In January, the world press was riveted on Palestinian voters, who elected Yasser Arafat as their president and chose an 88-member Legislative Council. Yet, as with other "democratic events," the international spotlight quickly turned elsewhere and little has been seen or heard of the council since it began meeting four months ago.
Palestinians greeted their new institution with a mixture of cautious skepticism and extravagant expectations. Many were fearful it would be a rubber stamp. This fear was based on the history of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) institutions, the practices of neighboring Arab states, and the two-thirds majority of council seats enjoyed by President Arafat's party (Fatah).
I recently returned from three months of studying the new legislative body, and, to date, that fear has proved to be unfounded. It is clear from the way men and women serving on the Legislative Council act that they feel they have an independent power base in the electorate. For them, the election was not a one-day event but actually shows why they exist: They were chosen by the people.
They are feisty in a way that no one predicted, and they are doing battle to establish an independent legislature, with democratic and professional procedures, that has its fair share of power in governing - and, hopefully, in improving the lives of its constituents.
Council members say they want to build the first democratic Arab legislature. They repeatedly point out that, unlike their Arab neighbors (and unlike other newly emerging democracies in different regions of the world), many Palestinian legislators have had an experience of democracy. For many, ironic as it may be, that experience was gained from Israel, from reading different points of view in Israeli newspapers, listening to Israeli news broadcasts, and watching the Israeli Knesset on television. Many council members thus have, literally, a picture of what they wish to achieve.
During a break at one session, I asked a member who had initially feared the council would have no power how he gauged its progress. Grinning widely, he told me: "You have no idea how different this is from a PLO executive committee or PNC [Palestinian National Council] meeting." Asked to elaborate, he said: "Council members are standing up and speaking their minds. They are not afraid. They are speaking from facts and principles."
Overruling the president
And they have won some initial institutional battles. Over Arafat's strenuous objections, they adopted rules of procedure that require them to take their oath of office before their colleagues, not before the president. The council also rejected Arafat's attempt to silence legislators who held a press conference to criticize the executive's human rights practices.
Responding to citizens' complaints, the council discussed allegations that a gravel monopoly was charging exorbitant prices. Days later Arafat ended concession privileges for gravel companies operating in Gaza. In late May, council members were insisting that the body discuss the arrest of human-rights activist Iyad Sarraj, as well as the detention of students who had been languishing in prison. That debate was avoided only because the president announced the prisoners' imminent release at the same council session.
Whether the council will emerge as a truly independent legislative body remains to be seen. There are two significant obstacles to that development. First, the media are not reporting on council sessions, and the public's skepticism is thus slow to abate. Second, the notion of sharing governance with a legislature is new to Arafat, and he is reluctant to respond to its demands.
To offset these (and other) hurdles faced by aspiring Palestinian democrats, the international community needs to support the council's efforts to establish a system responsive to the electorate, committed to the rule of law, and effective in overseeing the operations of executive agencies.
The Palestinian elections were a watershed event. Ultimately, the establishment of genuine democratic institutions - in which the people have a stake - holds the best promise not only for the development of Palestinian democracy, but for the future of peace and stability in the region. One council member observed that "The most important battle of the Palestinian people is democracy. Jerusalem, refugees ... will take 20 to 30 years, but we need freedom of press and speech now."
*Susan R. Benda, an attorney and senior program officer for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, studied the Palestinian Legislative Council earlier this year.