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Palestinian Elections:
Q&A with Rafi Dajani

On Wednesday, January 25, 2006, the Palestinians will go to the polls to elect an entirely new parliament. This parliamentary election cycle, only the second since the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) was established in 1995, has generated a great deal of excitement and vigorous campaigning. Despite the persistence of Israel's restrictions on election activity, the location of polling stations, and expected disruptions to the freedom of movement of voters, about 80% of eligible Palestinians have registered to vote, choosing from among over 700 candidates to fill 132 seats.

These elections have received a tremendous amount of international media coverage, not least because of the Palestinian Authority's decision to allow Hamas to participate The decision was ultimately sanctioned by both the US and Israel, neither of which wanted to be seen as interfering in the emergent Palestinian democracy. In a related but strikingly underreported story, polls just last week showed that while Hamas is poised to win a substantial minority of seats in the newly elected parliament, the Palestinians' willingness to compromise is greater than it has been at any time since 1993, and some 60% of respondents oppose the use of violence.

The ultimate impact of the upcoming Palestinian parliamentary elections will be amplified by the Israeli general elections which are set to follow two months later, the lead-up to which has seen historic realignments, dramatic ascendancies and the passing from the political scene of a prime minister who just weeks ago had a seeming lock on reelection.

What now hangs in the balance, between the two peoples and their respective elections, is the terms on which they will coexist in the future.

We asked Rafi Dajani, executive director of American Task Force on Palestine, to answer questions regarding Palestinian politics, the election, and the possible impact of the projected outcome.

1) Can you describe the Palestinian electoral system?

2) What are the major parties and what are their platforms? What are their positions on negotiations with the Israelis? How much support does each have?

3) The inclusion of Hamas in the elections is of great concern in Israel and in the West. Given that polls indicate that, unlike Hamas, most Palestinians accept the right of Israel to exist, how do you explain Hamas's popularity?

4) Will the PLC be able to contain Hamas and reconcile such major differences between the different parliamentary blocs?

5) Can you explain the dynamics of the on-again/off-again split within the Fatah party? Where do things stand now and how is this situation likely to affect election day results?

6) What are the main issues beyond the conflict with Israel that will shape the way the Palestinian electorate votes?

7) How is aid to the PA from the US, EU, and other countries likely to be affected by the new makeup of the Palestinian legislature?

8) What is the controversy over Palestinian voting in East Jerusalem? Where does the situation stand now?

Can you describe the Palestinian electoral system?

On January 25, 2006, up to 1.5 million registered voters will vote in Palestinian legislative elections. Sixteen electoral districts in the West Bank and Gaza Strip will elect members of the Palestinian parliament, known as the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), to a four-year term.

The PLC is the legislative arm of the Palestinian National Authority (PA), and is a fully elected unicameral body. Along with the directly elected President, the PLC controls the PA. It is responsible for approving all government cabinet positions proposed by the prime minister, confirming the prime minister and overseeing the budget. In addition, it can issue a vote of no confidence in the government. Although on paper the president has extensive powers and can act freely without parliamentary approval, the proportional nature of the PLC's representation makes it a more acute gauge of public opinion than the election of a single person, thereby making the PLC's support/buy-in critical.

In this election cycle, the number of PLC members has been increased from 88 to 132, for which 728 candidates will compete. A total of 414 candidates will contest 66 seats under a simple majority vote system by electoral district -- ranging from one seat representing Jericho to eight for Gaza City. In addition, 314 candidates from 11 parties will contest another 66 seats elected by a national proportional slate system.

The PLC was created in 1995 under the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, known as Oslo II or the Taba Agreement. The last time that Palestinians voted in Parliamentary elections was in 1996. Elections have since been repeatedly delayed by the Palestinian Authority, which says the Israeli occupation and the security situation have made elections impossible. These elections were last scheduled for July 2005. [Top]

What are the major parties and what are their platforms? What are their positions on negotiations with the Israelis? How much support does each have?

