Election observer says ball’s in Israel’s court

The ascension of Mahmoud Abbas puts Israel on the spot, says a University of Mary Washington professor who was an international observer to the Palestinian Authority presidential election.

“This puts as much pressure on the Israelis as had been put on the Palestinians,” said Ranjit Singh, a UMW political scientist and expert on Middle East politics and society who returned to the United States on Tuesday.

“The Israelis are put in the position of occupying the only Arab democracy now,” Singh said. Some might call Lebanon a democracy, he said, but that nation is dominated by Syria. “The Palestinians are pretty much on the cutting edge of democracy [in the Arab world] right now,” he said. “It puts the ball back into the Israelis’ court.” He said the Palestinians have elected a leader widely considered to be a moderate—someone Israel has negotiated with many times in the past. “They know him very well and he knows them very well,” Singh said. “This is not someone who has a history of intransigence,” as did the late Yasser Arafat, whom Abbas replaces.

Despite calls by some of the Islamic parties for a boycott, about 65 percent of Palestinian voters went to the polls. “By American standards, that’s not bad at all,” Singh said. “If that’s the final number, that’s not too bad.”

Abbas won by a landslide, getting 62 percent of the vote, perhaps in part because of the Hamas boycott. The independent who finished second got less than 20 percent of the ballots cast in the multiple-candidate election.

Mohammad Abu-Nimer, a political scientist at the American University in Washington, agrees the pressure is now on Israel, but contends that the idea of the Israelis occupying a Palestinian democracy is irrelevant.

“Whether it is a dictatorship, Marxist, socialist, whatever, it’s the notion of rightful self-determination,” he said. “Palestine is one of the last two or three nations on this planet that continues to be under occupation. I’m not sure you can measure becoming democratic by an election. There’s more to it than a simple, one-day election. This election took place under occupation.”

UMW’s Singh said Palestinians were generally “very enthusiastic about this election. They see this as an important step.” The political factions Hamas and Islamic Jihad both refused to field candidates and called for a boycott. And some who oppose improved relations with Israel are saying the turnout is being exaggerated.

According to Electronic Intifada, a Palestinian activist Web site, the actual turnout was 46.7 percent when all eligible voters are factored into the equation. “This is far from the great success that the media and the international peace process industry have trumpeted,” Electronic Intifada said. But AU’s Abu-Nimer, who teaches courses in international relations and Mideast conflict resolution, said considering that Palestine was under occupation, “the turnout was excellent.”

He said participation was better than that of a typical American presidential election despite “checkpoints, the threat of being shot, arrested, humiliated. Despite all of this, you had people vote.”

UMW’s Singh said he was encouraged by what he saw, especially compared to difficulties being experienced as insurgents attempt to discourage Iraqis from voting in that country’s upcoming election.

Even though there were calls for a boycott of the balloting, there were no efforts by Arab opponents of the process to stop voters by force. “The [Palestinian] election took place without the out and out intimidation you see in Iraq,” Singh said. “There wasn’t the threat of violence at all.”

“The Palestinian people have done what they had to do,” Abu-Nimer said. “The question is what the [U.S.] president is going to do once he finishes his inauguration. For three years America and Israel have said Arafat was the problem.” The vote was extended for two hours because of confusion over precincts and the turnout was not as high as some expected, Singh noted.

Former President Jimmy Carter, leader of the international observers with the National Democratic Institute, helped work out a deal allowing the Palestinians to vote at any precinct and extending balloting place hours.

The Bush administration hopes the election of Abbas will lead to peace talks between Palestine and Israel and the formation of a Palestinian state.

Secretary of State Colin Powell told Fox News this week that Abbas now has to “take a stronger position” against terror. More than just take a position, he has to fight against those forces within the Palestinian community that still think there is a role for terrorism,” Powell told the cable news channel. “And if he does that, then the United States will be able to support him and he’ll find that Israel can be a partner for peace with him as well,” Powell said.

Abu-Nimer called that a “trap.” He said that in recent years, Israel has destroyed much of Palestine’s infrastructure, crippling Abbas’ ability to keep order, and now demands that he control Hamas. Singh said that spending a week in Palestine before and after the election convinced him most Palestinians want improved relations with Israel. “I got a very, very strong sense of that from literally every Palestinian I met with,” he said.

Singh, an American who was raised in Fredericksburg, is of Indian and German ancestry. He lived in Gaza for two years after the failure of the Oslo peace process in mid-1990s. “There’s a strong recognition [now] that the militarization of the intifadas has born more pain than gain,” Singh said. Intifada means uprising or shaking off. “The election of Abbas,” he said, “reflects the fact that most Palestinians want their leadership to return to the negotiating table.”

The job of foreign observers is to meet with local media, political parties, voter groups and candidates to assess the general atmosphere of an election. On voting day, group members observed the balloting, then prepared a group statement assessing the election process as free and fair. Singh was selected for the delegation because he speaks Arabic and has worked in the past with both the National Democratic Institute and the Carter Center.

From 1994-96, he was a field representative for NDI in the West Bank and Gaza, working with local organizations and officials as they prepared for the 1996 election in which Arafat became president of the Palestinian Authority. Singh was a member of the observer delegation to that first Palestinian national election, as well as observer delegations in South Africa, Namibia and Bangladesh.

In 1997, he was a member of a Carter Center-sponsored election observation team in Liberia. Singh pointed out that members of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad registered and voted in the Dec. 23 Palestinian municipal elections. He believes those who boycotted the presidential election will vote in legislative elections in the late spring. “Those elections are going to be very competitive, and you’ll see the Islamic factions running,” Singh said.

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