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What's next after elections in Palestine?

January 7, 2005 | Pages 6 and 7

WHEN YASSER Arafat died on November 11, U.S. and Israeli officials celebrated. Finally, the best-known symbol of the Palestinian struggle against occupation and war was gone.

For years, Washington and its chief ally in the Middle East tried to keep Arafat marginalized by portraying him as an "enemy of peace" who relied on anti-democratic measures to derail negotiations between Palestinians and the Israeli government.

Now that Arafat was out of the way, they solemnly declared, Palestinians could show their "commitment" to peace by making "democratic reforms." "As we negotiate the details of peace, we must look to the heart of the matter, which is the need for a Palestinian democracy. "George W. Bush lectured in early December.

But when it comes to the Palestinian presidential election--set to take place January 9--Israel and the U.S. have made it clear that they will tolerate only one winner: Mahmoud Abbas, who they view as pliant and sympathetic to their interests. As ERIC RUDER argues, the elections have exposed in sharp relief the "democracy hypocrisy" of the U.S. and Israel.

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THE PROCESS of getting an acceptable candidate democratically elected to become the new Palestinian president has required delicate diplomatic efforts by the U.S. and Israel. Democracy, in the view of the U.S. and Israel, means the process of voting, which gives the appearance of democratic participation--all to confer legitimacy on an outcome that has already been decided.

"[T]he situation in the Israeli-occupied territories mirrors that of apartheid South Africa," write Palestinian rights supporters Sam Bahour and Todd May. "Palestinians are being forced, either by choice or fate, to agree to 'acceptable' candidates for elections to offices that will have only as much power as the Israeli government, underwritten by the Bush administration, grants."

Israel and the U.S. want Mahmoud Abbas--who was already the frontrunner as Arafat's anointed successor--to win. But the more militant Marwan Barghouti--who has spent the last two-and-a-half years behind bars in Israeli prisons--briefly threatened to upset the already decided outcome when he announced in early December that he would challenge Abbas.

It's obvious why Israel wants to see Abbas elected. Abbas briefly served as prime minister of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 2003--and lived up to his reputation as a political bureaucrat prepared to make concessions to Israel even as he got nothing in return.

Once in office, Abbas renounced all armed struggle. Yet Israel still refused to release any Palestinian political prisoners and continued assassinating Hamas leaders, while insisting that Abbas go further and disarm Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants.

This diminished Abbas' popularity so quickly that he was forced to resign. But he doesn't seem to have learned anything from his experience. Abbas has reiterated his commitment to end the armed uprising and attempted to persuade Hamas and Islamic Jihad to stop their attacks on Israel's occupying forces.

It's equally plain to see why Israel and the U.S. opposed Barghouti. Barghouti is a popular leader of the Palestinian resistance, who added to his reputation when he put Israel's occupation on trial during the proceedings that led to his imprisonment in an Israeli jail for a term of five life sentences. He is identified with a younger generation of radical Palestnian leaders--and a commitment to the right of Palestinian refugees to return to lands and homes stolen by Israel.

After first saying he wouldn't enter the race, Barghouti reversed himself in early December, angry that Abbas and the rest of the moderate leadership of the Fatah organization once led by Arafat had declared they would restart negotiations without pressing Barghouti's demands to free political prisoners. Opinion polls showed Barghouti running neck and neck with Abbas, each with about 40 percent of the vote.

The U.S. quickly brought maximum pressure to bear on Barghouti, his supporters and the rest of the Palestinian leadership to ensure that nothing would interfere with their preferred outcome. Secretary of State Colin Powell declared Barghouti's candidacy to be "problematic." Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak criticized Barghouti for being divisive at a time when "Palestinians do not need differences." And Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair announced plans for a conference in London dependant on the election of Abbas--and no one else.

As Graham Usher explained in Al-Ahram Weekly, "Barghouti presumably anticipated this opposition. What he may not have expected was the degree of hostility from those who had been his supporters in Fatah. The grassroots Fatah Higher Committee was split over his candidacy, while Fatah's parliamentary deputies, prisoner leaders and militia commanders opposed it.

"The prisoners and militiamen's opposition is not hard to fathom. In a clear sign of the times, they see Abbas--and the international and regional legitimacy he commands--as perhaps the only key to their early release or general amnesty. The others however clearly preferred the conservatism of national unity to the radicalism of democratic choice. 'We don't need Marwan to run now,' said one reformist Palestinian lawmaker. 'We need a unity candidate so that the elections will happen and Israel has no pretext for refusing to negotiate with us.'"

Barghouti eventually gave in to the pressure--and announced that he was withdrawing his candidacy.

But while he is far and away the frontrunner in a campaign without Barghouti, Abbas is faced with a different problem--the lack of enthusiasm for his candidacy. Unlike hotly contested local elections in late December that brought 81 percent of voters to polls, turnout on January 9 may be so low that the elections won't give Abbas the legitimacy that Israel hopes he will bring to the negotiating table.

Israel has tried to bolster Abbas by releasing Palestinian prisoners and announcing that it would loosen travel restrictions on candidates to aid the "democratic process."

