WITH Palestinian elections scheduled for Jan. 20, the Arab-Israeli peace process is about to cross a critical threshold that will most likely involve the inauguration of Yasser Arafat as the Palestinian president. Israeli and Palestinian opponents of the peace process are coming to recognize that there is no turning back from a free and fair Palestinian election. Though it will be some time before the possibility of a peace-process reversal can be ruled out entirely, in less than two weeks hopes of turning back the process will be far less realistic.
On the ground, electoral preparations have been going on for months, with European Union officials serving in an advisory capacity. Over 1 million Palestinians may be eligible to vote, and the days remaining before the election will provide little time for anything but a rudimentary campaign as individuals and groups rush to get their message out to the people.
For the Palestinians, the new 89-member council will provide a political forum for leaders besides Mr. Arafat, perhaps lessening his dominance of the political debate. If Palestinian democrats like Haider Abdel-Shafi, Hanan Ashrawi, and Faisel Husseini gain greater influence, the pressure for human rights and openness in the West Bank and Gaza would increase. Such voices could provide an important counter-pressure to Israeli security demands that often translate into human rights violations and crackdowns in areas under Palestinian control.
Though many of the council members are likely to be longtime Palestinian activists, the election also could serve as a platform for the development of a new generation of leadership, a healthy development for any society.
Of course, for Palestinians, the greatest consequence of the elections will be the legitimization of the Palestinian leadership, the unique stamp provided by electoral success. In internal and external relations, the Palestinian leadership will be able to act with a higher degree of authority. Moreover, opponents of all kinds will have a much harder time challenging the entire Israeli-Palestinian peace process that began with secret talks in Oslo in the summer of 1993.
For Likud and the Israeli right, an elected Palestinian leadership raises the costs of freezing or rolling back the peace process, greatly reducing the viability of such an approach. For a host of economic, military, and political reasons, no Israeli government can afford to alienate the United States and the European Union, not to mention the Arab countries who have begun to establish ties with Israel. The electoral stamp will crystallize these impediments to any rollback. This realization has not been lost on Israeli rightists. In the last few months of 1995, Likud leaders, including even hard-liner Ariel Sharon, began to begrudgingly accept the Oslo agreements.
Among the Palestinian opposition, the response of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, and especially Hamas remains ambiguous. For Palestinians who until now have rejected the Oslo process, the elections force a major decision. Rhetoric notwithstanding, are you in or out?
Joining the elections compromises opposition to the peace process, but staying out precludes access to the spoils of government and risks complete marginalization as the process continues to move forward. An Islamic party, the Islamic National Salvation, has been formed and may be serving as a cover for Hamas figures; a few other Hamas activists registered as independents. Though the legitimacy of the elections would be greater if the so-called rejectionists take part, the more serious political damage from a boycott will probably be to the boycotters themselves.
From the standpoint of the negotiations, the elections could be the beginning of the equalization of the Israeli-Palestinian talks. The dominance of the Israeli government in forging agreements with those representing fledgling Palestinian institutions has been clear throughout the talks. In the long term, this sense that Israel is dictating the terms contributes to the hesitation to embrace the peace process on the part of many average Palestinians. Steps that move in the direction of equalization begin to remove the motives for a continued confrontational relationship. Israel should keep this in mind after the elections if it's tempted to consider blocking new Palestinian legislation. An Israeli veto sends a destructive message to the Palestinian community.
Even Syria may decide that Palestinian elections are significant and put aside its opposition to the Oslo agreements. In any case, the increase of Palestinian legitimacy and increasing marginalization of opponents will push the Israeli-Palestinian peace process much closer to the point of no return.