The following are the five main parties, plus one coalition, running in the elections, along with their number one candidate on the national list, and the total number of national list candidates:

1. The Fatah slate; headed by Marwan Barghouti -- popular "young guard" Fatah leader who is currently in an Israeli jail in connection with five killings during the Intifada; 45 candidates (Note: Palestinian electoral law does not prevent Palestinians jailed by Israel from competing in elections as many Palestinian leaders have been or are currently jailed, most for "administrative" reasons.)
2. The "Change and Reform" slate (Hamas), headed by Ismail Hanyieh; 59 candidates (more detail on Hamas, below).
3. The "Third Way" slate, headed by former Finance Minister Salam Fayyad, which includes Dr. Hanan Ashrawi and the Geneva Initiative architect Yasser Abed Rabbo; 25 candidates.
4. The "Independent Palestine" slate (National Initiative), headed by Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi (no relation to Marwan Barghouthi), who challenged Mahmoud Abbas for the presidency in January 2005; 41 candidates.
5. The "Abu Ali Mustafa" slate (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or PFLP), named after its former Secretary General, who was assassinated by Israel, and headed by its current Secretary General Ahmad Saadat, who is in a PA-controlled jail in Jericho; 50 candidates. The PFLP is a Marxist group that has voiced reservations over peace deals with Israel but has not rejected them. It is part of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which is the umbrella organization encompassing a number of groups, the most prominent of which is Fatah.
6. The Alternative list is a coalition of leftist parties, including the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Palestinian People's Party, the Palestine Democratic Union (Fida), and various independents. The list is headed by Qais Karim Khadir from the DFLP.

All but one of the parties support the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders and therefore support a negotiated settlement of the conflict with Israel. Where they differ is on how to conduct the negotiations and on the details of a negotiated settlement with Israel, e.g. refugees, settlements and borders. The notable exception is "Change and Reform", i.e. Hamas, which is participating in parliamentary elections for the first time after refusing to do so in 1996. Officially, and according to its charter, Hamas does not recognize Israel's right to exist and is committed to fighting what they consider the occupation of all of "mandatory Palestine" by military means. [Top]

The inclusion of Hamas in the elections is of great concern in Israel and in the West. Given that polls indicate that, unlike Hamas, most Palestinians accept the right of Israel to exist, how do you explain Hamas's popularity?

Hamas came to prominence in the late 1980s/early 1990s as part of the larger resurgence of Islamic parties generally in the Middle East. Originally, its development was even encouraged by Israel, which saw it as a counterweight to the PLO. At the time, Hamas focused on student council elections at the various Palestinian universities and on charitable and social work. Its first suicide bombing in Israel came on the heels of the Baruch Goldstein massacre of Muslim worshippers at the Mosque of Abraham in Hebron in February of 1994.

Today, the group combines a hard-line stance towards Israel -- including advocating armed attacks and suicide bombings, and refusing negotiations -- with strict adherence to Islamic principles and an established social welfare program. The latter -- including orphanages, medical clinics, meals for the poor, and financial support to the most needy -- is a very big part of the group's appeal, particularly in Gaza, where, according to the World Bank, unemployment hovers around 30% and close to 17% of children suffer acute or chronic malnutrition.

In the current 'campaigning', pre-election phase, Hamas has toned down its rhetoric regarding Israel and violent resistance. Appealing to voters who think it's time for change in the Palestinian leadership, Hamas has highlighted its determination to stamp out corruption. Hamas has also omitted its long-standing call to destroy Israel, part of its 1988 charter, from a manifesto for the Palestinian parliamentary election, a change of tone the group hopes can win it votes and Western acceptability. The official manifesto, distributed to Palestinian homes and the media, reaffirmed Hamas' commitment to a "fully sovereign Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital" and "armed resistance to end occupation."

Ultimately, Hamas will be forced to become accountable by the very voters who give them seats in the PLC -- and those voters are likely to push for moderation. A study published last week by highly-respected Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki for the US Institute for Peace demonstrates that Palestinians increasingly support a two-state solution in which they "recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people." Tellingly, 60% of respondents now oppose the use of violence, up from 2000 and 2004. Such findings indicate that much of the support for Hamas is largely an expression of the desire for an alternative to the existing Palestinian power structure, considered by many to be corrupt and incapable of winning even the most basic concessions from Israel. [Top]

Will the PLC be able to contain hamas and reconcile such major differences between the different parlimentary blocs?

