THE kidnapping by Hamas militants of an Israeli soldier last week sharpened the contradictions inherent in the fragile peace process embarked upon by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Yasser Arafat, chairman of the PLO and of the Palestinian authority in the self-rule areas, found himself caught between Israelis demanding a crackdown on Hamas and demonstrators in the streets of Gaza enraged by his obliging Israel with the detention without charge of over 200 Hamas members and supporters.
These events underscore the growing crisis of legitimacy facing Arafat among his own people. If the peace process is to remain on track, the Palestinian leadership will need a mandate that can come only through elections.
Mr. Arafat is no longer merely the leader of a liberation movement. Nor is he now just a familiar symbol of national aspirations. He now heads the interim governing authority in Gaza and Jericho. He is engaged in talks that concern the destiny of his people. Yet his assumption of these powers has yet to be validated by a democratic process.
Such legitimacy can be gained only through elections. The nearly two million Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza must elect for the first time a set of governing authorities that are accountable to them. They must be permitted to choose a representative body with meaningful powers - through polling that is free, fair, and open to all political groups. Any such campaign, of course, must allow for wide-ranging debate.
The Declaration of Principles signed in September 1993 promised that Palestinians would have elections. But the mechanics of such elections would be subject to negotiations between Israel and the PLO. Nearly everything is up for discussion, including the size and the legislative and executive powers of the body that is to be elected.
Talks on the elections were scheduled to resume Oct. 18 in Cairo, after being suspended for one week by Israel due to the kidnapping of Cpl. Nachshon Waxman.
Despite the lip service that both parties pay to democracy for the Palestinians, there is cause to suspect their commitment to serious elections leading to a representative body with meaningful powers. Arafat is reportedly wary of any sort of body that might cramp his powers. His recent calls for quick elections, as early as November or December, invite doubts that he is committed to a carefully prepared process.
Israel knows that successful elections will make the case for Palestinian self-determination more compelling to the international community. It is proposing a small elected council, fearful that the 100-member body sought by the PLO will look too much like a parliament-in-waiting. Israel may also prefer dealing with a Palestinian strongman than with an authority composed, at least in part, of elected representatives. It has, in addition, reportedly sought to disqualify opponents of the current peace process from running for office.
Like it or not, meaningful elections are critical for the long-term soundness of the peace process. Since arriving in Gaza in July, Arafat's autocratic and erratic style of governance has eroded his legitimacy. While the chairman rails against international donors for holding up desperately needed aid, many Palestinians blame him for failing to satisfy donor demands for fiscal accountability. They are also troubled by human rights violations committed by the Palestinian authority and security forces, including arbitrary arrests, acts of intimidation against opposition figures, and the closure for one month of the only critical newspaper.
Disillusion is growing at a time when the toughest issues for negotiators have yet to be broached. The Gaza-Jericho agreement last May in Cairo was a cinch compared with the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank, the future of settlements, Jerusalem, and the political status of the Palestinian entity.
IT would be a dangerous mistake to hope that Arafat can navigate these issues by muzzling or ignoring his critics. The result of such an attempt would seem less like one-party Iraq than like Algeria, where a discredited regime is fighting for survival against Islamist militants.
For third-party governments that support the peace process, the message is clear. They need to concern themselves with the human rights and interests of Palestinians as distinct from the PLO and the deals it strikes with Israel at the negotiating table. Pushing for elections that satisfy the Palestinians' right to accountable authorities is not partisanship; it is a matter of laying the basis for a peace process that in the long term is more stable and durable because it is based on democratic principles not only for Israelis, but also for Palestinians.