Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A “government of war which will be against peace and stability in our region” was the way chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat chose to describe Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s newly formed narrow coalition.
This was hardly an auspicious start to renewing relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Erekat does not surprise with his criticism, made to an AFP reporter Thursday, but he does open himself up to painful comparisons with his Palestinian government.
Disparage it as you will, our incoming government came into being through a fair, democratic process; it represents the will of the majority of Israeli voters; and it is a legitimate political leadership.
The same cannot be said about Erekat and his political cronies in the PA.
Take Mahmoud Abbas, for instance. Among the hats he wears, which include chairman of the PLO and president of the Palestinian Authority, Abbas also calls himself the second president of the “State of Palestine,” taking over from the late Yasser Arafat.
He was sworn in as president of the “State of Palestine” on May 8, 2005 – exactly 10 years ago. But what was supposed to be a four-year term has stretched to a full decade.
Due to the split between Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Fatah on the West Bank, Palestinians have failed to muster the requisite unity to hold a presidential election since 2005 or a national election since 2006.
Israel has held four completely democratic and transparent national elections during that time.
So while Israel’s governments might not be to the liking of Palestinian politicians like Erekat, they can make the claim to represent their voters, a claim that Abbas, Erekat and other PA politicians cannot make.
A deal signed with Israel would be binding and legitimate.
A deal signed with Abbas and Erekat would not.
Promoters of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal recognize this crucial flaw. Palestinians who have been left indifferent and apathetic to a political leadership have as well.
Both have called on Fatah and Hamas to put aside their differences and hold elections.
This suggestion was made most recently and prominently by former US president Jimmy Carter and former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, both members of “The Elders,” a dozen veteran human rights activists first brought together in Johannesburg in 2007 by Nelson Mandela and Desmund Tutu.
But conducting elections without first putting in place basic democratic institutions – such as a free press, governmental transparency, human rights, religious freedom and an independent judiciary – can be disastrous.
Egypt provides a good example of the dangers of a premature election, when the Muslim Brotherhood rose to power and proceeded to undermine the very democracy that empowered it in the first place.
Palestinians face similar risks. As Jerusalem Post correspondent Khaled Abu Toameh points out, “free and democratic elections are the last thing the Palestinians need now,” because they would most likely be won by Hamas. That’s what happened in January 2006.
An ominous sign of the direction political winds are blowing was provided recently by the crushing victory of the Hamas-affiliated Islamic Bloc in the student council election of Bir Zeit University, just north of Ramallah.
This state of affairs is not so much about Hamas’s popularity among Palestinians (though alarming numbers do support this anti-Semitic, fundamentalist, terrorist organization) as it is about the PA’s corruption, cronyism, incompetence, and repression of critics that have alienated so many Palestinians.
Instead of pressuring the Palestinians to hold new elections, well-wishers like The Elders should be demanding the sort of accountability and transparency that would put an end to the PA’s kleptocracy. They should be championing human rights for women and religious minorities – particularly in Gaza – and freedom of the press.
They should also urge the PA to allow the emergence of new leaders who will replace the corrupt old guard.
Palestinian critics of Israel’s incoming government like Erekat are in need of a dose of a little self-criticism.
Instead of being so quick to point out Israel’s imperfections, Erekat and others should focus instead on Palestinian politics’ many pathologies.
Then again, bashing Israel is much easier.