IS Yasser Arafat's victory as the Palestinian people's new president a vindication of the ''peace process''? To judge by the sentiments Palestinians expressed during the election campaign, the answer is no. Even those who voted for Mr. Arafat did so despite their evident opposition to the Oslo accord.
Indeed, the election represents not the first step toward genuine reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, but rather the final step in the consolidation of an unjust and unstable settlement.
Several factors, sometimes contradictory, account for Arafat's victory:
* Patronage. A bloated bureaucracy depends on Arafat for jobs and prestige. Ministry ''directors'' number fully a thousand, while 13 majors-general head the Palestinian police force (the Soviet Red Army in its heyday had only 11). Most of the 30,000-strong Palestinian police force could be replaced by traffic signs, except traffic signs don't vote.
Playing the ethnic card, Arafat has awarded many senior positions in the civil administration to tribal leaders. With hopes of an independent state dashed by the Oslo accord, once-committed Palestinian activists, operating on the principle of ''every man for himself,'' quietly pocket Arafat's bribes. Suffering through an acute economic crisis, Palestinians believe only Arafat can deliver on the promises of largess from foreign donors. No other party can remotely compete with the funds at Arafat's disposal. In Hebron alone, his Fatah organization reportedly spent nearly $1 million during the campaign.
* Symbolism. Arafat still profits from being the leader of the ''modern Palestinian revolution.'' Many do not believe he will betray its historic goal of an independent state. Israel's withdrawal from Palestinian cities and its release of Palestinian prisoners were perfectly timed for Arafat to reap the maximum political benefit.
Arafat also is a master of political spectacle. The world is truly a stage as he creates a presidency without a country, armed forces without a state, and a government without sovereignty. Transfixed by the trappings of political power and shocked by the rapidity of change, many Palestinians have not yet experienced the reality of Arafat's corrupt rule and the piecemeal ''state'' he won. Few are aware that Oslo gives them full sovereignty over at most 3 percent of the West Bank. In the words of one Palestinian, ''we are still in the honeymoon period.''
* Repression. Arafat has not been above using the instruments of power to ensure his victory. Palestinians who protested by refusing to register to vote were denied travel documents. Schoolteachers were browbeaten into signing a ''loyalty oath'' to Arafat; several who wouldn't had to visit Arafat's intelligence units. Dissidents caught distributing anti-election literature were arrested. Asked why only one relatively obscure candidate chose to run against Arafat, Palestinians agreed that it wouldn't be ''prudent'' to do so. (It is an open question whether a credible alternative such as Haidar Abdel-Shafi, who represented Palestinians at the Madrid talks but dissented from Oslo, could have defeated Arafat.)
In general, Palestinians are much more fearful of speaking out now than they were under Israeli rule. Oppressive as it was, Israel demanded only compliance, not loyalty; Arafat demands both. One Palestinian wholly in favor of the ''peace process'' nonetheless whispered: ''We don't want Arafat, but what choice do we have? He will eliminate any rivals.''
* Illusion. Palestinians imagine that Arafat will still be able to squeeze out of Oslo a state made up of the West Bank and Gaza, with Jerusalem as its capital. Oslo is seen as a beginning, not an end. Indeed, even Arafat's own Fatah ran against Oslo, every candidate concurring that the peace accord gave Palestinians next to nothing. One Fatah leader said ''we only agreed to Oslo as a departure point for further struggle.'' Another promised to ''tear up the agreement'' when the moment was right.
Palestinians are so far from the spirit of conciliation that Israel's assassination of the No. 1 Hamas ''terrorist,'' Yahya Ayyash, evoked more authentic grief than Arafat's candidacy evoked authentic enthusiasm. Even in Christian Bethlehem, as many people joined a memorial for Ayyash as joined a rally for Arafat. Indeed, Arafat himself felt compelled to publicly mourn the death of the ''martyr.''
Palestinians are right to think the Oslo accord was a bad deal. Seasoned Israeli political analyst Meron Benvenisti has called Oslo a continuation of the occupation ''by remote control,'' and Palestinian self-rule ''merely a euphemism for bantustanization [South Africa's apartheid practice of separating blacks into powerless 'homelands'].'' Such a settlement is unlikely to prove stable in the long term.
Especially in the contested candidacies for the 88-seat Palestinian Council, the recent elections, however flawed, did demonstrate a Palestinian yearning for real democracy. Competing campaign banners stretched across buildings and between electricity poles. Campaign literature was devoured by a largely literate public. In refugee camps as elsewhere, huge crowds assembled to hear and ask tough questions of candidates.
Even the harshest criticisms of the election campaign - ''Fatah is all slogans, no substance,'' ''the television ads are like commercials for a chocolate bar,'' ''money is buying the election'' - no more than echoed the limitations of our own electoral process. Palestinians will not acquiesce in bantustans, especially when their immediate neighbors in Israel get to participate in a vigorous democratic life.
Ironically, the one enduring effect of the elections will be to discredit the idea of self-rule, as Palestinians discover they have no real control over their lives. Arafat's repressive rule will harden, while Israel will continue to hold the reins of real power. Between the Mediterranean and the Jordan will live two peoples, one subject, one free. As President Lincoln knew, such a state of affairs cannot permanently endure.