Azmi Bishara: Elections under siege

By Azmi Bishara, Al-Ahram Weekly – Oct 29 – Nov 4, 2009

If the Palestinian resistance factions are to agree to the Egyptian-brokered reconciliation agreement, the Quartet (the US, Russia, EU and UN) must pledge to respect the results of elections regardless of who wins and not to subject the Palestinian people to another blockade if the winner is Hamas. This condition is not directed at Egypt. Nor does it suggest that the proposed agreement should be reopened for discussion. It simply means that unless the relevant international parties abide by it the agreement will amount to nothing but an attempt to eliminate the resistance with its own approval.

Even if the Palestinian people overlooked the question of the elections being held under occupation as a way to marginalise the struggle for independence and divert energies into an internal battle, it is still their right to demand an international commitment to the abovementioned condition. After all, they have held internationally monitored elections before and were collectively punished for the results. On top of this, the next elections will be held under the conditions of an economic blockade and a refusal to reconstruct what was damaged during the Israeli war on Gaza; which is to say under threat.

If the Quartet, which is responsible for the blockade, does not commit itself to the abovementioned condition it will be conveying the following to the Palestinian people: “You must vote for the Oslo team and grant it the confidence to negotiate on your behalf. This is not because it merits your confidence for political, moral and national reasons, or because you favour security coordination arrangements with Israel, or because you approve of the Oslo team in any way at all. You will vote for them because if you don’t you will be subjected to a relentless and merciless blockade that the official Arab order will do nothing to prevent and, indeed, will probably contribute to perpetuating. Let the blockade that has been strangling Gaza for several years now be your guide.”

We do not expect those who play the electoral game while the swords of Palestine’s enemies hang over the heads of Palestinian voters to feel awkward or ashamed. That would be too much to ask at this juncture. However, we do ask them not to preach too much to us about democracy. These are not elections. They are a way to exact a pledge of allegiance at gunpoint, aimed not just at the voters, but also at their children who are entirely blameless. This is why resistance movements are not put to the vote before independence, or before the defeat of the occupation is immanent. Why should the people cast their votes for an independence movement while a foreign occupation is pointing a gun at their heads? Resistance demands sacrifices from resistance fighters, but it does not generally require ordinary people to choose, in an electoral process, between resistance and food for their families.

The proposed reconciliation agreement contains another main point that is repeated in every section, which is that the Palestinian Authority (PA) president is to be the undisputed supreme authority. Under the proposal, this makes him the authority over the electoral commission, over the national reconciliation committee, and over the supreme security board. The PA president is one of the prime symbols of the rift that has shaken the Palestinian people. Indeed, he is even conspicuous within that handful of the most unpopular and most provocative figures in Palestinian politics. Symbolically at least, the provision stipulating his authority is inappropriate at this juncture following his scandalous behaviour in Geneva.

PA leaders would probably approve the Egyptian reconciliation proposal sight unseen even if it were a 1,000-page tome instead of a 28-page document and even if it detailed at length the ways and means for liberating Palestine. To these leaders, the agreement is only a preamble to one thing: elections. These have been dissolved in a syrup of saccharine phrases that include not only “national unity” but also “preservation of the arm of resistance”. But it is not a reconciliation agreement. A climate for reconciling with the “evil emirate”, as the enlightened PA president put it, does not exist to begin with. What is proposed is an instrument for reaping the fruits of the blockade and war against Gaza. The PA president has openly refused to reconcile with Hamas. But he will agree to the reconciliation agreement because it will give him the instruments to eliminate Hamas in another way.

The reason that the PA will approve the agreement without serious discussion, even though it disapproves of a large portion of it, is because of two provisions, after which all the rest is words. The first is the reconstitution of the security agencies in Gaza as they stood before the last elections. The second is new elections before lifting the blockade on Gaza and repairing the destruction wrought by Israel’s war. The purpose of elections under such conditions is not reconciliation and concord but the “elimination of the effects of the wicked coup” waged by Hamas.

Naturally, the Oslo team will not be happy if the next elections are held under the same conditions that governed elections in 2006. These are people who refused to hold new presidential elections after the term of the incumbent came to an end and whose demand for deferring presidential elections was upheld by an Arab League resolution. Still, they are looking forward to elections, not because they favour the electoral process in principle but because they are counting on two critical factors. The first is the effects of the blockade on Hamas and the national unity government, compounded by the effects of Israel’s war. The second is the existence of a government in Ramallah that has not been subject to the attrition of economic siege and that, on the contrary, is receiving financial support from the US and Europe, in spite of the fact that that government was not popularly elected and is illegitimate. These two factors combined, they believe, should be sufficient to inform Palestinian voters who to cast their ballots.

