Elections in Israeli-Occupied Territories

LAST month, Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin proposed that elections be held in the occupied territories. While the idea is not new, Mr. Rabin's proposal is intriguing to the extent that it would permit Palestinians to select representatives who would negotiate with the Israeli government regarding the future of the territories. Seeking to overcome Palestinian suspicions, Rabin suggested that the elections be supervised by a ``neutral'' body. Not surprisingly, both the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Likud bloc have denounced the idea, albeit for difference reasons. The PLO views the proposal as a delaying tactic designed to forestall direct negotiations between the PLO and Israel, while Likud views the idea as a first step toward Israel's relinquishing parts of the West Bank.

Despite these negative responses, unless some other mechanism is found to bring Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table, the idea of holding elections in the occupied territories is likely to receive further attention, particularly in the United States.

In this context, it is worth examining some of the precedents for elections supervised by so-called neutral bodies. There are three models that the parties could look to in seeking to utilize elections to advance the peace process.

The first would have the Israeli government administer the elections, subject to international observation. Israel would invite the observers and would facilitate their efforts to ensure that the elections were conducted in accordance with recognized international standards. The presence of observers would furnish moral support for those voting and would help deter intimidation and fraud. The observers would be expected to report to the international community on the conduct of the elections. This model, however, would not provide the observers with any juridical role in the process. As such, it is the one most likely to be favored by the Israelis.

A second model would have the elections administered entirely by an international body, which would designate a team of election administrators. The team could be composed of individuals selected from countries acceptable to both Israel and Palestinians. This is the model that would most likely be favored by the Palestinians.

A compromise model would build on the experiences of the 1980 pre-independence elections in Zimbabwe and the process that is soon to begin in Namibia. In Zimbabwe, the British administered the elections and a Commonwealth Observer Group was given an institutional role in certifying the fairness of the process pursuant to the Lancaster House Accords. In Namibia, the South Africans are administering the elections, but the United Nations Special Representative must approve the process.

Applying this model to the occupied territories, the Israeli authorities would administer the elections, but would do so subject to review by an outside organization that would be authorized to recommend changes in the process and, more important, to refuse to certify that conditions permitted free elections. In such case, the process would come to a halt.

Once it is determined who will administer the elections, several technical issues must be addressed. Who would be eligible to vote? Would pre-election day registration be required? Who would be eligible to contest the elections as candidates? Would voters or candidates be disqualified because of prior conduct? Who would be selected to administer the elections at the local level?

Also, a free campaign environment would have to be ensured. In such an environment, parties and organizations would be permitted to form and to operate freely. Rallies would be authorized and the media would be unshackled.

The most difficult matter will involve ensuring that voters and candidates are not subject to intimidation either during the campaign or on election day. The Israelis believe that the PLO would pressure prospective voters to support its candidates, while the Palestinians would be concerned about pressure exerted by the Israeli military, which is responsible for day-to-day control over the territories. Ideally, a police force comprising Israeli authorities, local Palestinians, and an international team could be formed and could work together.

Given the reigning mistrust and violence, free and fair elections in the occupied territories could create a new political dynamic. The Palestinians living in the territories would have an elected leadership to represent them in negotiations with the Israelis and the Israelis would be committed to negotiate with this newly elected leadership group.

The process also might serve to convince skeptical Israelis that the Palestinians are committed to a democratic future. Finally, such a process would require at least a temporary cessation of the cycle of violence that now exists in the region. It might even contribute to a permanent peace.

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