Palestinian democracy

Condoleezza Rice, in an interview with the Financial Times this week, was invited to reflect on the dilemmas of promoting democracy in the Middle East. Would the Bush administration continue to push for democratic elections, Rice was asked, even though it was now having to deal with elected militias in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine? Rice was unequivocal: every time, she said, she would choose “elections and democracy, even if it brings to power people that we don’t like.” She has been consistent on this point: in September 2005, Rice was asked about Hamas’s participation in the forthcoming Palestinian elections. She argued then that while “you cannot have an armed option within the democratic process”, it was also important to recognise that the Palestinian political process was “in transition”: “we have to give the Palestinians some room for the evolution of their political process”.

Since Hamas won, the US has taken a number of measures to influence the Palestinian political situation and to change the government’s policies. The US and its partners in the Quartet issued a statement that in the Quartet’s view, “all members of a future Palestinian government must be committed to non-violence, recogition of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations, including the Road Map.” US officials immediately ceased contact with all Palestinian government officials, and terminated funding to all PA government-administered projects. The US Treasury imposed restrictions on private banks dealing with the PA. At the same time, funding and support to the office of President Mahmoud Abbas, to the security services that report to him, and to his Fatah party, continued or increased.

The Palestinian political situation has undoubtedly been influenced by these US efforts, and those of other members of the international community which have followed a similar course during the past year. The PA government experienced deep isolation and a fiscal crisis of unprecedented seriousness. The Hamas-led PA government is out, and we now have a new National Unity government which includes both Hamas (election winners), independents, and Fatah (who lost last January). So how is Palestinian democracy faring, fifteen months after the free and fair legislative elections that brought Hamas to power?

Palestinians have probably learnt a few important things:

1. Any government that the Palestinians elect cannot deliver (or indeed survive) without international support.
2. What Palestinian politicians say is probably as important, in terms of getting international support, as what they do.
3. While Israeli violence continues, and while there is no sign of political progress, it is very difficult for any Palestinian leader to keep Palestinian violence under control.

First, any government that the Palestinians elect cannot deliver (or indeed survive) without international support: As soon as it formed a government in February 2006, Hamas was immediately faced with what Palestinians describe as a “seige”. OECD donors cut off their direct budget support and the Government of Israel ceased transfer of the VAT and cuctoms revenues that it collects on behalf of the PA. PA monthly tax revenues plummeted to less than a fifth of those collected during the previous year. The Hamas-led PA was unable to pay employees’ salaries, or support other ongoing costs such as maintenance of infrastructure or purchase of medicines. Lifting the international “seige” was one of the major incentived behind formation of the National Unity government. However, most donors have still not resumed funding to the PA because the new government contains Hamas elements and does not explicitly meet the Quartet’s so-called “conditions”. Furthermore, Israel is facing little international pressure to hand over the VAT and customs revenues, although it is legally obliged to do so. The PA therefore continues to face a fiscal crisis which, according to the World Bank, “threatens its very existence”.

Second, what Palestinian politicians say is probably as important, in terms of getting international support, as what they do: One of the major problems the international community, led by the US, has with Hamas is its refusal to state that it renounces violence as a means to resist occupation. Hamas does agree to ceasefires, and also advocates a sustained hudna (or period of calm) with Israel. It also appears to abide by these ceasefires when they have been agreed, though some claim that it just subcontracts other groups to carry out attacks during these periods. By contrast, President Abbas consistently and admirably denounces the use of violence. At the same time, the Fatah-affiliated al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades have continued to plan attacks against Israeli civilian targets throughout the past year, some of which have been successful. The actual behaviour of al Aqsa Brigades appears to have no impact on the international community’s willingness to support Fatah, including through the provision of training and equipment to Fatah-affiliated security forces.

Third, while Israeli violence continues, and while there is no sign of political progress, it is very difficult for Palestinian leaders to keep Palestinian violence under control: On the weekend before the Palestinians “broke” the most recent ceasefire by firing rockets from Gaza into Israel, Israeli forces killed nine Palestinians including a 17 year old girl, a 15 year old girl and a policeman who was on his roof and not engaged in any fighting. The IDF killed the brother of the deputy Prime Minister during a raid in Jenin yesterdy evening. These are all pretty normal events here: during 2006, 678 Palestinians, on average 57 each month, were killed in conflict related incidents. Of those killed, 127 were children. Under these circumstances it is very hard for “peace loving” President Abbas to continue to shake hands Prime Minister Olmert after their umpteenth outcomeless meeting, while maintaining his popularity among Palestinians.

Palestinians voted with great enthusiasm in January 2006, but now almost 30 percent say that they would not participate in elections if they were to be held now. People here, and throughout the region, believe that the Palestinians are still being punished for their democratic choice.

Condoleezza Rice commented in her interview last week that Hamas has not lived up to the “responsibilities that come with governing” by failing to renounce violence, so it has been unable to deliver. “So there’s a consequence to being in power and being unable to deliver”. Polls show that Hamas’ popularity has fallen slightly, so perhaps the US strategy has worked to some extent. It is hard to imagine that Palestinians see the democratic equation of delivery and popularity in quite such straightforward terms as those used by Rice, though. It is also hard to see how the experience of the past year would reinforce their faith in democratic systems as ways of promoting peaceful political change.

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About Elizabeth Sellwood

Elizabeth Sellwood is non-resident fellow at the Center on International Cooperation. She is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has worked for several years in the Middle East region. She was Special Assistant to the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process from 2005-07, and prior to this she worked for the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the occupied Palestinian territory. Between 2001-03 Elizabeth was an adviser to the Foreign Affairs Committee in the UK House of Commons. She also worked for Oxfam in the Balkans in the aftermath of the Kosovo war, and in 1995-99 held research positions at Chatham House and Cambridge University.