For sake of democracy include diaspora in Palestinian vote

Elections are on the agenda for the Palestinians: Their interim post-Arafat leadership says it plans to hold them Jan. 9. That's good news, but as of now there are no plans to include in this important vote the millions of Palestinians living in exile outside their homeland. Shouldn't that be changed?

It's true, the presidential election plan already faces many obstacles. One is the draconian system of movement controls that Israel has maintained on the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza since 2002, purportedly as a security measure to prevent further Palestinian suicide bombings. Any free and fair election requires that such controls be lifted. Otherwise, how can candidates and supporters circulate to discuss their platforms and ideas?

But excluding from the vote those Palestinians living outside the homeland is a deeper and potentially more serious problem. The current plan is to hold the election under rules defined in the Oslo peace process in 1993. Back then, excluding diaspora Palestinians from the rolls might have been forgivable, because the election envisaged there (which was duly held in 1996) was for head of the Palestinian National Authority - a body that everyone agreed was only temporary.

But the Oslo process has been defunct for a long time. Even President Bush has said that his goal now is not just an "interim" body, but the creation of a full-fledged Palestinian state. That is an admirable goal - and one that is long overdue. (Under the Oslo Accords, implementation of the "final status" between Israel and Palestine was due to start in 1999. We are already five years late!) But negotiations for this outcome - which should certainly not be temporary - need to enroll the energies of Palestinians living outside the homeland, as well as those within it. The best way to achieve that would be to include them in the vote to the Palestinian body that conducts this fateful negotiation.

In nearly all other transition-related elections in the world in recent years - in South Africa, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq - provision has been made to include in the vote those made refugees by the preceding years of strife and conflict. Palestine's refugees, inside and outside the occupied territories, deserve no different. Enfranchisement would give the refugees a solid sense of political inclusion, and involve them constructively in the search for a workable solution. Excluding them - as happened throughout the Oslo process - would probably once again be a recipe for failure.

But is there still time to include diaspora Palestinians in the Jan. 9 election? Yes, there is one easy way that a sizable portion of them - including those who are now the most vulnerable and needy - could participate. The UN relief agency - UNRWA - maintains up-to-date lists of all the "registered Palestinian refugees" in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, and has networks of schools and clinics in those three countries.

UNRWA's name lists, identity cards, and physical facilities could be used to help run the election. Arranging that need not take more than four or five weeks. Indeed, persuading Israel to allow the freedoms needed for a fair election inside the occupied territories (including East Jerusalem) might take longer than making the arrangements for these diaspora Palestinians to vote.

How many people would this add to the rolls? UNRWA'S latest figures count 2.6 million "registered refugees" (of all ages) in the three countries where it offers services. Around 3.3 million Palestinians live in Gaza and the West Bank. It's noteworthy that the 370,000 refugees living in Lebanon and the 417,000 in Syria are completely stateless, which leaves them painfully vulnerable and means they've never had a chance to vote. Those in Jordan have been given citizenship and voting rights there, and at some point should be given the choice between keeping those rights in Jordan or becoming citizens of an eventual independent Palestine.

It's noteworthy, too, that there are possibly 2 million to 4 million Palestinians living in exile who are not on UNRWA's tightly limited rolls. Given the dispersal of these people around the globe, there is no quick and easy way to include them in the vote. But at the least, including the people registered with UNRWA means that refugee interests and energies would be significantly represented in the new leadership.

The upcoming Palestinian elections face other challenges, too. The two main Islamic groups in Palestinian society - Hamas and Islamic Jihad - have said they won't participate if the vote is conducted on the basis of the Oslo process, which they always opposed. Will they boycott? If they do, will the new leadership have the popular mandate that it needs?

The Palestinians are a talented people. But, sadly, their internal structures and leadership are in significant disarray. Partly, that's a legacy of Yasser Arafat's "big man" style of governance. Partly, it's a result of three years of relentless Israeli attacks on all Palestinian institutions, including security services. Yet both peoples - Palestinians and Israelis - need and yearn for peace. Radical rethinking is necessary. Including, rather than excluding, the Palestinian exiles from the process makes sense. It would be good for democracy and good for peace.

Helena Cobban is coauthor of 'When the Rain Returns: Toward Justice and Reconciliation in Palestine and Israel,' published by the American Friends Service Committee.

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