Here's the dilemma: To hold elections for only the presidency of the Palestinian Authority, or for the parliament and the local governments, as well? These are not the options with which the Israeli government and the patrons of democratization everywhere are confronting the PA. It is a dilemma with which the PA representatives are now wrestling in their talks with the leaders of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Surprisingly, it is Hamas of all groups that supports comprehensive elections - for both the presidency and the parliament. Islamic Jihad wants elections only for the local governments, while the temporary leaders of the PA want elections only for president. The gap between the approaches stems from each side's assessment of its political strength among the voters and its ideological readiness to take part in elections that are enshrined in the Oslo Accords - and, more important, from its desire to be part of a Palestinian government that will certainly have to conduct negotiations with Israel.
This is the reason for the Hamas demand for parliamentary elections: The organization will be able to gain an important political platform without being called upon to negotiate with Israel. On the other hand, if only presidential elections are held, Hamas will not be able to show its full strength and, if it supports such elections, it is liable to be perceived as being willing, already at this stage, to authorize the new president to enter into political negotiations with Israel. This is now the heart of the political struggle between the Palestinian groups and the PA. More important is the very intention and readiness of the representatives of the various streams to decide democratically (as a general rule, if one doesn't take account of the armed threats), by means of internal negotiations between them, the manner of participation in the future political game.
And here's another fact that should be noted: Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) has been invited by Syrian President Bashir Assad to pay an official visit to Damascus next month. Assad is also the "host" of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaderships. If Syria decides to take Abu Mazen to heart, Hamas and Islamic Jihad will find it difficult to wage war against him.
The invitation to Abu Mazen should be a hint to Hezbollah and to the other organizations that see no point in negotiating with Israel. Because Abu Mazen's conception is well-known: He wants negotiations with Israel, he wants to cooperate with Israel and he wants to establish the Palestinian state now. Israel should not - and, indeed, cannot - intervene in this power game between the Palestinian groups and the PA and Arab states such as Syria, Jordan and Egypt. Israel could, of course, assassinate the last of the public leaders of Hamas, Mahmoud a-Zahar, who supports general elections, and thus put an end to the arguments.
But the new era could also be put at risk by "impeding" conditions that sound good but are impossible to fulfill, such as "first democracy and then negotiations," as Benjamin Netanyahu and President George W. Bush have suggested. A slogan like that might be useful as a bumper sticker or as a poster to hang from one's balcony. It can be an Israeli political condition only if Israel succeeds where many have tried and failed - to define the acceptable, ultimate Palestinian democracy that will accede to all of Israel's needs. That's because in that form of Palestinian democracy it will not be possible to discriminate against, say, the minority of Jewish settlers who will have to vote in the elections for the Palestinian parliament.
The idea sounds groundless, of course. But are those who are demanding democracy in Palestine willing to also define the borders of the Palestinian democratic state before they demand democracy? Or is the idea to create a virtual democracy and only then foist it on every bit of land that will be liberated? This is all only hairsplitting, because the Israelis (and the Americans) who are demanding democracy in the PA would do well to rub their eyes (with astonishment, as usual) and take note of what's happening: The Palestinians themselves are demanding their democracy. They are not waiting for Israel to force them.
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