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Palestinian Elections: Trip Report by Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter

For the third time, The Carter Center agreed to monitor the elections in the West Bank and Gaza, beginning in January 1996, with the choice of Yasir Arafat as president and 88 members of the Palestinian Authority. A year ago, Mahmoud Abbas was chosen to replace the deceased Arafat, and this new election would result in 132 members being chosen to comprise the parliament. Although the result of previous campaigns was predictable, the entry of Hamas candidates brought unprecedented uncertainty and drama to these hard fought contests.

As an organization that refuses to recognize the legitimacy of Israel and calls for violence as a means to achieve its political goals, Hamas has shown great success in local elections held during the past year. Fatah, the party of Arafat and Abbas, has become vulnerable because of its political ineffectiveness and alleged corruption, and many of its old line leaders have been replaced by younger candidates who are mostly loyal to Marwan Bargouti, a militant who is serving five concurrent life sentences in an Israeli prison. Another major factor is that both Israel and the United States have ignored Abbas as an acceptable negotiating partner, debasing him as an ineffective leader in the search for peace.

Late polls indicated that about 35 percent of the parliamentary seats would go to Hamas candidates. Unless there is a dramatic moderation of its policies, even this modest involvement would preclude any initiation of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians (already absent for 3-1/2 years) and could terminate hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid from the United States, Europe, and other sources that have been channeled through the Palestinian government.

Once again, our Center formed a partnership with the National Democratic Institute, and Rosalynn, John Hardman, David Carroll, and Matt Hodes helped to lead our Carter Center group. Chairman John Moores and Becky, Chip, Jeff, and Amy Carter were among our observers.

On arriving in Israel, we had briefings from the U.S. ambassador and the consul-general (responsible for the West Bank and Gaza), discussed common plans with NDI leader Ken Wollack, and met other members of our joint delegation.

Rosalynn and I then had an extensive discussion with Ehud Olmert, acting prime minister, whom we have known for more than 20 years. He and I have had many arguments (and some agreements) since he was a young Likud candidate, and I've come to appreciate his intelligence, political acumen, personal ambition, and strong will. He will be a formidable leader of the new Kadima party and, almost certainly, Israel's next Prime Minister. Opinion polls have shown that support for Kadima has actually increased since Olmert replaced the seriously ill Ariel Sharon.

Naturally, he will continue Sharon's policies, and made it plain that he would resume peace talks with Abbas, but only if radical Palestinian groups are completely disarmed (a hopeless prospect).

The following morning (Monday), I addressed the Herzliya Conference, the foremost forum for Israeli and international leaders to express their views. Even though recognizing the very conservative nature of the audience, I decided to express my opinions frankly and briefly and then to answer questions. I had a friendly reception, but commented that the questions received more applause than my answers. (Remarks follow this report.)

We later met with Alvaro DeSoto (U.N. Coordinator for Middle East peace), Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Labor Party leader Amir Peretz, Shimon Perez, Quartet Special Envoy James Wolfensohn, a Public Relations spokesman for Hamas, candidates of Fatah and independent parties, Yossi Beilin and others who orchestrated the Geneva Initiative, and leaders of the major international election observer groups.

We drove to Ramallah to meet with the leaders of the Central Election Commission, one of the most honest and effective I have ever known, and then met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Although he expressed confidence in the outcome of the election, he was obviously distressed at having been bypassed or ignored in the "peace process." He pointed out that the Palestinian economy was in a shambles, that his government would have difficulty meeting February payrolls and had a $900 million deficit. Israeli policy had precluded the training and equipping of his security force, with only 10 percent of its personnel being armed and equipped with communications equipment.

On election day, Rosalynn and I visited 25 polling sites, in East Jerusalem and its outskirts, Hebron, Ramallah, and Jericho. It seemed obvious to us and other observers that the election was orderly and peaceful and that there was a clear preference for Hamas candidates even in historically strong Fatah communities. Even so, we were all surprised at the enormity of the Hamas victory.

They won such a clear majority of parliamentary seats (76 of 132 members) that the Fatah government immediately announced their resignation.

I decided to remain for an extra day to assess the situation and to discuss the future with key leaders. I went to Ramallah and found President Abbas willing to remain as president during the three years remaining in his term but in a quandary about how to deal with the Hamas victory, the formation of a new government, the near bankruptcy of his government, and uncertainty about Israeli policies. He was justifiably proud of the honest, fair, and safe election process. Hamas leaders had expressed their desire to form a unity government with Fatah and the smaller independent parties, but his intention was not to cooperate with them. I urged him to reconsider.

He informed me that there were not enough funds available to meet his February payrolls for teachers, police, nurses, and other social workers, and any reduction in funds because of the election results would be disastrous. He felt that one of the major factors in the voting had been his apparent ineffectiveness as a result of being ignored by Israel and the Quartet leaders. He reminded me that there had been no opportunity for a Palestinian leader to participate in peace talks for almost four years. In our Ramallah office, I learned that the major Hamas leaders were all in Gaza and that there was some question about their being able to come to Ramallah or anywhere else in the West Bank to form a government and to administer Palestinian affairs in the future.

