January 13, 2005
One People, One Vote
Anyone hungry for good news in the world could have sat down to a full meal this week on word of the Palestinian election.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas received 62 percent of the vote in Sunday's election to replace the late Yasser Arafat.
It is rare that things go as planned in that part of the world and even more unusual when they go better than planned. Predictions of a low turnout, of violence, of a massive Hamas-led boycott all proved untrue.
Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), one of 800 international observers sent to monitor the historic event, said things were going so smoothly it could have been an American election. (Insert your own Jon Stewart-style joke here.)
The election was historic because it was the freest, fairest national plebiscite in the modern Arab world. The most viable candidate was not the only candidate, nor was he a dictator in charge of a ruthless security service.
I was in Paris watching coverage on BBC and French news, and commentators made sure to say that the Palestinians flocked to the polls, despite Israel's tight security measures. As if what had prevented them from voting in a truly fair election was not a certain despot who recently breathed his last.
You can search far and wide for another Middle East polity where so many Arab women get to vote in a free and fair election, and you'd only find one: Israel.
I've never met Abbas, but people who know him well tell me he's a pragmatic man committed to a negotiated settlement with Israel.
"I think it's the beginning of journey, but it's the first step," said Steven Spiegel, associate director of the Burkle Center for International Relations at UCLA. "Now the task is to move forward to try to see whether the Palestinians can control violence and achieve political reform, general democracy and a new society, and whether they can work with Israel to create a new path to accommodation. I think this has to be seen as a process in which the parties try to establish a new kind of relationship, rather than try to go back to what they had in the 1990s, which didn't work -- and with new leadership on the Palestinian side, these new steps are now possible."
Assuming his good intentions, Abbas comes weighted with expectations. "Our future president must beat down the apartheid wall that Israel has erected on our cherished land of Palestine," wrote Mohammed Yaghi in the French weekly Courrier International. Yaghi went on: "He must bring home all the refugees; he must ensure they are indemnified for all sufferings, physical and psychological; he must encourage resistance and establish an 'equilibrium of terror'; he must recreate the economy; create full employment; rebuild the Port of Gaza and the airport; help our brothers living in the refugee camps in Lebanon; he must do this without obscuring the path to peace and without accepting the least compromise with the enemy."
At this point, I realized Yaghi was being ironic.
"Our future president must already know that we have a great capacity for din and nuisance and little capacity for analysis," Yaghi wrote. "May God have pity on him!"
For the Israelis and the Americans, Abbas is both a fresh start and a second chance. This is the same man who was installed as prime minister despite Arafat's misgivings in October 2003, and who struggled mightily to push the "road map" forward over his boss' obstructionism.
He looked hopefully, then desperately, to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to throw him a bone, some indication of good will he could show the Palestinian street. When that was not forthcoming, he looked to President Bush to pressure Sharon to cough something up. But the two leaders let the moment pass.
Abbas stepped down, and hell continued to break loose. Israeli diplomats will say privately that hanging Abbas out to dry was one of Sharon's few major mistakes, and he's not about to let it happen again. (Sharon doesn't seem as concerned as some mostly American Jews who have dug into Abbas' past and found strong anti-Zionist tracts, written in the early 1980s, containing Holocaust revisionism. The two men have since met and got on well together, and 20 years ago, few leaders on either side were talking peace and brotherhood).
Bush's early and clear note of congratulations to Abbas was an indication that he is not going to let the opportunity pass either. The stakes are higher than ever. A peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians will halt a hot war that has claimed hundreds of innocent lives and threatens to plunge the region into much deeper horrors. Facing an uncertain future in Iraq, the president understands how important a peace deal would be toward improving America's standing in the world and moving the entire Middle East toward stability and security.
If American Jews stayed on the sidelines during the brief reign of Abbas I, they can no longer afford to do so with Abbas II. We, too, have a second chance to make our voices heard, to track the actions of our elected leaders and those Jews who are gracious enough to speak on our behalf and make sure the leaders of the Israelis and Palestinians have the support and encouragement they need to reach a deal.
If the election proved anything, it could serve as a palliative to New York Times columnist Tom Friedman's axiom that the world faces new threats because technology and globalization have enabled local hatreds to spread quickly abroad. It seems the opportunity cuts both ways.
Here was democracy at the very least nudged along by forces from afar and scrutinized and broadcast worldwide. And four days later, it still seems to have worked.
Chew on that for a week, and savor it.