Arafat's Legacy and the 2005 Palestinian Election

Kenneth W. Stein (Emory University) puts the recent Palestinian election in perspective

On January 31, in a talk sponsored by the UCLA Israel Studies Program, Kenneth W. Stein (director of the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel at Emory University) analyzed -- in the context of elections in Palestine -- the complex and complicated world of Palestinian politics in the wake of the death of Yasser Arafat.

What is the background to the recent election in Palestine? What might the election tell us about the mood of the Palestinian people: Are they united in their opposition to Israel, or in their desire for peace, or in anything else? If indeed democracy "breaks out" in Palestine, is it likely to lead to an accommodationist policy such that a productive, normal relationship with Israel will follow? In short, is it likely that at long, long last peace will come to the Middle East? Professor Stein's talk had answers -- or implications -- for these pressing questions.

Background: Palestine in a Sea of Hostility

Stein began by correcting a common misunderstanding -- one that for political purposes has been consciously promoted in certain quarters -- that were it not for Israel, the Palestinian people long ago would have had a state of their own.

The fact is, Stein pointed out, that support in the region for an independent Palestinian state is of recent vintage. The Ottoman empire, which ruled most of the Arab world for centuries, not only struggled to suppress and contain manifestations of nationalism, but denied the very notion of local self-rule. In reaction, the population of Palestine developed "profound anti-government attitudes," seen, for instance, in its opposition to taxation and conscription. In this environment, development of what might be called popular Palestinian politics was thwarted, and instead what emerged was what Stein labeled a "politics of notables," with a small, narrow elite on top, and an impoverished majority below. "At no time did the leaders . . . support self-determination for the general population because that threatened their ability to control local politics." In the early decades of the twentieth century, politics was overwhelmingly local, and an emerging Palestinian national identity had to compete with village identity.

Following the break up of the Ottoman empire after World War I, the newly independent Arab states concentrated on expanding and consolidating their rule, a process that left no space for Palestinian nationalism. With the birth of Israel in 1947, to varying extents the interests of Arab states grew to include the destruction of Israel and the incorporation of its land into preexisting states -- not into a Palestinian state. Stein described this as a "usurpation of the Palestinian cause."

Following the 1967 War, Israel took control of all of Palestine. In the years thereafter, a sense of national victimization under Israeli rule emerged, which rekindled Palestinian national identity. However, the Arab states continued to claim to represent the Palestinian people, and indeed continued to claim the territory of Palestine: it was not until the late 1980s that Jordan renounced its claim to the West Bank and Egypt its claim to the Gaza Strip. In taking these steps, Jordan and Egypt "disengaged from competition over who represents the Palestinians."

It was not until the 1990s that the United States, Europe, Israel, and the Arab states came to support a negotiated settlement in Palestine, based on the so-called two state solution, which foresaw the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

The Oslo Accords and the Anointment of Arafat

In the late 1980s, when Jordan and Egypt renounced any claim to represent the Palestinian people -- and to own the land -- the issue of who was to lead the Palestinians came to the fore. Yasser Arafat and his Fatah faction were concerned about a potential challenge to their leadership coming from emerging figures in the West Bank and Gaza, Stein said. To secure his hegemony, Arafat believed that it was essential that the United States recognize him as the legitimate leader of the Palestinians. Thus from around 1988, Arafat engaged the United States in a dialogue, culminating in 1993 in the Oslo Accords.

Professor Stein argued that the Oslo Accords were predicated upon an exchange: Arafat agreed that the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) would recognize Israel in exchange for the United States (and Israel) recognizing Arafat as the leader of the Palestinians. It is no wonder, Stein remarked, that among many Palestinians Arafat was looked upon as an opportunist.

Arafat and Elections

Early in its career, the PLO "emphatically opposed" elections. In 1972 and again in 1976, Israel sponsored municipal elections in the West Bank, which the PLO not only boycotted, but threatened to disrupt violently. Arafat perceived these elections -- rightly so, Stein suggested -- as an Israeli attempt to dilute the power of the PLO. Despite Arafat's opposition, the elections, Stein pointed out, enjoyed a high rate of voter turnout.

Comparisons of Palestinian Elections - 1972, 1976, 1996, 2004, 2005

Eligible to vote: registered & non-registered

Registered voters

Number voting
% voted compared to eligible/voted
1972 West Bank municipal election  
31,746 men only
/ 85.1
1976 West Bank municipal election  
/ 72.3
1996 presidential election  
/ 71.6
2004 West Bank municipal election  
/ 81
2005 presidential election
47 / 70


In addition, Arafat opposed elections that would pit his chosen candidates against Palestinians from other factions. In Arafat's calculations, such elections threatened to weaken his hold on power. Professor Stein emphasized that Arafat's acceptance of the two-state solution engendered a great deal of opposition within the Palestinian community. This manifested itself in, for instance, the growth of rejectionist movements such as Hamas. Even more moderate Palestinians increasingly chafed under the authoritarian rule of Arafat. Both the Palestinian "street," so to speak, and the Palestinian press, Stein pointed out, grew critical of Fatah and its authoritarian ways. The result has been calls for a greatly strengthened legislature, and a weakened or constrained executive.

Elections and Democracy

Professor Stein emphasized that voter turnout in the Palestinian elections (that is, the proportion of registered voters who actually vote) has been remarkably high, ranging from 85.1 percent in the 1972 municipal elections to 70 percent in the 2005 presidential election. This rate surpasses that in most democracies: it is considerably higher than in the United States, and even somewhat higher than in Israel.

What accounts for this high turnout rate? Stein's answer: "One of the motivations [of voters] is that they have the right to express themselves freely without someone else telling them what they can and what they cannot do." Stein went on to argue that "elections do not equal democracy. . . But they [are] certainly an expression of people's outlooks, of what they want for the future." The history of elections in Palestine shows that the Palestinians "want a system of government that is going to be responsive to their needs."

This desire, Stein argued, is widely shared across the Palestinian community. At the same time, "Yasser Arafat, when he died, left a society that was highly fragmented." Hamas remains not only opposed to the recognition of Israel, "it wants to do away with the state of Israel." However, Hamas has made a transition "from an organization that wants to do away with Israel to an organization that says 'We still want to do away with the state of Israel, but in the meantime we want to participate in the budgetary process . . . so we can provide social services to the people.'" Hamas has learned that "participation in the democratic process has virtue." He concluded that it is still unclear whether ideology will triumph over realism which hopes for renewing investment and trade in the West Bank and Gaza. 

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Kenneth W. Stein (PhD, University of Maryland) is the William E. Schatten Professor of Contemporary Middle Eastern History and Israeli Studies at Emory University in Atlanta. His scholarly publications include Heroic Diplomacy: Sadat, Kissinger, Carter, Begin, and the Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace (1999), Making Peace Among Arabs and Israelis: Lessons from Fifty Years of Negotiating Experience (1991), The Blood of Abraham: Insights into the Middle East (1985), which he wrote with former President Jimmy Carter, and The Land Question in Palestine, 1917-1939 (1984). Since 1996, he has written the annual chapter on the “Arab-Israeli Peace Process” that appears in Middle East Contemporary Survey (Westview Press). Since 1982, he has served as former President Jimmy Carter’s advisor on Middle Eastern matters and as Middle East Fellow of the Carter Center. At Emory, he established the International Studies Center (1978), the Middle East Research Program (1992), and the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel (1997). He teaches courses on modern Israel, the modern Arab world, Islam, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the Middle East in the twentieth century.

Published: Thursday, February 03, 2005