PALESTINE: Elections key to peace
Ziad Asali

Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s cautious president, has overcome his country’s reluctance to get involved in Gaza. His initial concerns about the risks of Egyptian personnel being targeted by Palestinians and of confrontations with Israel after four decades of peace have given way to acceptance of an active security role.

The possibility that Israeli withdrawal could be followed by anarchy or a fundamentalist takeover, together with Egypt’s desire to play the part of a regional power broker alongside the United States, has outweighed other considerations. Egypt will play a significant role in Gaza, and not just in security matters.

Some Palestinians resentfully foresee a return to the pre-1967 model, when Gaza was under Egypt’s hegemony. But dwelling on the past is a poor strategy. Instead, Palestinians must seize the opportunity to build a positive agenda for the future. That means facing their circumstances squarely as people living under an oppressive occupation, with a weakened and isolated leadership, a tattered security force, a wrecked economy, and fractured institutions. It also means recognizing that the support of the Arab and Muslim masses cannot and will not solve their problems.

Palestinians must explore all avenues that may lead to a viable, contiguous, and independent state. It is clear that previous strategies have not worked. It is time to reflect, reassess, and innovate. Violence may block solutions that are not desired but it will not achieve ones that are.

Palestinians alone cannot liberate Palestine. No people have sacrificed more, or for longer, than the Palestinians have for independence. But sacrifice is not enough without a strategy. In a struggle of this magnitude, more allies who share the vision of a state of Palestine alongside Israel are indispensable. In particular, allies in the United States and in Israel have to be identified and mobilized. Violence against civilians alienates these very allies and the Palestinian people must make the fateful choice between military confrontation and peaceful resistance and negotiation.

Palestinians should insist on their right to hold elections and to be given the opportunity to make and express their choices. It is past time for Palestinians to go to the polls to cast their vote to elect their representatives. So far, the United States and Israel have not supported such a move. But it should not be impossible to get the United States to shift position. What could be more ‘un-American’ than preventing people from voting? The United States, in turn, can engage Israel to make elections feasible. All parties need to see that the compromises required to achieve peace can only be made by elected representatives.

It would be helpful to couple the elections with a referendum on a two-state solution based on the internationally-backed road map for peace. Such a referendum would define the political horizon for Palestinians. Opponents of the two-state model would no longer be able to thwart progress if it received popular backing in a referendum.

Palestinians must also make decisions about the future of Gaza and the northern West Bank after Israel withdraws. The withdrawal offers Palestinians the unusual opportunity to plan for a future event rather than to cope with a done deal. It should be viewed as the first milestone in establishing a viable state.

The vacated area must acquire a degree of sovereignty that is no less than the sovereignty ceded to Iraq’s interim government. Its governing body, which could be modeled on the structure devised for Iraq with the assistance of Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations envoy, should be empowered to negotiate ‘final status’ issues – such as refugees’ right of return – as stipulated by the road map. Concrete plans for housing, roads, parks, industrial plants, schools, and other social necessities must be drawn up and made ready to be implemented.

Free elections, with policies contested and choices starkly defined, will make it possible for legitimate representatives to tackle questions of Palestinian and Israeli security under the US umbrella. Egypt and Jordan can also play a significant role in bringing this process to fruition.

The president of the United States must be taken at his word that the final status issues will be determined by the parties. Prejudging the outcome will not work. Only empowered, legitimate, representatives of both peoples have the authority and ability to make the compromises needed for peace, and only they can make such peace permanent.

Ziad Asali is president of the nonprofit Washington-based American Task Force on Palestine