With the advent of the Arab Spring, several former Arab tyrannies (Egypt, Tunisia, now Libya, perhaps Syria next) have thrown off dictators and are, or will be, moving toward elections. And in Jordan and Morocco, the kings have announced new constitutional arrangements that move powers to elected officials.
In every case, it is understood that free elections are central. And then there is the Palestinian case.
President Abbas was elected in January 2005 and his term ended in January 2009, though it was extended for one year in a way that might arguably have been legal. The parliament was elected in February 2006 and its term should have ended in January 2010. But of course no elections were held in January 2010, and neither parliamentary nor presidential elections are now scheduled.
Local elections have been postponed repeatedly as well, and were first scheduled for July 9 and then for October 22. But just this week President Abbas issued a decree postponing them again—“indefinitely.”
Palestinians therefore face, and face us with, an interesting situation: Just as they are about to go to the U.N. to demand recognition, they are farther from free elections than they have been since the day Arafat died. This will not complicate their situation in the U.N., where there are no democratic standards. But for Americans, the Palestinian demand for “freedom” must mean more than “end the Israeli occupation.” One of the key insights of the Bush administration was that a Palestinian state was not a worthy goal when it meant creating a vicious, corrupt Arafat satrapy. As President Bush put it in 2002:
I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror. I call upon them to build a practicing democracy, based on tolerance and liberty….And when the Palestinian people have new leaders, new institutions and new security arrangements with their neighbors, the United States of America will support the creation of a Palestinian state whose borders and certain aspects of its sovereignty will be provisional until resolved as part of a final settlement in the Middle East….Today, the elected Palestinian legislature has no authority, and power is concentrated in the hands of an unaccountable few. A Palestinian state can only serve its citizens with a new constitution which separates the powers of government. The Palestinian parliament should have the full authority of a legislative body. Local officials and government ministers need authority of their own and the independence to govern effectively. The United States, along with the European Union and Arab states, will work with Palestinian leaders to create a new constitutional framework, and a working democracy for the Palestinian people. And the United States, along with others in the international community will help the Palestinians organize and monitor fair, multi-party local elections by the end of the year, with national elections to follow.
Hmm. Nine years later, the Palestinian parliament does not meet much less hold any authority. There are no elections, much less fair ones. Abbas rules by decree. This is not to say that the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah is incompetent; on the contrary, it is very well run by Prime Minister Fayyad. The Fayyad cabinet may well be the best the Palestinians ever get. But whatever its good qualities, there is no democracy.
One key reason for this is obvious: the division between Fatah and Hamas. It may well be that Fatah is popular in Gaza because the people there are learning to hate Hamas, and this may explain why Hamas will not permit elections there. In any event, Hamas ideology does not require elections. Its infamous Charter is about the struggle with the Jews, not about democracy or liberty. But the refusal to schedule elections on the part of President Abbas and his colleagues running the PLO and the Fatah Party should not be acceptable. The argument that they cannot do so because of Hamas is specious, for they can hold free elections in the West Bank. In fact, that would be a terrific way of differentiating PA governance there from the Hamas oppression in Gaza. Nothing would more clearly dramatize for the Palestinian people what choices lie before them.
Of course the Fatah guys may be afraid they would not win, but that is hardly a defense—especially not in the year of the Arab Spring. The United States and the EU should be demanding elections, so that there is a legitimate government in Ramallah. Neither the United States nor the Quartet said one word criticizing that cancellation, again, of local elections. But the flimsy excuses offered by Abbas should be rejected flatly, and elections for the presidency and the parliament should be held within six months. Can it be the policy of the United States that autocracy is intolerable in Damascus, Tripoli, Cairo, and Tunis, but just fine in Ramallah?
Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was a deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration.