Palestinian Reality: A Historic Vote

By Wall, James M. | The Christian Century, February 7, 1996 | Go to article overview

Palestinian Reality: A Historic Vote


Wall, James M., The Christian Century


Ax expected, Yasir Arafat was overwhelmingly elected president of the Palestinian Authority, garnering over 88 percent of the vote. After the election, Jimmy Carter, in Jerusalem exercising his familiar role as election monitor, referred to Arafat as "the president of Palestine." According to Anton Shammas in the New York Times, when an interviewer questioned Carter's choice of words, the former president replied that "Palestine was the right word to use." Carter was not, strictly speaking, correct. The Oslo accords do not refer to a presidency or a state in establishing the interim Palestinian Council, to which 88 members have just been elected. But as Shammas points out, "if someone is named president of Palestine, then a defined territory bearing that name is bound to become a reality." Carter was telling it like it ought to be in order to help make it become that way.

The interim agreement between Arafat's Palestine Authority and the Israeli government is clearly a step toward a Palestinian democracy. Thoughtful Israelis, who have no desire to rule over another population, know this, but few are willing to speak that truth out loud. Electoral politics have a way of curbing one's passions. In 1977, for example, Carter said he was in favor of a Palestinian "homeland." That comment elicited an angry reaction from American supporters of Israel, and Carter was forced to retreat into quieter diplomatic efforts to achieve a Palestinian state. Those efforts led to the Camp David accords, a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, and now, two decades after he said the obvious when the obvious was not acceptable, there is an elected Palestinian authority--the penultimate step toward a Palestinian state.

One of the more remarkable aspects of the election was the turnout: 80 percent in Gaza, slightly less in the West Bank, and around 40 percent in East Jerusalem. Israeli authorities in East Jerusalem reportedly made voting difficult, making a heavy show of the army, requiring some residents to travel outside the city to vote, and, before the practice was stopped through Carter's intervention, videotaping voters, which led to the rumor that voting could cost Palestinians their Israeli identity cards and social benefits.

The high number of voters was also unexpected since some Islamic sheiks had declared democracy haram, forbidden under Islamic law, and because Hamas, the Islamic organization that opposes the peace process, boycotted the election. The high turnout suggests that Hamas's influence in the new Palestinian autonomous areas may not be as strong as was assumed.

The momentous elections took place under an agreement that gives Palestinians control over only a very small part of the land that Israel has occupied since 1967. Critics of Arafat maintain that he signed the Oslo accords in order to hold on to power that was rapidly slipping away from him. …

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