By Clifford D. May, president of the Foundation for the Defense of
Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.
December 16, 2004.
In Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai defeated a raft of candidates to win his historic
In Iraq, more than 200 political parties have registered for next month’s
And in the West Bank and Gaza? Well, Fatah is offering a single candidate,
Mahmoud Abbas, A.K.A. Abu Mazen.
“One man, one vote,” is a venerable definition of democracy. But when
did “one party, one candidate” become an acceptable alternative?
What’s happening here is not mysterious. In Washington and in European
capitals – and in Jerusalem, as well – Abbas is regarded as the best Palestinian
leader available, the one most likely to move ahead with a peace process. So
why fret if he runs uncontested?
It’s not like anyone worried about such niceties in the past. For more than forty
years, Yasser Arafat was the unchallengeable Palestinian leader. Ten years ago,
the Israelis brought him from exile in Tunisia and installed him in the West Bank
and Gaza. Eight years ago, a single election was held.
And in that election, too, “Arafat ran virtually unopposed,” as Khalil
Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research,
Despite that, diplomats and journalists repeatedly referred to Arafat as
an ‘elected leader’, suggesting a legitimacy that Arafat had not, in fact, earned.
If Abbas wins the same kind of election, he too will be an ‘elected leader’ with
an asterisk by his name. But that’s not the real problem.
The more important point is that when candidates face serious competition they
come under pressure to take positions – to tell voters how their policies differ
from those of their opponents, and how voting for them will shape the future.
But with only token opposition, a candidate can argue both sides of every issue
and voters don’t have to decide.
Abbas is already straddling fences. For example, he has said that the ‘intifada’
— the terrorist war that began after Arafat turned down Israel’s peace offer at
Camp David in 2000 – has failed.
“The use of arms has caused damage and must be stopped in order to
calm the atmosphere on the Palestinian street,” he told the London-based Arab
daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat.
But last week, Abbas refused to condemn an attack carried out jointly by Fatah
and Hamas in Gaza that killed five Israeli soldiers (all of them, by the way,
Israeli Arabs). The Palestinian Authority even called the perpetrators “martyrs”.
This recalls the Arafat model: Encourage terrorism, then denounce it to Western
journalists while praising the terrorists in the Arab media — and rewarding the
For a while, it appeared that Marwan Barghouti was going to run against
Abbas. He, too, is a Fatah leader but he is considered more of a ‘firebrand’ than
Abbas. He also happens to be sitting in an Israeli jail, having received five life
sentences for five murders.
Last weekend, Barghouti announced he would not oppose Abbas. Many
Palestinians and many Israelis breathed a sigh of relief. A campaign by a
convicted murderer from inside a prison cell would present problems for just
But surely someone should run against Abbas. It would be great if such a
candidate was a true moderate – morally opposed to terrorism and willing to
acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. But even if that candidate was, like
Barghouti, in favor of continuing the terrorist war to wipe out Israel, it would
still be instructive.
In such a campaign, Abbas might at least make the pragmatic argument — that
a victory by his pro-terrorism opponent would mean more Israeli tanks in the
streets of Palestinian cities, more bloodshed and the sacrifice of another
generation of Palestinian children with no realistic prospect of destroying Israel,
at least not anytime soon.
In other words, Palestinians would have to make a decision – and for many it
would be tough. According to a poll conducted this month by Shikaki, a race
between Abbas and Barghouti would be a dead heat. Yet Shikaki also found
that “more than 80 percent support a mutual cessation of violence and an
immediate return to negotiations.”
In other words, many Palestinians who want to stop the violence prefer
a candidate who would prolong the violence.
But why should Palestinians make hard choices if they don’t have to and
they’re not being asked to? What’s the point if, at the end of the ‘campaign’,
there’s only one candidate who stands any chance of winning and he is arguing
for resolving the conflict while praising those continuing the conflict?
In a free and fair election, by contrast, Palestinians would have to make up their
minds: Fight till the end no matter how bitter and risk losing everything; or
agree to compromise, accept your enemy as your neighbor, and give your
children a chance to live a decent life.
Isn’t it time Palestinians were given that opportunity – and burdened with that
responsibility? Isn’t that what democracy is all about?