Palestinian Legislative Council Elections: Expert Q&A with David Carroll and Matthew Hodes
17 January 2006
The Carter Center, with the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, will send an international delegation to monitor the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections, set for Jan. 25. Both organizations observed the 1996 and 2005 elections in the Palestinian Territories. In this Q&A, Democracy Program Director Dr. David Carroll and Conflict Resolution Program Director Matthew Hodes examine the implication of these elections for Palestinians and for Middle East peace.
What is the importance of the legislative elections for the West Bank and Gaza?
Carroll: On Jan. 25, 2006, the Palestinians will hold legislative elections for the first time in 10 years. The elections will have significant implications for the Middle East peace process, as well as the potential creation of a Palestinian state. The ruling Fatah party is increasingly strained by internal divisions among factions and generations, but hopes to strengthen its mandate to negotiate with Israel. The Islamist group Hamas, which is on the international terrorist group lists of the United States, the European Union, and others, has demonstrated political strength and popularity in a series of recent municipal elections and is fielding candidates for the national legislature for the first time ever. The formal participation of Hamas in national political institutions, along with its other commitments to the democratic process, could mark a significant shift in Hamas' political agenda.
There has been violence in Gaza following the Israeli withdrawal in 2005. What are the challenges facing the voting process for Palestinians in Gaza, and what do you see as the outcome for Palestinians living there once their legislators are in place?
Hodes: The Gaza withdrawal has not resulted in stable Palestinian self-governance yet. The Palestinian Authority still faces a huge challenge in establishing real security for the residents of Gaza. The lack of security not only may impact the election but is likely to hold back any substantial work to improve the quality of life for Gaza residents, including efforts to open a seaport or the airport.
What impact, if any, does Ariel Sharon's incapacitation after suffering a massive stroke and its effect on Israel's government, have on these elections? On the Middle East peace process in general?
Hodes: Sharon's stroke, and likely withdrawal from politics, leaves an enormous vacuum in Israeli politics. Late in life, Sharon came to the realization that two states living side by side was the best long-term solution for Israelis and Palestinians. He acted on this conclusion by starting what might become a series of unilateral moves that could ultimately result in that situation. Many Israelis believe that the Gaza withdrawal was only the beginning and that unilateral moves out of the West Bank were sure to follow. Sharon was so committed to changing the dynamics of the situation with the Palestinians he willfully caused the breakup of his own party, Likud, and created a new party, Kadima. With Sharon leaving the political stage, it remains to be seen whether his successors in Kadima will continue what most believed was his intentions for further withdrawals.
The Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, has announced its intention to participate in these elections. Because Hamas has not renounced violence as a means toward Palestinian autonomy, there are questions about its role in the upcoming balloting. What does Hamas' participation signal, in your opinion?
Hodes: Hamas' participation is problematic. On the one hand they have continued to support the use of violence to achieve their ends and their stated ends do not include a two-state solution with Israelis and Palestinians living side by side in peace. If they do not renounce violence they cannot be a part of a peace process. But if they are engaging in politics in order to transform their role in the conflict from one based in violence to one based on political discourse that would be a step forward. They would have to take further steps but in the future we could look back at their participation in this election as a major turning point.
We should encourage Hamas to evolve into a political movement as we have with other movements who used violence in other parts of the world. History shows us that groups defined as terrorist movements, even limited to the Middle East itself, have successfully transformed themselves into legitimate political actors.
Balloting was difficult in East Jerusalem in January 2005, with President Carter and other international observers even intervening at one point to facilitate orderly polling in post offices. Do you anticipate that these elections will be different, and that Palestinians voting in East Jerusalem will have more or less difficulty in casting their ballots?
Carroll: Voting by Palestinians in East Jerusalem was very difficult in the recent presidential elections in January 2005. A small number of Palestinian living in East Jerusalem were permitted by the Israeli authorities to register and cast "absentee ballots" at six East Jerusalem post offices. However, the process was hindered by problems in the voter registers, which caused considerable confusion as Palestinians came to the post offices to vote, only to be turned away because their names did not appear on the list. A key recommendation of the final election report by the National Democratic Institute and The Carter Center was that the Palestinians and Israelis should initiate early negotiations to finalize arrangements for voting in East Jerusalem in order to avoid similar problems in the legislative elections.
Unfortunately, the issue of voting in East Jerusalem has continued to be contentious. As recently as early January, the Israelis stated that they would not allow Palestinians to vote in East Jerusalem if Hamas participates in the elections. President Abbas countered by threatening to call off the election. In the end, the Israelis have agreed to allow the elections to go ahead under the same conditions as in 2005 and the 1996 elections. While this is less than ideal, it is critical that Palestinians living in East Jerusalem be allowed to exercise their franchise. The Carter Center is concerned that we will see a repeat of the problems observed in 1996 and 2005. We hope that all possible steps will be taken in the time remaining to communicate voting procedures to East Jerusalemites so that widespread confusion can be prevented.
In your opinion, where does the Middle East peace process currently stand? Will these elections impact the process?
Hodes: The peace process is currently at a standstill. The elections in the Palestinian Authority and those coming up in March in Israel are dominating the situation in the region right now. The results of those elections will be crucial. If Fatah wins control of the Palestinian Legislative Council, President Abbas will be further empowered, and the Israelis may be able to take further measures to strengthen his position. If, on the other hand, Hamas wins control or even a representation level sufficient to block legislative action, then it is likely that Israel will do no more than additional unilateral movement, and even then such movement will be restricted to minor efforts. Violence may well increase under this scenario, regardless of who wins the Israeli election.
Jimmy Carter to Lead Multinational Delegation to Observe Jan. 25 Legislative Council Elections in Palestinian Territories
Palestinian Legislative Council Elections: Pre-Election Assessment Statement of The Carter Center/National Democratic Institute
The Carter Center's work in Palestinian Territories
Feature article: The 2005 Palestinian Elections: New Era for Middle East Peace?