But of course, that only applies to Israel's chosen candidate. While Abbas was able to move around relatively freely, Mustafa Barghouti--a distant cousin of Marwan Barghouti and an independent candidate challenging Abbas--was detained, beaten and forced to lie in the dirt for an hour by Israeli soldiers. Later, Israeli soldiers arrested him while he was meeting with supporters in Jerusalem.

Mustafa Barghouti doesn't have a large base of support. But he's polling nearly 20 percent because of his uncompromising defense of the right of return and his insistence on full Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories. In late December, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine--one of the left-wing factions within Fatah--endorsed him.

The local election in late December not only had a high voter turnout, but the results suggested that once Abbas wins the presidency, he will face broad popular anger at the PA's capitulation to relentless Israeli repression against the Palestinian resistance.

The militant group Hamas won a majority of seats in nine local councils--an indication of growing support for Hamas and its rejection of the territorial compromises, even though Hamas accepts the principle of a two-state solution.

Fatah captured control in 16 councils, but this is largely because many local Fatah leaders are seen as resistance leaders. But Abbas doesn't have this credibility, and the way that Israel and the U.S. cleared the way for his election has stoked fears that he will be nothing more than a pawn.

Nowhere is this sentiment stronger than in the Palestinian refugee camps that dot the Middle East, where millions of Palestinians--denied the right to vote in the election--cling to the hope of returning to their homes. "Israel and the United States desired to prevent refugees from voting, they worked on it in the past," said Mahmoud Issa, a resident of one of the dozen refugee camps in Lebanon. "It's a concept those governments are adopting. They brought Hamid Karzai to rule Afghanistan, Iyad Allawi to rule Iraq, and now Mahmoud Abbas to spread his authority over Palestine."

Palestine after Arafat

THE BLUSTER in the mainstream media about a "new opportunity" for peace after Arafat ignores the real source of the bloodshed--the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and its ruthless war against all resistance.

But this depiction of Arafat as the obstacle to peace also conceals how much Arafat conceded to Israel--especially since the signing of the 1993 Oslo accords. The truth is that Israel has sought every conceivable reason to avoid a final agreement--while continuing to build colonial settlements and finding more excuses to seize Palestinian land in the West Bank.

Arafat earned a huge international profile--and the enduring respect of Palestinians--by drawing the world's attention to Israel's colonization of Palestine, especially after the 1967 war that led to Israel's seizure of the West Bank, Gaza, the Egyptian Sinai and the Golan Heights in Syria. From that point, the struggle for Palestinian liberation became identified with other national liberation struggles around the world.

But the 1967 war also proved to the U.S. that Israel could be a useful and fierce ally in a region that it wanted to control. And while the masses of Arab workers identified with the Palestinian struggle, the ruling classes of Arab countries looked to make peace with the U.S.--fearing both Israel's war machine and the possibility that Palestinian liberation would expose their own corruption.

Rather than challenge this, Arafat sought to compromise with these right-wing Arab regimes--in order to gain their financial support. But in the long run, this left Arafat with no strategy but to compromise with Israel.

With the Oslo agreement, Arafat made historic concessions. "The history of the conflict so far is one of massive Zionist gain versus proportionate Palestinian loss," wrote David Hirst, who served as Middle East correspondent for Britain's Guardian newspaper for nearly four decades. "If the Palestinians were to secure the redress that other colonized peoples have earned, there would either be no Israel--just as there is no French Algeria--or Israel would be a bi-national state, like South Africa, in which it would lose its exclusively Jewish identity. But the Palestinians are not demanding that. They have formally committed themselves, via Oslo, to the loss of 78 percent of their original homeland."

The issue has never been Arafat's intransigence, but Israel's desire for the complete annihilation of Palestinian society.

Israel's democracy hypocrisy

"ISRAEL IS the only democracy in the Middle East." Pro-Israeli apologists use this mantra to explain why Israel not only deserves U.S. support, but also represents a higher stage of "civilization" than any other nation in the region.

It's a lie. The 3 million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank--who live under an Israeli occupation that is illegal under international law--are denied the most basic rights. They are barred from moving freely from city to city, subjected to arbitrary curfews and administrative detentions, and forced to watch as their homes are bulldozed--at the whim of Israeli authorities.

Israel grants limited rights to the 1.5 million Palestinians living inside its borders. But Palestinians are clearly second-class citizens in the Middle East's "only democracy."

For example, Israel spends twice as much to educate Jewish children as it does to educate Palestinian children. Racist job discrimination is rampant. Palestinians make up 20 percent of Israel's population, but are only 5 percent of civil servants, for example. Areas of the country with 10 percent or greater unemployment are overwhelmingly Palestinian. Only 12.5 percent of Israel's social welfare goes to the Palestinian population--even though poverty rates are far higher among Palestinians.

Until 2000, it was illegal for Palestinians to own land or build houses in Israel. And while Israel has promoted the building of illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories, no new Palestinian village has been built since 1948.

At the heart of Israel is a fundamental injustice: Any Jew born anywhere in the world has the right to move to Israel and automatically become a citizen, while Palestinians born in Palestine are denied the right to return to homes stolen from them by the founding of Israel.

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