A window of opportunity

The end of a successful presidential election day in Palestine entails a number of significant consequences.

Firstly, the Palestinian people and leadership, in spite of the difficult circumstances created by the occupation, have proven themselves eager, willing and able to practice proper democratic elections.

The obstacles created by the occupation were several, including the Israeli restrictions against voting in East Jerusalem, the shooting by Israelis at one polling station in Gaza, the delay in the arrival of some ballot boxes to some villages, and the negative political and security atmosphere created by the Israeli escalation in the few days before the elections.

But Israel was not the only source of outside meddling. Some Arab satellite TV stations overtly interfered in the race in the last few days before elections including by trying to negatively influence the position of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). There was also interference with regard to the financing of campaigns from the outside, including from governments.

Despite the above, the elections took place peacefully and in an orderly manner in spite of the relative absence of any proper security due to the general political situation as a result of the occupation.

The comfortable majority that Abu Mazen won on the basis of the very clear political program that he was campaigning on, is also a message of peace from the Palestinian people and leadership. It is a message that the Palestinians are willing to give a chance to efforts to replace the ongoing violent confrontations between the two sides with political negotiations. The question now is, what is going to be the response from Israel and from the third parties, particularly the US?

The election results have created a window of opportunity that will remain open roughly until the end of the year. During this time, the Palestinian people will be busy preparing for the Legislative Council elections, which should take place in the middle of the year. By then, the Palestinian side will have successfully fulfilled most if not all of its obligations under the first phase of the roadmap. These include advancing and enhancing the process of reforms–a process that has already been termed satisfactory by the report of the international task force presented recently–conducting free and democratic elections, and consolidating the Palestinian security system into three organs under an empowered prime minister. The latter is a process that is now well underway with the recent Cabinet approval of a law to this effect that has now been submitted to the PLC. In addition, the PA will be making a one hundred percent effort to try to stop any Palestinian violence against Israelis.

In order to preserve and utilize the momentum created by this election, however, Israel is also required to fulfill its obligations under the first phase of the roadmap. These include stopping all kinds of settlement expansions, removing all restrictions and other economic sanctions and collective punishment measures against the Palestinian people and economy, and finally, stopping all kinds of violence against Palestinians.

The best mechanism for fulfilling the security obligations on both sides might be a willingness to agree to a mutual ceasefire. Should Israel choose this practical political path, it will enhance the positive developments on the Palestinian side, empower the new leadership and enable it to succeed in its own security mission.

However, such Israeli reciprocity should not be expected without serious third party intervention. The elections therefore are also a strong invitation to the US to move concertedly to bring the two sides back to negotiations based on the international legality embodied in the roadmap. The US is urged to bring Israel to the table and ensure Israeli compliance with the specific obligations under the first phase of the roadmap. If this year should end without Abbas being able to show his public that he is moving them closer to their objective of ending the occupation and has had some success in addressing the issues of poverty and unemployment, then he is headed for the same fate that he met when he served as prime minister.

Finally, two significant side effects of this democratic experience in Palestine are that it sets an example to fellow Arab countries in the region, and shows that democracy can be neither imported nor exported, that it depends instead on the presence of internal will and infrastructure. The success of the Palestinian elections should encourage genuine democratic elements in the Arab world and weaken the opponents of democracy, and I think what happened here will encourage positive developments in this direction in the region as a whole.