Palestinian Elections: A Milestone on the Road to Reform?

Report Middle East

Palestinian Elections: A Milestone on the Road to Reform?

January 8, 2005 4 min read
James Phillips
Former Visiting Fellow, Allison Center
James Phillips was a Visiting Fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at The Heritage Foundation.

The January 9 elections to replace Yasser Arafat as the head of the Palestinian Authority could usher in a period of reform, with Arafat's corrupt thugocracy gradually replaced by a more transparent, more responsible, less militant Palestinian leadership willing to renounce terrorism and negotiate a peace agreement with Israel. But even under the most optimistic conditions, the push for Palestinian reform and renewed peace negotiations with Israel will be a grueling struggle due to the toxic aftereffects of Arafat's ruinous policies, which have dug a deep hole from which the Palestinian people will find it difficult to emerge.[1] 


The Campaign

The overwhelming favorite to win the election is former Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen, was a longtime Arafat aide and protégé who rose up through the ranks of Fatah, the largest faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Abbas broke with Arafat when it became clear that Arafat's implacable commitment to terrorism and political violence undermined the interests of the Palestinian people. As Prime Minister, Abbas unsuccessfully sought to dilute Arafat's power and launch reforms that would have mitigated the rampant cronyism, corruption, and arbitrariness of Arafat's authoritarian rule. But the wily Arafat thwarted Abbas's efforts and forced him to resign in September 2003.


Unfortunately, during the current election campaign Abbas has emphasized his ties to Arafat rather than his differences in order to cultivate the support of various Palestinian factions. While this is politically prudent, it will now be harder for Abbas to make a clean break with Arafat's legacy of terrorism after the election.


Abbas, 69, may have no choice but to draw on the Arafat legacy. Many Palestinians see Abbas as a bland figure in a grey suit; he lacks personal charisma and popular appeal, particularly in the eyes of younger Palestinians, who are increasingly impatient to play a significant role in Palestinian politics. His strongest potential challenger, Marwan Barghouti, a militant leader who enjoyed widespread support among younger Palestinians, had planned to campaign against Abbas from the Israeli jail cell where he is imprisoned for orchestrating terrorist crimes. But Barghouti was forced to withdraw his candidacy under pressure from the PLO establishment, which feared a divisive political campaign that would foster disunity and undermine its power.


Abbas's chief opponent among the six other candidates running is now Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, a distant relative of Marwan Barghouti. Dr. Barghouti has called for extensive reforms of the Palestinian Authority, an end to nepotism, and better health care and social services. A recent poll shows that about 65 percent of Palestinians support Abbas, while 22 percent support Dr. Barghouti.


Abbas's Agenda

Abbas has criticized Palestinian attacks on Israel, arguing that they are counterproductive. He has said that "militarizing" the intifada was a "historic mistake" that has hurt Palestinians more than Israelis. But during the election campaign he embraced Palestinian militants and promised to shield them from Israeli forces. "We will not forget the wanted, the heroes," he proclaimed at one rally on January 1. "They are fighting for freedom." He also has made it clear that he will not crack down on Hamas, the radical Islamic movement that has perpetrated numerous terrorist attacks against Israelis, including many of the most horrific suicide bombings.


The Israeli government downplays the importance of Abbas's rhetoric. Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that "Whoever gets elected on January 9 will be judged according to his performance, not according to his words." But words remain important. By defending terrorists during the campaign and proclaiming his adherence to Arafat's legacy, Abbas is making it harder for his (or any other) administration to rein in militant factions and halt terrorism after the election.


Moreover, the huge premium that Abbas puts on Palestinian unity and securing the cooperation of Hamas means that he will be severely hobbled in future peace negotiations. For it is difficult to see how a durable Israeli-Palestinian peace is possible in the long run without a Palestinian civil war that results in a decisive defeat for terrorists, who are in a position to sabotage peace prospects.


If elected, Abbas is therefore likely to make more rapid progress in reforming the Palestinian Authority than in advancing peace negotiations. Although Britain's Blair government is poised to host an Arab-Israeli peace conference following the Palestinian elections, such a conference is unlikely to yield any major breakthrough. Abbas needs time to consolidate his power, establish control over numerous Palestinian security services and fractious militias, and improve the daily living standards of Palestinians before he would risk making any major concessions to Israel.


The Bush Administration should take a cautious and patient approach to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. It should not rush into a premature summit, as President Bill Clinton did at Camp David in July 2000 in a vain effort to salvage his tarnished presidential legacy. Washington should instead cooperate with British efforts to revive peace negotiations, but only with the understanding that these negotiations will be the start of a long, arduous, and incremental process.


Initially, negotiations should focus on step-by-step confidence building measures to rebuild the mutual trust that Arafat's policies shattered. Washington should help facilitate Palestinian cooperation with Sharon's Gaza withdrawal, scheduled for later this year. But it must accept that Abbas is not in a position to move rapidly on negotiations in the coming months. Long-overdue Palestinian reforms and an irreversible break with Arafat's legacy of terrorism and treachery must come before any peace agreement can be negotiated.


James Phillips is Research Fellow in Middle Eastern Studies in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

[1] See James Phillips, "Detoxifying Yasser Arafat's Disastrous Legacy," Heritage Foundation Executive Memorandum No. 950.


James Phillips

Former Visiting Fellow, Allison Center