This was hard to believe, so I called the Prime Minister's office and was told that no Hamas party member would be given a pass to change location anywhere within the occupied territories. This would prevent the results of the election from being implemented, and could provoke an intense reaction and perhaps violence among all Palestinians, regardless of party. I informed the U.S. Consul General, who said he had not heard of this policy, and he promised to inform the ambassador, the State Department, and the White House.

Remarks on Middle East Peace

By Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter
Delivered on Jan. 23, 2006, at the Herzliya Conference, Israel

As some of you may know, I am in the region again this week to observe the Palestinian election.

We monitored the first Palestinian election almost exactly 10 years ago, and at the request of the president-elect, Yasir Arafat, I made a strong effort to convince the leaders of Hamas to accept the election results. I relayed a message offering them full participation in the process of developing a permanent constitutional framework for the new political entity, but they refused to accept this proposal. Despite this rejection, it was a brief time of peace and hope, and there were no threats of violence.

Although there is now some justified trepidation about the involvement of candidates from Hamas, we are hopeful that, despite severe restrictions on voting in East Jerusalem and movement within the West Bank, the election process will be peaceful and another demonstration of the Palestinians' commitment to democracy.

All of us realize that Hamas is a radical organization that has been guilty of acts of violence and has refused to recognize Israel's right to exist. Their candidates have been quite successful in local elections held throughout the occupied territories, and public opinion polls indicate that they may garner as many as 35 percent of the legislative seats. This may or may not lead to their assuming more moderate and peaceful policies. This they must do!

The overall search for regional peace is very challenging. Collectively, beginning when I became president, I have spent as much time with the Saudis, Syrians, Lebanese, Jordanians, Egyptians, and Palestinians as with different groups in Israeli society.

Down through the years, I have seen despair and frustration evolve into hope and progress. Twenty-seven years ago, when Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat joined me at Camp David, Egypt could hardly have been described as a likely partner for peace with Israel. The two armies had been at war four times during the previous quarter century, but the leaders were able to find common ground that served the interests of both nations. I am proud to say that not one element of the 1979 peace agreement has ever been breached. Today, I am troubled by commentaries that focus on the inevitability of sustained conflict. I would like to speak of the enduring prospects for peace.

  • Until Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's startling Jerusalem visit and the subsequent 1979 peace treaty, Arab diplomatic recognition of Israel was inconceivable. When it came, there was overwhelming Arab condemnation. Sadat was assassinated, but the principle of peace between Israeli and Arab prevailed.
  • At a subsequent conference in Madrid, Secretary of State James Baker orchestrated the first direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians.
  • In 1993, the Norwegians proved in Oslo that Prime Minister Rabin could negotiate successfully with the Palestinians' leader. On both sides, this was an unprecedented recognition of the other's legitimacy. Rabin was assassinated, but the principle of peace between Israeli and Palestinian prevailed.
  • Two years after Oslo, when Jordan's King Hussein and Israeli leaders made a similar commitment to Egypt's, there was wide Arab acceptance of Hussein's decision.

In every case, depending on the mutuality of agreement and the degree of hope for peace and justice, the level of violence and vituperation dropped precipitously. During these earlier times, when moderate leadership and sound judgment prevailed on both sides, citizens lived and worked side by side in relative peace.

There is little doubt that a comprehensive peace agreement can bring full Arab recognition of Israel and its right to live in peace, with an Arab commitment to restrain further violence initiated by extremist Palestinian groups.

More recently, President George W. Bush has taken another important step when he called for establishing a Palestinian state and endorsed the Quartet's Road Map, and within the last year Palestinians have chosen another leader and Israel has withdrawn from Gaza.

I am convinced that Israelis and Palestinians both want a durable two-state solution. Recent polling from both Hebrew University and Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki indicates that more than 60 percent - almost two-thirds - of Israelis and Palestinians support basic parameters that offer a reasonable alternative for both sides.

These parameters are increasingly well known, as expressed in the Quartet's Road Map and more definitively in the Geneva initiative. Both of them offer the crucial and unavoidable elements of a permanent peace in the Holy Land.

The Geneva initiative is completely compatible with the final vision of the Quartet's Roadmap fashioned by the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia. What is important is that the initiative overcomes what can be a fatal flaw of the Roadmap: the laborious and easily aborted step-by-step procedure. It includes:

  • Secure borders for Israel and overwhelming recognition by the Arab world;
  • A sovereign, contiguous, viable state for Palestinians recognized by the international community;
  • A harmonious sharing of Jerusalem with arrangements that ensure unfettered access to holy sites for all; and
  • The resolution of claims for displaced Palestinians that focuses on re-settlement in the new Palestinian state or equivalent compensation. The responsibility would not be on Israel, but on the world community.

