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The Tragedy of Palestinian Democracy

Today is the second anniversary of the end of Mahmoud Abbas’s four-year term as president of the Palestinian Authority. He continues to play the role of “president” but is simply an unelected holdover, lacking the legitimacy to make the compromises necessary to produce a Palestinian state, even assuming he were willing to make them. It may be an appropriate day to reflect on the results of Palestinian democracy.

Abbas ran essentially unopposed in 2005, in an election held less than seven weeks after Yasir Arafat’s death. Hamas boycotted the election and Abbas’s principal Fatah opponent was unavailable, serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison. The seven-week electoral process merely put someone quickly in office whom the U.S. hoped would implement Phase I of the Roadmap by dismantling the terrorist groups and infrastructure — particularly since Israel had announced it would remove 21 settlements from Gaza and four from the West Bank.

Condoleezza Rice said in 2005 that she raised the dismantlement obligation in every conversation with Abbas but understood his need to do it at the right time: “You don’t want him to go to dismantle Hamas and fail.” He assured her he would convince Hamas there should be only “one gun,” and she intimated that he told her privately he would dismantle Hamas with force if necessary. But it did not happen. In September 2005, a settlementrein Gaza was handed over to the Palestinian Authority and was transformed into Hamastan virtually from day one; four months later, elections were held for the Palestinian legislature, and the Palestinians elected Hamas, which later took over Gaza in a coup.

These days, an unelected West Bank “prime minister” is busy “building the institutions of a state.” He expects to be done by August. But the institutions do not include elections, which were canceled in July even for local councils on the West Bank. His principal activity consists of spending international aid for its intended purpose (contrary to what used to happen); he is essentially an official appointed by the international community to watch over the use of their funds, and is continually praised for his “transparency” — the basic job requirement for someone in that role. But an appointed person with no political party or electoral base, assigned to distribute funds, is hardly a “prime minister.”

We are not likely to see Palestinian elections in the foreseeable future: Hamas lacks a tradition honoring the peaceful transfer of power, and Fatah does not like elections held before their outcome is fixed. A month ago, the Palestinian “High Court” ruled that the cancellation of the West Bank elections was illegal, and the vast majority of Palestinians want them held. But the court lacks the power to enforce its decision, and the “prime minister” has not yet responded to the letter sent to him about holding elections in light of it. A recent poll found that Palestinians view both Gaza and the West Bank as an increasingly police state. The “institutions of a state” the prime minister is building do not include an empowered judiciary or a free electorate.

When the U.S. endorsed a Palestinian state in 2002, the endorsement was conditional: it depended on the Palestinians first building “a practicing democracy.” Nine years later, half the putative state is a terrorist enclave functioning as an Iranian proxy; the other half is a Potemkin democracy unable even to stage elections. The tragedy of Palestinian democracy is that the obstacle to a Palestinian state turned out to be the Palestinians themselves.



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