The new Palestinian legislature will not be able to reconcile major differences between the different parliamentary blocs, nor is it really necessary that such reconciliation occur. What is necessary is that any Member of Parliament or parliament bloc act in the responsible manner expected of an elected representative and follow the rules of democratic governance. So while there will certainly be legislators who don't recognize Israel's right to exist and support the use of violence, what is important is that they adhere to the will of the majority in Parliament.

Although most serious observers expect that the Hamas list will not win outright in upcoming elections, that is, receive more votes than Fatah, it is expected to do well. According to a December 31, 2005 survey by the highly respected Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR), 43% will vote for Fatah, 25% for Change and Reform (Hamas), and 19% remain undecided. Independent Palestine receives 5%, and Abu Ali Mustafa receives 3%. It's also expected that the Alternative list and Third Way will pass the 2% threshold, allowing them to take seats in the PLC. A poll conducted by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center (JMCC), also in December 2005, found that 60 % plan to vote for the PLO's -- that is, Fatah's -- platform. In addition, PCPSR polling indicates that 80% support the renewal of the "quiet", i.e. ceasefire period, which ended in December 2005. This will certainly to some extent restrain Hamas from a return to the use of violent resistance, barring a major Israeli military incursion or targeted assassination.

If as expected it is a minority bloc in the PLC, Hamas will not be able to impose its views on negotiations with Israel, the use of violent resistance or on government acceptance of Israel's right to exist. And for the first time, the Hamas bloc will also have to seriously contend with public opinion about reaching a settlement with Israel, although it has always been very sensitive to remaining popular in the 'Palestinian street.'

Another significant poll result shows that 61% of those surveyed by JMCC believe that Hamas will abide by the decisions of the majority in the PLC. If the majority as expected is made up of Fatah, then Hamas will be expected not only by law but also by a majority of the Palestinian people, to abide by majority decision, which in this case will favor seeking Palestinian statehood through a negotiated settlement with Israel. [Top]

Can you explain the dynamics of the on-again/off-again split within the Fatah Party? Where do things stand now and how is this situation likely to affect election day results?

Tensions within Fatah have been simmering for years. Initially these centered around the top positions in the PA, all of which were doled out by Yasser Arafat to cronies who had accompanied him to the West Bank and Gaza from Tunis after Oslo. This group became known as the 'Tunisians' or more commonly the 'Old Guard.' The 'Young Guard' is composed of those who became leaders because of their activities in the first Intifada. They have felt that they earned the leadership positions in the PA that were instead used to reward the Old Guard.

The question of corruption in the PA continues to be a flashpoint, as the vast majority of Palestinians have seen a precipitous decline in their standard of living since the Oslo Accords were signed, while a small group of politicians have conspicuously prospered. In a political system predicated on closeness to the man at the center -- Yasser Arafat -- it proved difficult to uproot these sort of abuses. However, Arafat's sheer unifying presence and influence kept tensions and resentment in check.

Following Arafat's death, though, tensions exploded into the open. Initially, the Young Guard was concerned with reform and the refusal of the Old Guard to transfer power to them. Then, elections scheduled for July 2005 were postponed, further fueling resentment. A more recent concern of the Young Guard is the rise of Hamas's political influence.

The most recent problem to arise was over the Parliamentary candidate list submitted by Fatah for the elections. The Young Guard rejected the list because it included too many members of the Old Guard, including current Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei (Abu Ala). Initially, this resulted in a split within Fatah and the submission by the Young Guard of a separate list, headed by jailed leader Marwan Barghouthi. However, both sides came to the realization that such a split would only benefit Hamas in the elections.

The two Fatah groupings reached a compromise with a unified candidates' list after Ahmad Qurei, the Prime Minister, and his Old Guard ally Rauhi Fattouh (former speaker of the PLC), dropped out of the race. Marwan Barghouthi heads the unified list. [Top]

What are the main issues beyond the conflict with Israel that will shape the way the Palestinian electorate votes?

