Protecting free elections for Palestinians

Safeguarding the Palestinians' right to free and fair elections - like those Wednesday that allowed the militant Islamic party Hamas to win control of Palestinian parliamentary government - should now be an overriding goal for both Israel and the US.

For surely, if Palestinians can vote Hamas in, they should be able to vote it out.

The election results did indeed create a new dynamic in the peace process. Israel might or might not eventually deal with a Palestinian government that includes a Hamas-backed prime minister. But that awkward dynamic could very well work itself out with astute diplomacy - inch-by-inch compromises, such as a less burdensome Israeli occupation of the West Bank and a continuance of Hamas's year-old truce with Israel.

After all, despite Hamas's official line that denies Israel's future existence, it cannot afford to ignore polls that show most Palestinians prefer a two-state solution. (A big draw for Hamas voters was that it offered corruption-free government.)

The world should be on alert, however, for a move by Hamas to slowly take over the machinery of elections to prevent itself from being voted out. That wouldn't be unusual for a fundamentalist Islamic group that relies on a rigid hierarchy for its internal affairs.

In many nations, from 1930s Germany to modern third-world nations with elected leaders-turned-dictators, democracy has too easily been hijacked by those who use it merely to gain power and then hold onto it by manipulation of that power.

Fortunately, up to now, the Palestinian Central Election Commission (CEC) has been a model of independence during the elections it has presided over. Foreign observers were given freedom to check its work. Its nine members have fought hard to steer clear of political pressure.

The CEC chairman is appointed by the head of the Palestinian Authority, who is currently the leader of the secular Fatah Party, Mahmoud Abbas. But the election laws are written by the 132-member Palestinian Legislative Council, which is now controlled by Hamas. Even Mr. Abbas played loose with his young democracy by delaying this election for six months in order to favor Fatah. Last month, disgruntled Fatah gunmen took over some commission offices, pushing the CEC members to offer their resignations in hopes it would force Abbas to prevent further Fatah threats.

In its campaigns, Hamas has been critical of the CEC. After it scored victories in last May's local elections, for instance, it praised voters who placed confidence in its "divine movement" and alleged that some CEC members "betrayed" the commission's work.

One Hamas statement even made this subtle threat: "In God's name, what would the situation be like if Hamas were the Palestinian Legislative Council and the government, and if it were the one forming the election commissions, appointing the employees, and paying them their salaries?"

Israel, the US, and Europe must not turn their backs on Palestinians even though they voted for Hamas. Hamas will lose its popularity if it doesn't deliver peace and good governance. Palestinians must retain the freedom to vote out Hamas, or any other group.

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