On the road to a viable, independent Palestine
The harmony and adroitness displayed by the Palestinian leadership in reaction to the dramatic events of the past several weeks, including the death of President Yasser Arafat, has been impressive and unexpected. There have been few, if any, important missteps. In a series of deliberations, all national institutions met and duly elected candidates for various positions and committees. Then, the mainstream Fateh party named its candidate for presidency, Mahmoud Abbas. A total of 10 candidates have submitted their names for the top job, and all indications are that this will be a free and fair election.
The fault lines seemed to be held in check, with the endorsement of Abbas, by all Fateh factions, including "young Fateh", whose leader, Marwan Barghouthi, is serving five consecutive life sentences in an Israeli prison.
Barghouthi reversed his position six days after announcing he is not running, and filed an application to run, casting himself as the bearer of Arafat's mantle and pledging to carry on with the Intifada.
His subsequent withdrawal has spared the Palestinians the option of voting for a president who is in prison, as a replacement for one who was confined. Fear of fragmentation and disorder weighs heavily in favour of the candidate of the establishment.
Abbas has established a partnership with Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia in an impressive public display of unity. He has acted less as a candidate and more as a statesman, negotiating and lining up the support of various Palestinian factions, mending fences with several Arab countries and raising much-needed funds to improve the economy. This is a candidate confident of victory and prepared to lead.
He does not need to be tested, but assisted.
Measures that facilitate the feasibility of elections, minimise the humiliation of Palestinians at checkpoints, avoid coercive encounters, decrease the presence and visibility of the Israeli army, enhance the mobility of people and improve the economy will all help candidates committed to negotiations.
Reelected President George W. Bush has stated both publicly and privately that this conflict is high on his agenda. For him, it is part of a grand strategy to reshape the Middle East, and a tool in the war for democracy and against terror. He sees the upcoming elections in Palestine as an exercise in democracy and an opportunity for the Palestinian people to choose a leader he, and the West, including Israel, can have as a partner.
To make this possible, the United States must play its indispensable role as a shepherd and broker of peace. The Palestinians need reassurances about the viability of their future state and the Israelis need assurances about their security. These are not incompatible goals. Creative security arrangements acceptable to all - perhaps involving NATO forces - need to be considered.
Down the road, comprehensive international security treaties should provide the bedrock security regime that will underwrite compromise.
In spite of political turmoil in Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is persisting with his disengagement plan from Gaza and four settlements in the northern West Bank.
While most Palestinians are suspicious of Sharon's intentions, his plan means the first and irreversible end to a Greater Israel based on metaphysical and religious claims. But the deeply held concern that the disengagement plan is an attempt to buy time to keep Israel's hold on the West Bank as it relinquishes Gaza will complicate the lives of Palestinian leaders as they formulate, and sell to their constituents, policies involving practical measures that deal with this plan as a new reality. The Palestinian public will demand a more comprehensive approach to the disengagement plan, one that spells out the contours of the end of the conflict.
Clearly, the heavy lifting is being placed on Palestinian shoulders. They are expected to build the institutions of a democratic state, while under occupation, before they enter into serious negotiations regarding final status issues.
As things stand, the Palestinians face two challenging stages in the next year: 1) the campaign stage that extends until election day, Jan. 9, and 2) the stage of institution, nation and state building, that coincides with the implementation of the disengagement plan. The second stage, before meaningful negotiations start, is the period of greatest vulnerability.
To sustain the momentum in favour of moderation and democracy, it is imperative for the United States to formulate, and coordinate with all concerned parties, a policy that will improve the lives of the Palestinian people and their prospects for independence. This has to be implemented predictably, substantially and irreversibly. The choices that major players make, or refrain from making, at this time will shape the future of the Middle East for decades to come.
To succeed, American policies must help ensure that the development of democratic Palestinian institutions is, and is understood by all to be, a milestone on the road to a viable, independent Palestine.
The writer is president of the Washington-based American Task Force on Palestine.
Source: The Jordan Times, December 22, 2004