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President Carter's Trip Report on the Palestinian Presidential Election

By Jimmy Carter

On January 6, I arrived in Jerusalem to join other observers representing The Carter Center and National Democratic Institute (NDI) in observing the Palestinian election of their president. At the airport I first met with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who seemed to take the most conservative stance on issues. I then had a pleasant conversation with Shimon Peres. Although he will not have a specific cabinet post as compensation for Labor's support of the Likud party, Shimon will be one of the deputy prime ministers and responsible for the resettlement of Israeli settlers who will be removed from Gaza as part of Sharon's withdrawal plan. He estimates that about 30 percent will leave voluntarily (with generous monetary compensation), and the others will resist, perhaps a small number even with violence. The southern Negev (part of Israel) will be their primary destination. It will be a very difficult task, but Prime Minister Sharon is determined to succeed. A coalition with Labor and some small religious parties and the promised abstention of the more liberal (peace-seeking) parties will provide a narrow majority in the Knesset. (Sharon later won the no-confidence vote 58-56.)

When I met with Prime Minister Sharon, he was accompanied by two or three of his top aides, including Dov Weissglas, who was designated to be my contact. I received his direct cell phone number, and was to call him several times during the next few days. The prime minister and I exchanged memories of our joint experiences during the past 26 years, and I thanked him for his positive influence on Prime Minister Begin while I was negotiating as president. He promised that the Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza would be manned by soldiers but would not impede traffic, and that military forces would be withdrawn from the major cities during the election period. Without modifying the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979, an exchange of letters would authorize Egyptian forces to come to the Sinai-Gaza border to discourage smuggling and other illegal activities.

Along with Matt Hodes, David Carroll, and Chip Carter, we had a joint NDI-Carter Center observer delegation of 80 members from 15 nations, headed by NDI's Ken Wollack. My co-chairs were Carl Bildt, former prime minister of Sweden, and Christine Todd Whitman, former governor of New Jersey. We had a good working relationship with the larger observer delegation from the European Union, headed by former French prime minister Michel Rocard.

We all recognized that the Palestinian people live under total domination of Israeli political and military occupation - a situation that is unlikely to change until good faith peace talks can follow the Palestinian Authority's willingness and ability to control acts of violence against Israeli citizens, or at least its demonstration of a sincere and determined effort to do so. Our hope is that the election of a leader to replace Yasir Arafat (elected in 1996) and the subsequent election of parliamentary members in July will provide a strong and respected government that can negotiate a peace agreement with the Israelis.

Normally, there is very limited freedom of movement of Palestinians through the hundreds of Israeli checkpoints and the impenetrable dividing wall being constructed on Palestinian territory that separates communities, but we hoped to see the roadways opened for the election period. There were also severe restraints on voter registration, campaigning, and voting in East Jerusalem. Of the 150,000 eligible voters living in the city, less than 6,000 would be permitted to vote near their homes, and only in five post offices (some quite tiny), where Israelis could claim that the ballots were being mailed outside.

Approximately 120,000 others were expected to leave the city and cast their ballots in 12 neighboring communities. Justified or not, all of them had been intimidated by fear that they would lose their dwelling rights, so that many were afraid to vote. No Palestinian polling officials or observers were allowed to enter the post offices, so the polling stations were manned by Israel's post office employees. Any real campaigning was also forbidden. Candidate Mustafa Barghouthi was arrested after meeting with our observer delegation when he attempted to seek votes near the Lion's Gate. When I complained to the prime minister's office, it was promised that Barghouthi's permit to campaign would be issued, but he was held for several hours and bureaucratically delayed until it was too late for him to make another effort.

Prior to election day, our entire delegation had presentations from three candidates, and our Carter Center group went to Ramallah to meet with Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), who was the leading candidate for president, Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala), and the members of the Central Election Commission. All were confident, but concerned about possible violence that might erupt from Palestinian militants or from the Israelis.

