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I envy the Palestinians. On May 22, they will go to the polls to elect 132 members of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), the legislative body representing the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem. Why am I envious? Because the Palestinians, unlike us in Israel during the past four elections, might actually deal with the cardinal issues facing their society. In Israel, we only voted on Yes Bibi or No Bibi.
This is a chance, the first chance in 15 years for the Palestinians to take a stand on issues that determine their future. Some 2,546,449 Palestinians are registered to vote, including 940,871 in the Gaza Strip. There is no reason to believe that the elections will not be free and fair, as they were in 2005, the last time that national elections were held for the PLC.
The Palestinian Central Elections committee has been working diligently and efficiently over the past months to prepare for the elections. The revised elections law called for lists that wish to run in the elections to submit their candidates according to criteria set: the number of a list candidates shall be no fewer than 16 candidates, and must not exceed 132 candidates. The list shall include a minimum representation of women in accordance with the law: One woman within the first three names of the list. One woman within every four names that follow. The deadline for submission of lists was March 31 and 36 lists were submitted. Quite impressive!
The Israeli media presents these elections as a contest between Fatah and Hamas. Most people I know in the West Bank and Gaza say that they will vote for anyone except Fatah and Hamas, and now they actually have a wide choice. Elections tend to be about personalities and the Palestinian elections may be no different. There are certainly some key personalities on the various lists including some that Israelis know quite well, like Prof. Sari Nusseibeh and Dr. Salam Fayyad. However, these elections should not be about personalities – they should be about real issues and policies. The Palestinians have an opportunity to demand from those who wish to represent them to lay down their positions and their visions on the future of Palestine. I hope that they do that and that they go beyond simple slogans. There are serious issues which need to be debated and to give the public a choice.
It is clear that every Palestinian wants to see the end of the Israeli occupation – I hope that the various political lists can also present how they envision peace with Israel. Do they support engagement with Israel or do they advocate renewing an armed struggle? I hope that the public will make the rational choice of engagement with Israel and not supporting violence. Violence has always led to more violence and destruction and the Palestinian people has paid the highest price. I hope that the overwhelming majority of Palestinian voters send a clear message against violence.
How do the various lists think that democracy in Palestine can be advanced? What about public oversight on the various Palestinian security mechanisms which have played too big a role in the lives of too many Palestinians? How do they propose to fight against corruption – according to public opinion polls in Palestine, most Palestinians believe that the Palestinian Authority is corrupt – so what should be done against it and how? What should be the place of religion in Palestinian governance and society? What is the role and place of women? As an experienced voter, I believe that change is essential. My word of advice to the voters is don’t vote for the devil you know because you fear the alternative. Remember the wise words of the British historian Lord John Dalberg-Acton: Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
AMONG THE 36 lists submitted to run, there are young people who want a better life in Palestine. How do they propose to confront the realities of their own life? The Fatah movement has split into three separate lists – one supported by President Mahmoud Abbas and headed by Abbas’s official deputy Mahmoud al Alloul, the second supported by Yasser Arafat’s nephew and former Palestinian Foreign Minister Dr. Nasser El Qidwa, who has made an alliance with the most popular Fatah leader, Marwan Barghouthi, serving five life sentences plus 40 years in prison in Israel, and the third supported by exiled Palestinian leader Mohammed Dahlan and head by former Preventative Security Commander in Gaza Samir al-Masharawi.
Hamas has presented one single list headed by senior Hamas leader in Gaza Khalil al-Hayya, thought to be an extremist, which is not surprising given that seven or eight of his relatives, including two of his brothers, were killed by Israel.
Will Hamas gain a plurality in the Legislative Council because of the split of Fatah and the great number of other choices? This is what happened in the elections in 2006. Hamas did not have a majority of votes, the majority of Palestinians voted for other parties, but Hamas won a majority of seats because of their unity and because then the public wanted to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with a Fatah-run Palestinian Authority. In fact, I know Christians who voted Hamas as a protest vote. They never imagined that Hamas would actually win. This time around, they should be aware of that possibility. I don’t think that the majority of Palestinians want to be ruled by a regime like the one in Gaza. Will the people in Gaza show their dissatisfaction with the rule of Hamas after 14 years of Hamas-singular domination? Will the Palestinian Legislative Council, which was disbanded years ago, demand to have oversight powers over the executive branch of government, or will it be a tool in the hands of the president and his inner circle? Will the Legislative Council have the freedom to vote confidence or no confidence in the next Palestinian government formed by the prime minister, who will be selected by the president?
These are very tough questions and difficult issues to deal with. This could be a turning point for the Palestinian people. If these elections are held and they are successful, President Abbas will not have an excuse to postpone the presidential elections in July and then the crucial elections for the Palestinian National Council in August.
I have submitted a request to the Palestinian Central Elections Commission to serve as an observer in the elections. In the elections in 2006, I did that unofficially and witnessed the fair and free conducting of the elections. I hope that I can join with international observers and witness once again this great festival of democracy in Palestine.
The writer is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book, In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine, was published by Vanderbilt University Press. It is now out in Arabic and in Portuguese as well.