THE kidnapping by Hamas militants of an Israeli soldier last
week sharpened the contradictions inherent in the fragile peace
process embarked upon by Israel and the Palestine Liberation
Organization. Yasser Arafat, chairman of the PLO and of the
Palestinian authority in the self-rule areas, found himself caught
between Israelis demanding a crackdown on Hamas and demonstrators
in the streets of Gaza enraged by his obliging Israel with the
detention without charge of over 200 Hamas members and supporters.
These events underscore the growing crisis of legitimacy facing
Arafat among his own people. If the peace process is to remain on
track, the Palestinian leadership will need a mandate that can come
only through elections.
Mr. Arafat is no longer merely the leader of a liberation
movement. Nor is he now just a familiar symbol of national
aspirations. He now heads the interim governing authority in Gaza
and Jericho. He is engaged in talks that concern the destiny of his
people. Yet his assumption of these powers has yet to be validated
by a democratic process.
Such legitimacy can be gained only through elections. The nearly
two million Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza must elect for
the first time a set of governing authorities that are accountable
to them. They must be permitted to choose a representative body
with meaningful powers - through polling that is free, fair, and
open to all political groups. Any such campaign, of course, must
allow for wide-ranging debate.
The Declaration of Principles signed in September 1993 promised
that Palestinians would have elections. But the mechanics of such
elections would be subject to negotiations between Israel and the
PLO. Nearly everything is up for discussion, including the size and
the legislative and executive powers of the body that is to be
Talks on the elections were scheduled to resume Oct. 18 in
Cairo, after being suspended for one week by Israel due to the
kidnapping of Cpl. Nachshon Waxman.
Despite the lip service that both parties pay to democracy for
the Palestinians, there is cause to suspect their commitment to
serious elections leading to a representative body with meaningful
powers. Arafat is reportedly wary of any sort of body that might
cramp his powers. His recent calls for quick elections, as early as
November or December, invite doubts that he is committed to a
carefully prepared process. …