Saturday, May 18

Palestinian Election Update

So far, Arafat's lone challenger is Abdel Sattar Qassem, a "Palestinian political scientist and dissident jailed for 14 months by Arafat's security forces." According to the AP, "Qassem, a 53-year-old professor at An Najah University in the West Bank city of Nablus, said Friday he would run on an anti-corruption platform." So far, so good. The bad news (don't tell me you didn't expect some bad news) follows. He is described as "Western-educated and secular, but [he] sympathizes with Islamic militant groups and supports suicide attacks against Israeli civilians. He does not recognize Israel, and opposes the interim peace agreements Arafat has made with Israel." Sound familiar? At least Qassem is anti-corruption.

Two other possible candidates are hearing their names bandied about in the American press these days, Omar Karsou (see Robert L. Pollock's "We Need a Palestinian Mandela" in yesterday's WSJ OpinionJournal) and Hanan Ashrawi (see AP story above). Other than their names, I know as little about these two people as they probably know about me, but if either is willing to accept Israel's right to exist and to bargain in good faith, then they are already light-years ahead of the current candidates.

I do know that I don't think much of the suggestion, made by "Iyad Sarraj, a Palestinian human rights advocate [already my guard is up] in the Palestinian daily Al-Quds . . . that Ashrawi could take up a new position of prime minister while Arafat would take on the role of head of state." First, the division of powers between the Prime Minister and the Head of State would have to be clearly defined and I doubt that Arafat will accept a symbolic but impotent post like that of a constitutional monarch (aside: and I can't imagine that his presence could symbolize anything positive). Second, this would have to be achieved democratically, which means that no matter how attractive the scenario might be to Sarraj, it will have to pass muster with the Palestinian people (as well as Arafat) before it can be become a reality. Finally, as long as Arafat has a toe in the door, a new government would do well to weather even a minor crisis without dissolving into bitter factionalism.

As for Omar Karsou, even if he is as compelling as Pollack's profile of him suggests, I think that D.A. Shephard's response sums up my feelings:

I had never heard of Mr. Karsou prior to this commentary by Mr. Pollock. On the one hand it is very encouraging to know that there is actually an educated Palestinian who is a real moderate and willing to find a nonviolent solution to the question of Palestine. On the other hand I fear that the next time I read about Mr. Karsou, it will be of him hanging by his feet from a television antenna in Ramallah, after being dragged into the street and shot in the head for being a "collaborator."

But all this speculation may still prove to be in vain. Already Arafat is qualifying his support for free elections and demanding a full withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank before he will consider making good on the Palestinian parliamentary resolution to hold elections by next year. Honest commitment to democratic principles or desperate negotiating tactic? Did you really ever think it was the former?