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Arab Spring and Palestinian ‘democracy’

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With the advent of the Arab Spring, several former Arab tyrannies (Egypt, Tunisia, now Libya, perhaps Syria next) have thrown off dictators and are, or will be, moving toward elections. And in Jordan and Morocco, the kings have announced new constitutional arrangements that move powers to elected officials.

In every case, it is understood that free elections are central. And then there is the Palestinian case.

President Mahmoud Abbas was elected in January 2005 and his term ended in January 2009, though it was extended for one year in a way that might arguably have been legal. The parliament was elected in February 2006 and its term should have ended in January 2010. But of course no elections were held in January 2010, and neither parliamentary nor presidential elections are now scheduled.

Local elections have been postponed repeatedly as well, and were first scheduled for July 9 and then for Oct. 22. But just this week Abbas issued a decree postponing them again — “indefinitely.”

Just as Palestinians are about to go to the U.N. to demand recognition, they are farther from free elections than they have been since the day Yassir Arafat died. This will not complicate their situation in the U.N., where numerous authoritarian regimes are members. But for Americans, the Palestinian demand for “freedom” must mean more than “end the Israeli occupation.”

Now the Palestinian Parliament does not meet, much less hold any authority. There are no elections, much less fair ones. Abbas rules by decree. This is not to say that the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah is
incompetent; on the contrary, it is very well run by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. But whatever its good qualities, there is no democracy.

One key reason for this is obvious: the division between Fatah and Hamas. It may well be that Fatah is popular in Gaza because the people there are learning to hate Hamas, and this may explain why Hamas will not permit elections there. In any event, Hamas ideology does not require elections. Its infamous Charter is about the struggle with the Jews, not about democracy or liberty.

But the refusal to schedule elections on the part of Abbas and his colleagues running the PLO and the Fatah Party should not be acceptable. The argument that they cannot do so because of Hamas is specious, for they can hold free elections in the West Bank. In fact, that would be a terrific way of differentiating governance there from the Hamas oppression in Gaza. Nothing would more clearly dramatize for the Palestinian people what choices lie before them.

Of course the Fatah leaders may be afraid they would not win, but that is hardly a defense — especially not in the year of the Arab Spring. The United States and the EU should be demanding elections, so that there is a legitimate government in Ramallah. Instead, neither the United States nor anyone else said one word criticizing the latest cancellation of local elections. The flimsy excuses offered by Abbas should be rejected flatly, and elections for the presidency and the parliament should be held within six months. Can it be the policy of the United States that autocracy is intolerable in Damascus, Tripoli, Cairo and Tunis, but just fine in Ramallah?

Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was a deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration. This article appeared in The Weekly Standard.

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