PERFECTION AN UNREALISTIC GOAL FOR PALESTINIAN ELECTION
WASHINGTON -- This Sunday's elections in the Palestinian territories actually look promising. As someone who's covered the Middle East for 35 years, I must rush to add: "Don't hold me to that!" But if we dare indulge in optimism about such a perverse part of the world, we might also examine some of the elements in the mix.
First there is the gray-haired, dignified Mahmoud Abbas, the 69-year-old interim leader and, despite fiery words at times, a man both the Israelis and the West like. If he is elected Palestinian president, there is finally "someone to deal with." The Palestinians also just held municipal elections and the radical Hamas, which has boycotted other elections, peacefully took part.
The former Middle East negotiator under President Clinton, Dennis Ross, recently reported from a high-level meeting in Gaza that in the midst of the usual complaints about the United States, Palestinians repeatedly asked in a scenario that would have been unthinkable before: "But what is it that we Palestinians must do now?" Since Yasser Arafat's death last fall, the poll standing of the radical Hamas movement among Palestinians has gone down from 32 percent to 17 percent, while the more moderate Fatah's rating has risen from 29 percent to 46 percent.
In Israel, the Likud right has united with the Labor left, offering a welcome healthy dimension to the peace process, while plans for withdrawing from Gaza seem to be on track. Israelis are tired of the war. Across the Arab and Islamic world, talk about reform is becoming dominant and actions toward reform are, for the first time, truly moving. (In Egypt, a progressive new prime minister has appointed a team with genuine reformist tendencies, and Egyptian stocks are up 100 percent.)
Terje Roed-Larsen, outgoing United Nations representative in the region and no congenital optimist, even said last week: "In spite of the violence of the past four years, there is an absolutely extraordinary broad depth of consensus, not only between the two parties but among the international community."
So, should we all sit back, heave a deep sigh and assume everything, if not exactly working, is at least moving in the right direction? Well, not quite yet.
The perhaps major problem is to be found in an odd place, in the Bush administration's insistence upon total democratization (that word again) of the Palestinian entity. Once again, the best is indeed the enemy of the possible.
The International Crisis Group, a superb group of perceptive analysts, warned against exactly this tendency in its recent briefing, "After Arafat?" Its Middle East director, Robert Malley, wrote: "While the process seems off to a healthy start, it is an exceedingly delicate affair with many suppressed rivalries awaiting the new leadership's first slip to reassert themselves. On the Israeli side, too, tensions raised by the forthcoming Gaza withdrawal -- and the prospect of widespread settler and right-wing efforts to thwart it -- dictate prudent and judicious diplomacy over coming months.
"In short, one should not be lulled into complacency by the atmosphere of good will and harmony over the question of Palestinian reform and Israeli disengagement."
Finally, he warns against the administration's constantly reiterated statements that they cannot and will not deal with the Palestinian leadership until there is virtually total democratic reform. "Defects in Palestinian democracy did not cause the Israeli-Palestinian conflict any more than addressing them will resolve it," he writes cogently. "While international support for Palestinian reform is welcome, it ought not to come at the detriment of simultaneous moves on the political front, lest the new Palestinian leadership rapidly lose whatever legitimacy elections will bring."
This is a uniquely promising moment, but one as fragile as any early spring bloom. Its possibilities will last, by most good estimates, no more than three months. That means swift action after Sunday's elections on the part of Washington, and it means giving up the errant "only democracy" shell game that many in the administration have been playing -- some because they believe it and others because it relieves them of responsibility to actually do anything. It's time to get a process going, not to insist upon putting the outcome before the process -- the diplomatic equivalent of putting the cart before the horse.
Despite all the criticisms, the 1990s Oslo process WAS working -- and this may be the last chance it will have to work again.
The final question comes down to whether George W. Bush has the intelligence and the guts to work toward and to accept a real, and not a perfect, solution. We'll soon see.
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