While our observers were moving to their posts on Saturday morning, Prime Minister Bildt, Christie Whitman, and I had a chance to visit Nazareth Village, a site that has been developed to emulate a rural community during the time of Christ. Beginning in 1996, Rosalynn and I supported a group of Mennonites and leaders of Habitat for Humanity in acquiring the land and raising funds for its development. The ten-acre site (leased from a nearby hospital) is inside the urban area of the city, and we were truly amazed at its high quality and archeological integrity.

It was on this trip that we saw the most disturbing intrusions of the great dividing wall being built by the Israelis, entirely in Palestinian territory and separating Palestinians from their own neighbors and property. One hundred-yard swaths are bulldozed through and around villages, and a concrete wall 20 feet high is erected near the center. In some cases, the wall intrudes several miles into the West Bank. It was also obvious that a direct request made to Sharon by the White House for non-expansion of Israeli settlements had been rejected, as Israeli bulldozers and cranes were active in settlement construction in the West Bank.

I moved constantly throughout election day, visiting 22 voting sites, six of which were in the post offices within East Jerusalem. This is where the primary problems arose. It became quickly apparent that there was little correlation between registered voters and the lists that had been delivered to the sites. At Jaffa Gate, none of the potential voters who came were on the list, and were turned away. By noon, there were zero voters and a crowd of angry Palestinians. At the main polling site, the only spacious post office, there were 3,500 names, all on the same list of about 100 pages, with one man checking potential voters and turning most of them away.

I called Weissglas in Sharon's office, but he denied any ability to help, so I finally drove back to Ramallah and spent two hours with the members and staff of the Palestinian election commission, talking back and forth to Weissglas by phone. Eventually, everyone accepted my proposal to ignore the lists and permit any person registered in Jerusalem to vote at any site. There was a troubling and time-consuming proviso: only international observers could facilitate this process. It was up to us to recruit and instruct them. By this time it was 2 p.m., and we were finally able to salvage the participation of a relatively small number of voters. I then visited the Bethlehem area, including one final post office near there but within Jerusalem. There were few problems in the West Bank and Gaza.

I was up the next morning at 4 a.m., in order to edit the final report of our observer team. Abu Mazen had been elected overwhelmingly (62 percent to 19 percent for Barghouthi). I finished before break, in time to visit with leading birding experts from Israel and the Palestinian territory, Yossi Leshem and Imad Atrash. We first went to Gazelle Valley, a 50-acre park in the heart of Jerusalem's urban area, where we watched 24 gazelles who live there, with no fences or walls to separate them from the adjacent buildings and heavily traveled roadways. Their population increases to about 32 with new births each spring, but a couple of road kills and predation from wild jackals usually reduce the number each winter to the present level. We then drove to the shadow of the Knesset building to observe the netting, banding, and release of birds in a small park. Circumventing the Mediterranean Sea, many birds from Europe and Asia fly over the Holy Land in their annual migrations through the Rift Valley of Africa. Ten birds were netted and catalogued during the hour that I was there.

After a meeting with our delegation leaders to finalize our statement, I met with Abu Mazen and his key advisors to share ideas on future steps toward peace. They reported that the new president will be sworn in on Wednesday, Jan. 12, that Palestinian Legislative Council (parliamentary) elections will be July 17, and that Hamas has expressed a desire to field candidates. During the afternoon I joined our delegation in a press conference and had individual interviews with several major news media. Then I met with the 13 Christian archbishops, bishops, and other leaders representing the three main branches of the Orthodox Church, Roman Catholics, Coptics, Anglicans, Lutherans, and others, who expressed their concern about Palestinian problems and the continuing effort to minimize the influence and further reduce the dwindling number of Christians still living in Israel and Palestinian territory.

To summarize: With the exception of the problems in and around Jerusalem, the election went quite well. Despite a boycott by Hamas and impediments to voters, the turnout was about 65 percent, and there was no serious violence either by the Palestinians or Israelis. There is no doubt that the will of the Palestinians was adequately expressed, that Abu Mazen has the support and respect of his people, and that he is dedicated to the peaceful pursuit of a peace agreement in accordance with the International Road Map put forward by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia. Our next task in the Holy Land may be to assist with the parliamentary elections now scheduled for July.

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