The proposal calls for more than half of the Israeli settlers to remain permanently in the West Bank and strictly limits the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel.

Many specifics have already been published, but it is obvious that there will be inevitable modifications to both of these proposals if and when official and sincere peace talks lead to an official agreement.

Responses from the general public have been encouraging. When the institute headed by James Baker presented these basic premises in an opinion poll, 53.3 percent of Israelis and 55.6 percent of Palestinians approved, despite a lack of public support from top political leaders.

History has proven that Israelis and Palestinians, even when they are ready to negotiate directly, will need a credible third party to help guide them through the process. Here, the role of the United States, and in particular the full support of the President of the United States, must not be underestimated.

America remains the only power acceptable to both sides and with the capability of leading the international community in planning for and delivering an effective implementation process once an agreement is reached.

Unfortunately, stalemate, distrust, and violence persist, threatening to negate or reverse many of the earlier proud achievements. Some misguided Palestinians honor suicide bombers as martyrs, to be rewarded in heaven, and consider the killing of Israeli civilians as victories. During the last few years, Israel has set obviously impossible prerequisites for direct talks with elected Palestinian leaders. Even with complete freedom within their own territory and unlimited armament and training, no government could guarantee the total disarmament of all dissident factions in the territory.

However, violence - acts of terrorism - must be controlled. This will require a joint effort by Israelis and Palestinians.

Some Israelis believe their West Bank settlements to be sacrosanct and try to justify the sustained subjugation of increasingly hopeless Palestinians.

There is little doubt that the lack of a persistent effort to resolve the Palestinian issue is a primary source of anti-American sentiment throughout the Middle East and a major incentive for terrorist activity.

The United States and almost all other nations recognize that Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are a violation of international law and the primary incitement to violence among Palestinians. Our most intense arguments at Camp David were about their existence and potential expansion. During the administration of George Bush, Sr., Secretary of State James Baker said, "I don't think there is any greater obstacle to peace than settlement activity that continues not only unabated but at an advanced pace," and the president threatened to withhold American financial aid in order to discourage Israeli settlement expansion.

More recently, Secretary of State Colin Powell stated what is still the current American position concerning Middle East peace:

"The Palestinian leadership must end violence, stop incitement, and prepare their people for the hard compromises ahead. All in the Arab world must make unmistakably clear, through their own actions, their acceptance of Israel and their commitment to a negotiated settlement. Israel must be willing to end its occupation, consistent with the principles embodied in Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, and accept a viable Palestinian State in which Palestinians can determine their own future on their own land and live in dignity and security."

A prerequisite for peacemaking is for antagonists to realize that good faith negotiations are preferable to sustained violence. When this time comes again, I believe inevitably, it is good to remember that the basic parameters already exist.

The primary question now is whether the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza represents a real turning point or just one more failed milestone on an impossible road to peace.

My own opinion is that the international community, a strong majority of both Israeli and Palestinian citizens, and the leaders of almost all Arab nations will support these basic premises.

What, then, are the impediments to further progress? The most obvious ones are continuing threats of violence from radical Palestinians, refusal to acknowledge Israelis' right to live in peace, the determination of some Israeli settlers to continue their occupation of Palestinian territory, and excessive deference by other nations to preeminence of the United States in the peace process. Another factor is the reluctance of American political leaders to confront the powerful Israeli lobbying forces, even though I know from experience that American Jewish leaders will support reasonable concessions by Israel in exchange for clear progress toward peace.

One potentially negative result of the Gaza withdrawal has been the demonstrated ability of Israeli leaders to make a unilateral decision, without involving either the United States or the Palestinians.

With increasing control of East Jerusalem, relative security behind the intrusive wall built in the West Bank, and with thousands of settlers protected by a strong occupying force, there is a temptation for many Israelis simply to withdraw from any further efforts to seek a just peace agreement based on the Quartet's Road Map or any other equivalent proposals. The clear short-term benefits may very well subvert any further genuine efforts for a comprehensive and permanent peace.

This would leave the Palestinians with a prospective future impossible for them or any substantial portion of the international community to accept. Gaza, as presently defined and circumscribed, is a nonviable economic and political entity, and there is no possibility of an acceptable Palestinian state in what now remains of their territory in the West Bank East of the dividing wall. As Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and a few others pointed out years ago, efforts by Israel to perpetuate this situation will be increasingly difficult as the relative number of Palestinians increases inexorably both within Israel and in the occupied territories.

The only rational response to these challenges is to revitalize the peace process, with strong influence exerted from America.

As I said in a 1979 speech to the Israeli Knesset, "The people support a settlement. Political leaders are the obstacles to peace."

The recent dramatic shuffling of political parties in Israel might presage movements toward permanent peace for Israelis, with freedom and justice for Palestinians. I join all of you in praying for this achievement.


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