The proposed elections are nothing more than a massive bid to falsify the will of the Palestinian people. Indeed, there is only one way that the resistance factions can confront this and that is to insist upon international commitment to honour and uphold the results of the elections and, simultaneously, to adhere to national principles and the right to resist while exhibiting proper democratic behaviour. This, however, will require some fundamental changes in the behaviour that has prevailed in the ruling authority in Gaza. On the other hand, if Hamas refuses to sign the reconciliation agreement and elections go ahead “unilaterally”, as the Oslo team has threatened, this will achieve nothing but to further entrench the division between the West Bank and Gaza, since Ramallah can not force the results of such elections on Gaza. Unilateral elections will only confirm that the Oslo team’s aim is not reconciliation.

The US and Europe, of course, know what “normal” elections mean and fear that their silence over the Egyptian proposal will be taken as assent. George Mitchell, therefore, put it bluntly. The US has not approved the Egyptian proposal and insists upon the Quartet’s three conditions: a halt to violence, commitment to previously signed agreements, and recognition of Israel. This means that the conditions of the blockade still prevail, and that the US, via the statement of a senior official, has cautioned the Palestinian electorate. At least they issued a warning.

Now, if we were to allow for some good intentions we could argue that perhaps the US does not understand the tricks of Arab oratorical politics. Maybe it doesn’t realise that what Arab politicians tell each other does not mean much; or, more precisely, that their words mean much as instruments of influence and manoeuvring, but very little as binding texts. They can pen an agreement sealing unity and wake up the following day as though it never existed, as Nuri Al-Maliki demonstrated recently with regards to the strategic cooperation agreement with Syria. Of course, it is a different matter when foreign powers, even hostile ones, are concerned. Here the Arabs are as fervent in their dedication to their commitments as they are lax in their dedication to their commitments to each other, as is the case with many other matters related to the respect for rights, other cultures, and the domestic interactions between clans and sects. It is a different world when sects, clans, tribes and petty kings loom in the background behind the façades of states and formal treaties; different sets of laws come into play.

One can imagine an American official asking his Palestinian or Arab counterpart, “How can you sign a paper like that, which contains such expressions as ‘the preservation of the arm of resistance’ and ‘the duty of the security forces is to resist [who, one might wonder]’ yet no reference to abiding by agreements struck with Israel or renouncing violence, let alone recognising the said state?” Then we can picture the Arab or Palestinian smirking at the American’s ignorance. “All that’s just words and formulas that we had to fine tune in lengthy talks so that we could come up with a document to sign,” he says. “What counts is rebuilding our security agencies and getting through elections day. Then, let come what may. Look at what’s happening to Hamas in the West Bank, at anyone who has the audacity to question the PA and its agreements with Israel.”

The Palestinian Authority in Ramallah founded a self-serving regime that thrives under the perpetuation of the occupation, the Judaisation of Jerusalem, the marginalisation of the cause of Palestinian refugees and security coordination with Israel. It is also a regime of terror, unlike any regime the Palestinians have known, even under direct occupation. This regime parrots the Western liberal adage as to how communists and Nazis used democratic processes to get to power and then abolished them. The saying was wielded against Islamist movements several times towards the end of the 20th century. Apart from the case of Sudan (which has, indeed, demonstrated the more dangerous trends in the Islamist movement and which was opportunistic in the way it reached and exercised power), the very contrary of the clichéd warning has been the rule so far in Arab countries: the opponents of Islamist movements refused to recognise the results of polls or prevented elections from being held if they felt that these movements had a chance to win.

The Palestinian case offers a classic instance of an electoral victory won by an Islamist movement and of the loser refusing to recognise that victory. In this case, outside powers intervened to overthrow the winner and to prevent him from rising again. Meanwhile, the government in Ramallah, which enjoys Arab and international recognition, is not an elected government. It is an appointed one, with US and Israeli approval and facilitation. The people in that government have quite a bit of nerve to claim that the Islamist resistance will use the elections to reach power then overthrow the electoral process when none of them were even voted into power to begin with. Rather, they took over power with the aid of foreign intervention after an electoral process that was internationally recognised as free and fair, but whose results were not to their liking.

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