WASHINGTON — Under pressure from the Bush administration to help facilitate the rise of moderate Palestinian leaders, Israel is taking several key steps to pave the way for January elections in Gaza and the West Bank.
At a meeting Monday in Washington, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell attempted to hammer out a joint strategy for facilitating the rise of moderate Palestinian leadership following the death of Yasser Arafat. Powell is set to visit Israel and the West Bank next week, at which time he is expected to promise American funds to help organize Palestinian voting and discuss plans for Israeli troop redeployments that would allow freedom of movement for Palestinians in advance of January elections, sources said.
Israel already has agreed to several key concessions and appears to accept the American view that the next batch of Palestinian leaders will need several months to assert authority and to establish credibility before being expected to fight terrorism, Israeli and American government sources said. Previously the Bush administration had accepted Israel’s view that Arafat was not a legitimate negotiating partner because he had failed to exercise his ability to halt all terrorist attacks.
“We will spare no effort so the Palestinians can carry out their elections, as long as they don’t jeopardize our security,” Shalom told reporters after meeting Powell in Washington on Monday.
“Our goal is to enable free and fair elections, with [international] observers,” Shalom said, “so as not to provide any pretext [to the Palestinians] that we are the ones who did not let them hold elections.”
This week, Israel agreed to suspend its demand that peace talks only be conducted with Palestinian leaders who have acted to dismantle the terrorists’ infrastructure. Israel also has agreed to resume security cooperation and coordination with the Palestinian Authority immediately, Shalom said, and to grant Palestinians freedom of movement. Israel is also expected to agree to allow Palestinians who reside in East Jerusalem to vote, as it did in the 1996 elections, Israeli sources confirmed.
Following his meeting with Powell, Shalom told reporters in Washington that the Bush administration believes that new Palestinian leaders — as opposed to Arafat — will not be able to halt terrorism “with the push of a button.” Shalom seemed to concur, saying that an elected Palestinian government could not be expected to take action against terrorists before March of next year. However, Shalom demanded that in order to demonstrate its positive intentions the Palestinian leadership — even before elections are held — must end all incitement to violence in its mass media.
The tight schedule for electing a new Palestinian Authority president has put in motion a flurry of diplomatic activity. Senior American, European and Arab envoys are traveling to Israel and to the territories to ensure that the elections are free and fair.
In addition to pushing for Israeli actions, Powell is expected during his visit to the region to promise American financial assistance for organizing the Palestinian voting. The administration will soon ask Congress to allocate an immediate infusion of around $ 70 million to help cover the costs of the election process, sources said. More aid is expected to come from European and Arab governments.
The Bush administration and its international allies view elections as a tool for creating a Palestinian partner for peace negotiations with Israel, and triggering a process of reform and democratization that could transform the troubled Palestinian society.
Palestinians, particularly moderate reformers in positions of power, have been calling on the Bush administration for months to endorse new elections — first municipal, then parliamentary and presidential — in the West Bank and in Gaza. But the Bush administration resisted, after accepting Israel’s position that elections only would legitimize Arafat, said Larry Garber, who until recently headed the West Bank and Gaza office of the U.S. Agency for International Development and now serves as the executive director of the New Israel Fund, an American-based charity that supports liberal causes in Israel.
Officials with international aid organizations operating in the territories have advocated elections for several years, Garber said. David Makovsky, an expert on Israeli-Palestinian relations with the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said now that Arafat is gone, the need for elections has become “a consensus” view.
In addition to viewing elections as a tool for creating a Palestinian partner for peace negotiations with Israel, the Bush administration and its international allies believe the voting will trigger a process of reform and democratization that could transform the troubled Palestinian society.
“There are a lot of critical byproducts here,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for the Palestinians, regardless of the peace issue, to clear out a lot of corrupt officials, to clean house.”
But vigorous housecleaning might be needed before elections are held, to ensure their fairness. Palestinian society is in a state of chaos, with local militias and armed gangs imposing terror. The level of lawlessness was evident last week, at Arafat’s funeral, and this week, when armed Arafat loyalists sprayed bullets at a mourning tent in Gaza while the presumed successor of the deceased leader, Mahmoud Abbas, visited the site to pay condolences. One of Abbas’s bodyguards and a Palestinian security agent were killed, and more than a dozen people injured, in what Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, insisted was not an assassination attempt.
The gunmen reportedly accused Abbas, who now has succeeded Arafat as PLO chairman, of being an “American agent” and of betraying Arafat’s legacy of armed resistance. As if punctuating their message with a barrage of automatic fire were not enough, the attackers torched the cars of Abbas and of his Gazan ally, Fatah strongman Mohammad Dahlan.
Dahlan said Tuesday that he was endorsing Abbas. Speaking to a small group of reporters at his Gaza City office early Tuesday, Dahlan said that “Abu Mazen could be the bridge between the past, the present and the future,” Ha’aretz reported. In addition to choosing the P.A.’s next president, Palestinian voters probably also will be given a chance to elect a new parliament.
On Tuesday leaders of the militant group Hamas rejected a proposed cease-fire in advance of the elections, and announced that they would not field a candidate.
The recent violent incidents demonstrate, however, that opposition to the new Palestinian leadership from within the ruling Fatah faction may pose more of a challenge to Abbas and his colleagues than that posed by Islamist opposition factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The young guard of Fatah is fragmented and feels disenfranchised, said Brigadier General Michael Herzog, veteran Israeli military intelligence officer and former top military aide to Israel’s defense minister, who is currently a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Herzog argued that in order to improve chances for a radical breakthrough and to prevent additional unrest, Fatah should hold its own elections before the general elections.
Palestinians are also viewing the next few months as key to the fate of the territories, said Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force on Palestine, a pro-Palestinian Washington advocacy group. “The next two months are crucial and there is so much to do in so little time,” Asali said. “If we get it right this time — all of us: Americans, Israelis, Palestinians — we may have hope for a better future. But if we don’t get it right this time, we will all be at fault.”