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Date posted: December 13, 2004
By Khalil Shikaki

Even before I revealed that my organization's latest opinion poll on the Palestinian presidential race showed a statistical tie between the imprisoned firebrand Marwan Barghouti and the conciliatory elder Mahmoud Abbas, Barghouti's emissary was unequivocal. He had come to my hectic office in Ramallah to assure me that, regardless of the level of Barghouti's current popularity, the jailed leader had no option but to run because Palestinians needed a genuine choice.

That notion may sound mundane in the United States, but it's a novel one here. Palestinians haven't had a genuine choice for quite some time; open challenges to the established leadership have been practically unheard of. Until his death last month, Yasser Arafat had ruled the Palestinian Liberation Organization for 35 years. It has been eight years since Arafat ran virtually unopposed for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority, created after the Oslo accords. And at no point during earth-shaking peace talks with Israel in the 1990s or the bone-shattering intifada of the past four years have ordinary Palestinians been asked to approve a referendum; most decisions have been made by a handful of leaders of Hamas, its militant secular rival Al Aqsa Brigades, or the central committee of Arafat's Fatah movement.

In the wake of Arafat's funeral, however, the Palestinian body politic has come alive. That's why the message from Barghouti's emissary was noteworthy. Despite pressure from senior PLO leaders, I was told, Barghouti believes that Palestinians should be able to choose between continuing and ending the four-year-old intifada, which he helped instigate.

The Palestinian presidential elections are inextricably tied to the peace process. Abbas, who has criticized the intifada, is viewed by almost two-thirds of Palestinians as the candidate most able to reach a peace agreement with Israel; Barghouti, who earlier this year was given five life sentences by a Tel Aviv court for murder, is viewed by most Palestinians as the candidate most likely to keep the intifada going.

Barghouti's decision to run, reversing his initial pronouncement, has consequences far beyond the fate of the intifada. His candidacy has become a vehicle for young guard nationalists who want to seize the moment and shake up the Palestinian political system. A true contest will help the young guard to displace the old, if not today, then tomorrow. With policies being challenged and power openly contested, a transition to democracy is underway.

The desire for democracy is pervasive among Palestinians, according to a poll our center conducted early this month. Even though the Islamists, who represent a major force in Palestinian politics, have decided to boycott the elections, an overwhelming 90 percent of Palestinians say that they were determined to vote. Moreover, the Islamists themselves are asserting that they will participate in local and parliamentary elections, tentatively scheduled to take place over the next few months. After four years of political paralysis, people are not willing to miss the opportunity to determine their future.

The decision by the Islamists to boycott the presidential race might help explain the rapid slide in the popularity of Hamas and other Islamists, from 32 percent in September to 24 percent today. Meanwhile the excitement generated by election campaigning might, in part, explain the sharp rise in support for Fatah, from 29 percent to 40 percent during the same period.

Winning a contested race would be the best outcome for Abbas, who has long been in Arafat's shadow. A victory over Barghouti could give Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen) the legitimacy he needs to combat violence and to deliver on any pledges he makes in negotiations with Israel. If Barghouti pulls out of the race, as he has discussed, and Abbas were to win unopposed, he would end up with a weaker hand.

This new post-Arafat era commences with rising optimism and hope among the Palestinian public. A majority believes that Arafat's death has increased the chances for a political settlement with Israel, and more than 80 percent support a mutual cessation of violence and an immediate return to negotiations. The level of support for reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis has never been higher. The hope is being generated by a smooth transition of power in the Palestinian Authority and the public perception that the chances for success in the peace process are now greater due to Arafat's departure.

Abbas benefits from this development because he is viewed as the candidate most likely to bring about peace and the one most able to improve economic conditions. Barghouti's chances are best when fear and pessimism prevail. (It is not surprising that most of the young Fatah members in prison have rallied behind Abbas; they believe that he, not their fellow prisoner Barghouti, is the one most likely to secure their release.) The current decline in support for Islamists is highly correlated with reduced pessimism. Support for Hamas is the public response to fears and threats imposed by Israeli collective punishment measures.

The next few weeks will be critical. Ironically, the more successful Hamas's election boycott is, the more likely it will be that Abbas will win. Most Hamas supporters back Barghouti.

Meanwhile Israel can choose one of two approaches. It could maintain the status quo -- the checkpoints, the closures, the assassinations and the strangulation -- claiming that it does not want to interfere in Palestinian internal affairs; it could even escalate violence and retaliation. By doing so, it would engender greater fear and drive voters to Barghouti. Alternatively, it could deliver on its promise to facilitate elections by quickly pulling out of Palestinian cities in the West Bank, removing checkpoints and closures, and ceasing all military initiatives in order to allow free and fair campaigning.

Israel could even capitalize on the relative calm to release prisoners and allow armed Palestinian police to maintain law and order and provide security for the election process. Doing so would maximize hope and optimism and thereby reduce the appeal of violence. It is ironic that the release of Barghouti, while freeing him to campaign, might damage his candidacy by reinforcing a sense of normality.

A genuinely contested presidential election will set a unique precedent in the Arab world. It will open the door wide for Palestinian democracy.

Abbas's weakness could actually help keep that door open. Abbas will need to reach out constantly to all constituencies for support. After all, he is not the choice of most young nationalistic Palestinians or Islamists. Nor is he much liked by members of the old guard, who felt he was quick to abandon them in favor of the young guard during his short term as prime minister back in mid-2003. (At that time, Abbas actually resigned his position in the Fatah Central Committee.) The Palestinian power structure will be more diffuse, insuring better governance.

Even if Abbas wins the elections, he will only be a transitional leader. With the passing of Arafat, the days of the old guard -- the leaders who spent years in exile -- are coming to a close. The future of Palestine will be shaped by nationalist, Islamist and moderate liberal leaders -- all of whom went through their formative experiences under Israeli occupation.

Still, it will be an important transition. Abbas could undercut support for the Islamists by making progress in the peace process and improving economic conditions. He could also buttress the institutions of Palestinian democracy, institutions that have been smashed or worn down in recent years. These institutions must outlast Abbas if democracy is to survive.

And if Barghouti wins, the cause of democracy will still be served. True, Barghouti's imprisonment and his call for prolonging the intifada will ensure the continued paralysis of the Palestinian Authority, just as happened under Arafat. But in this case, the Palestinians will have the opportunity to rectify the situation by going immediately to long overdue parliamentary elections. Last year, the current parliament amended the Palestinian Basic Law transferring significant powers from the office of the president to the cabinet and the prime minister. The new parliament, which would still have a solid Fatah presence, will have a good reason to turn the Palestinian system into a truly parliamentarian one by making the office of the presidency ceremonial. Democracy would be strengthened while paralysis would be removed.

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Source: Washington Post
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