertain and could be postponed at the last minute.

Sharon’s grave illness has suddenly clouded the Israeli political picture. The Israeli Prime Minister, first elected in 2001 and re-elected in 2003, appeared to be headed toward another electoral victory before he fell victim to a major stroke on January 4. A poll taken just before he was hospitalized indicated that his Kadima (“Forward”) Party would win 42 seats in the 120-seat Knesset (Israel’s parliament), the Labor Party 19 seats, and the Likud Party 14, with the remaining seats split among many small parties.

Sharon has been temporarily replaced as prime minister by his deputy, former Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert. Sharon’s stroke may deal a mortal blow to the Kadima Party, which he cobbled together in November after leaving the Likud Party due to disagreements over his unilateral withdrawal from Gaza last year. Olmert, who lacks Sharon’s popular support and political charisma, will have a difficult time holding together Kadima’s ambitious members, who hoped to retain power by riding on Sharon’s coattails.

The chief political beneficiary of Sharon’s incapacity is likely to be Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who stands to inherit many of the voters who would have voted for Sharon. Netanyahu also may try to coax some of Kadima’s leaders who defected from Likud back into the fold. But if Olmert manages to maintain the unity of Kadima and replaces Sharon as its candidate for Prime Minister, the election could produce a severely divided Knesset that would lead to a coalition government made up of many different parties. The Labor Party, under the new leadership of leftist apparatchik Amir Peretz, could then take advantage of the bitter Likud-Kadima rivalry to gain more seats in the Knesset and elbow its way into the next government.

As uncertain as the Israeli elections now appear to be, the Palestinian elections are roiled by even more unpredictable factors. Mahmoud Abbas, a weak and indecisive leader who succeeded Yasser Arafat as President of the Palestinian Authority, faces major challenges to his leadership from within Fatah, his own political organization, and from Hamas, the radical Islamic movement that pledges to destroy Israel and continues to be the leading source of Palestinian terrorism.

There is a bitter struggle within Fatah between Arafat’s old guard, led by Abbas, and a new generation fed up with the corruption, cronyism, and authoritarian leadership that are Arafat’s legacy. Abbas’s old guard supporters were severely defeated in primary elections by younger leaders, and a bitter power struggle is now underway to determine how many of the younger leaders will be included on the Fatah list in the January 25 elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council. If a satisfactory power-sharing agreement is not negotiated, Fatah could break up into two or more factions, further undermining Abbas’s crumbling power base.

Even if Fatah remains intact, it is expected to lose many seats to Hamas, which is competing in the general elections for the first time. In 1996, Hamas boycotted the elections because it opposed the Oslo peace process, but now that Oslo is dead it seeks to gain power through elections while continuing its terrorist campaign. Israel has refused to cooperate in facilitating elections that would empower a terrorist organization. It also has threatened to block voting in East Jerusalem, which it annexed as part of its capital after the 1967 war.

In past elections Israel allowed Palestinians in East Jerusalem to vote at post offices using “absentee ballots” that would not undermine its claim to sovereignty there, but it is not disposed to do so this time and thus aid Hamas. Abbas has seized on Israel’s lack of cooperation and has threatened to use it as a pretext to postpone the elections, which already have been postponed once before.

The United States has pressured Israel to facilitate Palestinian voting in East Jerusalem and to accept a political process that could empower and legitimize a terrorist movement determined to destroy Israel. However, promoting democracy as an antidote to terrorism will only work if the political parties participating in elections are required to disavow terrorism, as Hamas has not.

The Bush Administration instead should make it clear that popularity alone as measured at the ballot box does not make a genuine democracy. It should strongly insist that two other criteria are benchmarks to determine whether a political party that wins an election can be considered truly “democratic”: a violence test and a values test.

A genuine democratic party must reject violence, intimidation, and terrorism, not only against its own people but also against other nations, even if they are historic enemies. There should be no tolerance for the fiction of distinguishing between a “political wing” and a “military wing.” Militias and terrorist organizations must be dismantled before a party is accepted as a participant in elections.

In terms of values, political parties must not advocate racial or religious discrimination. Many European states ban neo-Nazi and other racist political parties. Parties that demonize other religions, as Hamas does, are hardly fit to participate in elections. If Hamas candidates do win, the international community will face a real dilemma whether to ostracize them or gamble on the possibility that they can be persuaded to moderate their radical stance.

The overarching policy of the U.S. government should be to guide emerging, but incomplete, democratic systems towards stability and political maturity. This involves much more than encouraging people to vote. The United States must establish benchmarks before the elections, not afterwards. Otherwise, the United States will put itself and Israel in an untenable position by helping Hamas come to power through a “one man, one vote, one time” election process.


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