Newly anointed Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said Wednesday that the PA would hold elections by June 2004, a move that seems designed to pressure Israel to abide by a US-backed road map toward peace, which calls for the Palestinians to hold such elections and the Israelis to facilitate them.
The push for elections also reflects the deadlocked state of Palestinian politics; many Palestinians say that elections are necessary to invigorate their leadership. "People want a change, which is not going to be possible until there is an election," says Jamal Shobaki, a minister in Mr. Qureia's cabinet.
Qureia's move - which effectively renders his government a lame duck just as it begins - follows a speech last week by President Bush in which he called upon the nations of the Middle East to adopt representative government. "For the Palestinian people," Mr. Bush said, "the only path to independence and dignity and progress is the path of democracy."
Wednesday the Palestinian Legislative Council approved Qureia's premiership and his new cabinet. His predecessor as prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, resigned in part because of a power struggle with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat over who should control the Palestinian security forces.
Mr. Abbas wanted to bring the forces under the control of an interior minister; Mr. Arafat wanted to put them under the aegis of a national security council that he would chair. Arafat prevailed.
With Qureia as prime minister, Arafat continues to prevail. He rejected Qureia's choice for interior minister, a senior Palestinian military figure named Nasser Yousef, and so Qureia appointed a man considered close to Arafat. The security forces remain under the control of the newly-formed NSC.
But the conflict between Arafat and his two prime ministers is in some ways an artificial one. Arafat agreed to the institution of a PA prime minister only because of pressure from the US and Israel, which have tried over the past two years to sideline Arafat and encourage the emergence of a new Palestinian leadership.
The problem is that Arafat was and is the indispensible Palestinian political figure; recent polls show that his popularity remains undimmed. "The Americans and the Israelis have highlighted and invigorated Arafat's position," says Salah Tamari, another minister in the new Cabinet.
Arafat's power plays weren't Abbas's only stumbling blocks; so was Israel's reluctance to take steps that would have boosted his popularity and given him something of a power base. Even the chief of staff of the Israeli military, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, has criticized Israel's policies during the Abbas administration, saying Israel was "stingy."
In speeches Wednesday, both Arafat and Qureia appealed to their occupiers to return to negotiations. "You Israelis," said Arafat, "it is time to get out of the this cycle, which will never supply any security." Qureia called for a cease-fire and appealed to Israel to "cure the wounds of the peace process," which he identified as the expansion of settlements, the construction of the security barrier, and the "cantonization and dismembering of our areas."
Neither leader offered any detailed plans to fulfill the immediate demands of the US and Israel: the cessation of violence against Israelis and the "dismantlement of the infrastructure of terror." Even so, Israeli spokespeople offered halfhearted encouragement Wednesday, saying that Qureia's government would be judged on its actions and warning that Arafat remains too firmly in control of Palestinian affairs.
If Arafat and Qureia are serious about holding elections, the question is whether they will be able to. At various times over the past three years, the Palestinians have announced elections and then said they could not be held as long as the conflict continued and Israeli forces were still occupying urban areas in the West Bank.
Mr. Shobaki, a proponent of elections, says Israel will have to withdraw in order to allow campaigning and balloting, in accordance with the road-map peace plan. The document calls for Israeli forces to withdraw in stages to positions they occupied before the two sides began fighting in earnest more than three years ago.
It is difficult to imagine just how this will occur, and it is impossible to imagine it if Palestinians continue attacking Israelis. But the Palestinians may be hoping to leverage Bush's desire to promote democracy in the Middle East into US pressure on Israel to allow Palestinians elections.
In Iraq, the US is trying to build a democracy in a country that has had no experience with representative government in decades and where institutions such as the media have had to heel to a single-party dictatorship. The Palestinians, on the other hand, already operate one of the most democratic societies in the Arab Middle East, with a relatively free press and a multiparty system.
As Shobaki says, referring to the problems that beset the Palestinians, "democracy is a solution because there is pluralism in Palestinian political life."
But if elections fail to come pass, Shobaki says, he will join the growing number of Palestinians who favor the dissolution of the PA, in favor of declaring Israel responsible for the welfare of more than 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Then, he says, we will "start to demand our civil rights from the occupier."
"If we cannot live in two states between the [Mediterranean] Sea and the [Jordan] River," Shobaki adds, "let's live in one state."