Two recent polls found that a clear majority of Palestinians plan to vote: 78 percent according to the PCPSR poll and 68 percent according to the JMCC poll.

Poverty and unemployment are the main concerns for Palestinians, according to the PCPSR poll. Israel's continued occupation of the Palestinian Territory is ranked second as a concern in the West Bank and fourth in the Gaza Strip. Internal anarchy and chaos ranked third on the PCPSR poll (12 percent). [Top]

How is aid to the PA from the US, EU, and other countries likely to be affected by the new makeup of the Palestinian legislature?

There are two issues that have the potential to affect aid to the PA from the US, EU, and other donor countries: the participation of Hamas in the elections and the PA's budget.

On Hamas, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana has warned that Europe may cut millions of euros of aid to the Palestinian Authority if Hamas wins next month's Palestinian elections. Solana has gone on the record as saying that unless Hamas renounces violence and recognizes Israel it would be "very difficult" to continue to fund the PA should the organization take control of the PA.

The EU is the largest donor to the PA, contributing around a third of the international funding the authority receives. Last year it contributed approximately $315 million and is planning to increase that to around $410 million in 2006.

In addition, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution, by a 397-17 vote, saying that the inclusion of Hamas, or any other group on the Department of State's list of foreign terrorist organizations, within the Palestinian Authority "will potentially undermine the ability of the United States to have a constructive relationship with, or provide further assistance to, the Palestinian Authority."

In addition to the impact of the new composition of the PLC on future funding from abroad, the PA's budget has also come under increased criticism by the international donor community for fiscal lack of transparency. It should be noted that there are members of the Palestinian cabinet who are trying to change this reality, but they lack sufficient strength due to the fragmentation of the regime, the internal political pressures (mainly the rise of Hamas) and external pressures from Israel's closure policies -- the pressure of the Israeli occupation, in particular the restrictions on the movement of people and goods.

The most recent issue to arise is the decision to raise salaries of PA employees, resulting in a decision by the World Bank, supported by the European Commission, to freeze $60 million for funding the PA's operating budget. The PA is now facing a fiscal crisis which could result in it being unable to pay the salaries of its 130,000-plus officials and security staff. [Top]

What is the controversy over Palestinian voting in East Jerusalem? Where does the situation stand now?

East Jerusalem was seized by Israel from Jordan during the 1967 Six Day war. According to international law and UN resolutions, East Jerusalem is occupied territory in the same manner as is the West Bank. Israel formally annexed East Jerusalem in 1980, but the move is not recognized as legitimate by the international community.

Israel claims Palestinian political activity in East Jerusalem is illegal under interim peace accords, but allowed an absentee ballot to be used in parliamentary elections in 1996 and in last year's presidential vote. Israel also says elections in Jerusalem are carried out on the basis of 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement, a follow-up to the Oslo Accords.

Israel believes that Hamas is not allowed to take part, as the agreement specifically excludes candidates or parties who "pursue the implementation of their aims by unlawful or non-democratic means".

On January 15, 2006, however, the Israeli cabinet approved the participation of East Jerusalem's 120,000 eligible Palestinian voters in the parliamentary elections, as well as limited campaigning by Palestinian candidates in the city. Only 6,000 of those voters may vote at 5 post offices in East Jerusalem, while the remaining must travel to the West Bank to vote, raising concern over whether Israel will allow them freedom of movement to and from the West Bank to do so. The Israeli cabinet decision does, however, prevent Hamas candidates from campaigning in East Jerusalem. It also excludes their names from ballot lists.

The Israeli cabinet decision removed the final hurdle to the elections being held, as the Palestinian Authority had stated clearly that without the participation of East Jerusalem's Palestinians, the elections would be postponed. The US government has also stressed the importance of their participation and Israel's decision is widely believed to have resulted from this US insistence.

Interestingly, Hamas had not supported a delay in the elections, regardless of whether East Jerusalem was included or not. The highest-placed candidate on the Hamas list, Ismail Haniyeh, had urged Fatah to go ahead with the election and warned of a "dark future" if the elections were postponed. [Top]

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