So far, so good

Shortly after Yasser Arafat died, I described the situation in Palestine as "revolutionary", in the sense that so many potential new power dynamics could now emerge or be launched that it was impossible to predict what would happen: anarchy, violence, or a peaceful transition to a better government. So far the situation has been admirably "evolutionary". Responsible Palestinian leaders have been moving toward elections and striving earnestly for a ceasefire, while Egypt has spearheaded an inter-Arab and international effort to facilitate both. Meanwhile, in Israel the Sharon government has reacted responsibly.

Of course, there are numerous pitfalls and problems here and not a few paradoxes. One paradox, for example, is the specter of Egypt’s President Mubarak, who like most Arab presidents is periodically reelected unopposed, championing Palestinian presidential elections in which there are nine candidates. Three issues appear to be particularly relevant to both the democratic nature and the potentially beneficial effects of these elections.

First, the now defunct Marwan Barghouti candidacy. On the one hand, recent polls predicted a close race between Barghouti and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), thereby guaranteeing that these elections would be real and democratic in ways never before seen in the Arab world. On the other, had Barghouti persisted in his candidacy and been elected, this could have plunged Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli relations back into chaos. After all, Barghouti does not embrace Abu Mazen’s rejection of violent resistance. Nor is there much likelihood of Barghouti’s release from Israeli jail (unless US President Bush unexpectedly offers to free Jonathan Pollard in return, an offer that Sharon would find it hard to refuse). As one senior Palestinian Authority figure–like Barghouti an "insider" from the younger generation of Fateh–put it to me, "I don’t want to replace a leader under siege [Arafat] with a leader in jail".

It is also debatable whether the presence of two presidential candidates from the Fateh movement was a healthy or a harmful phenomenon for the Palestinian national movement at this stage in its evolution; my inclination was to see this development in a positive light, in the sense that Barghouti, had he stayed in the race, would have broken the monopoly of the Fateh old guard. Finally we might have had an election for an Arab head of state whose outcome was not a foregone conclusion!

A second serious problem is the Hamas boycott. A boycott sends the message that the Islamic movement is not, or not yet, ready to abandon its quest for a solution by force and to compromise and enter the Palestinian political system. While a Hamas boycott on January 9 may not be as delegitimizing as a Sunni boycott is likely to be in Iraq on January 30–after all, the Palestinians held an election successfully in 1996 without Hamas’ participation–it nevertheless poses the danger of Palestinian disunity in the post-election phase.

Worse, if Hamas and/or other elements like the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades refuse to enter into a genuine and stable ceasefire–indeed, even to exercise a measure of restraint if Sharon authorizes a targeted killing against a "ticking bomb"–we encounter the third and probably the most disruptive problem of all: ongoing Palestinian violence, and Israeli military response, accompanying the election process. The first major challenge in this regard was generated by the tunnel attack on an IDF outpost on the Gaza-Sinai border on December 12.

Despite these potential and actual drawbacks, and bearing in mind the "revolutionary" alternatives, thus far this has been an impressive process. It turns out that in Arafat’s time some serious democratic constitutional foundations were laid. Abu Mazen, freed of Arafat’s oppressive shadow, is making admirable efforts to stabilize an extremely delicate situation. Palestinian polling results show impressive majorities opposing military operations and Hamas.

So far, so good. Nevertheless, we must remind ourselves that beyond successful Palestinian elections, followed hopefully by a coordinated Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank, there appears to be little basis for extensive agreement between Sharon and Abu Mazen regarding the borders of a roadmap phase 2 state with provisional boundaries or the heavy final status issues of territory, Jerusalem and refugees. Besides, Abu Mazen will not wield anything approaching the authority that Arafat held.

Nor is it clear to what extent US President Bush is prepared to commit American prestige and resources to anything beyond successful Palestinian elections.-