An Evaluation of the Palestinian General Elections
The Palestinian general elections for the president of the Palestinian National Authority and the members of the Legislative Council, held on January 20, 1996, can be summed up as quite satisfactory. Yasser Arafat became an elected president with a sweeping majority, and an elected rep¬resentative council for Palestinians is now operative on Palestinian soil: two highly significant political facts.
Furthermore, the high percentage of participation in the electoral process, in spite of calls for a boycott by various political elements of the opposition, leads to two important conclusions. Firstly, the high turnout on election day attests to the general acceptance, by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, of the ongoing peace process with Israel. It is also an indication of their empowerment of Arafat to proceed towards the completion of those steps which they expect will lead, in the final analysis, to the establishment of a Palestinian state.
The reason for this situation is clear: having suffered the Occupation with all its negative aspects and watched the cancerous expansion of settlements on Palestinian land, the claims of Palestinians of the "inside" (the West Bank and Gaza Strip) have always been modest, compared to the general Palestinian ones. Unlike the maximalist demands of their com¬patriots in the Diaspora, theirs proceed from a minimalist approach, mov¬ing upwards toward fuller realization. Thus, the complete liberation of Palestinian soil is not the beginning of the process, but the end. The begin¬ning lies in the lifting of the Occupation, in phases, if not all at once. In this context, a continued support for this staged political process becomes understandable. Each stage, however limited or deficient, is viewed as an improvement in their general condition, yielding positive returns towards the future overall Palestinian situation. That is why it is vital for them that the political process not stop or be curtailed, because in its continuation lies their salvation.
Secondly, this high percentage of participation constitutes, by the Palestinians of the "inside," a public referendum on the opposition. Had the latter restricted itself to condemnation of the elections without calling for a boycott, the abstention votes would have counted as support in its favor. However, by calling for a boycott, the opposition placed the extent of its influence and authority in the Palestinian street to the test. The result was that it lost - and with a wide margin - this referendum, a fact which leads it to review its position and political judgment.

Basic Results

The general elections represent an important juncture in the political process aimed at finding a lasting solution to the Arab/Palestinian-Israeli conflict. To this end, Palestinians and Israelis have engaged in a protract¬ed, exhausting covert war, to establish facts, later to be exploited in the final-status negotiations and to deal with exaggerated symbolism. In spite of such expected exploitations, the elections' basic merit lies in their meet¬ing the demands of the different political parties, all of which were com¬pletely satisfied by the event and its outcome, albeit for different reasons.
Nevertheless, certain basic conclusions can be drawn from the elec¬tions. First, although their aim was political, the elections were not politi¬cal in nature. The opposition's abstention from official participation, and the pervasion of general topics and slogans related to the Palestinian des¬tiny, resulted in a lack of clear and defined electoral platforms among the candidates. The huge army of candidates had, to a large extent, similar election campaigns, which suffered on the whole from political platitudes and shallowness. Therefore, on election day, the choice among candidates was based on personal or national considerations, rather than on political ones. This explains the strange and heterogeneous political combination among the winning candidates.
Second, criticisms in voting circles regarding serious irregularities in the elections had no impact on the unofficial Palestinian majority. The elections were a national occasion, and the criticism leveled against them did not elicit any strong reaction on the Palestinian street. On the contrary, the Palestinians believed that by merely placing the election card into a ballot box, they had accomplished their job. In fact, this underscores the political ineffectiveness of Palestinians in the face of their national author¬ity, which points to the fact that the predominant political culture among West Bank and Gaza Palestinians is one dictated from the top, and not a shared one, proceeding from the bottom up. On this basis, one can predict that the future relationship between the council members and those who have elected them will remain artificial and limited. By the same token, the effectiveness of the elected council will be quite limited vis-a.-vis the executive power, which will retain a monopoly on political decisions.
Third, the electoral process brought to light several negative aspects in the current electoral law, highlighting the necessity for a future revision. The proportional majority system, in open and asymmetrical districts, will never promote national Palestinian integration, but will deepen regional and factional fragmentation. Additionally, this system does not enhance Palestinian political life because it does not promote a change from clan politics to party politics. This was quite obvious in the disjointed election lists, where each candidate pursued an election campaign independently of those on the same list. The elections also showed the bias of the electoral system in favor of big parties. Under the circumstances, small political powers stood no chance of competing. It is obvious that the electoral law was tailored to fit the requirements of the current political stage and the needs of the "ruling party." It is also clear the sectarian quota system, which was introduced in this law, will lead to latent, negative effects.

Features of the Forthcoming Stage

In spite of the deficiencies and defects which have tarnished the electoral process, the existence of an elected representative Palestinian council, on Palestinian soil, represents a qualitative change in the continued, century-¬long Palestinian attempts at establishing the legitimacy of their national rights in the homeland. The election of the council by a reduced list of vot¬ers might lead to a redefinition of who is a Palestinian, according to a restricted, diminished and inequitable basis, damaging to the unity of the Palestinian nation in the "inside" and the "outside." Nonetheless, the elec¬tion of such a council has led to Israeli and international recognition of the existence of the Palestinian people and the Palestinian entity in Mandatory Palestine and not, by any means, outside it. This, undoubtedly, signifies the dismantling of the classical Zionist political thought, a retreat from the concept of "Greater Israel" and a tactical Palestinian victory towards the establishment of a Palestinian state.
However, one should be cautious in considering this an automatic change in the stages which characterize Palestinian political life. The elections do indeed draw the curtain on one political phase but without leading directly into a new one. It would seem that the new stage will not commence until the conclusion of the final-status negotiations and the holding of new general Palestinian elections. Thus, the period stretching between these elections and the coming ones can be considered an interim political one. During this period, a transformation will occur from the existing Palestinian political system, based on an exilic and dispersion mentality, to one rooted in the homeland.

A New Political Map

Although the features of the new political order have not emerged as yet, certain political aspects that will evolve during this period bear close examination. These will impact on the future course of Palestinian politi¬cal life, especially on the reorganization of the present political map. First, the main center of Palestinian politics will move from the "outside" to the "inside." The Palestinian Authority with its elected council will obtain the place of prominence in Palestinian political life, and in time, the PLO and its National Council will effectively, if not theoretically, recede. This final transfer will lead to a reorganization of the bases of the political process according to the realities and requirements of life inside Palestine, and not anywhere else in the outside. And though the political discourse will remain faithful to the pending and pressing issues which are focused on the outside, e.g., the refugees, such fidelity cannot, from now on, emanate from a political power based in the "outside."
Second, we are seeing the termination of formulas which have dominated the Palestinian political act during the past three decades, and which have been dictated by the requisites of the national liberation stage and the presence outside the homeland. Such formulas as political factionalism within the framework of "national unity," the distribution of positions according to "political quotas," and "backdrop coordination," appointing factions as final and definitive political reference, have lost their effectiveness in the political process and in the revival of the ossified Palestinian political life. The new reality which developed during the period of the elections has opened the horizon for a new political dynamic.
It is grounded in a latent, but growing, rejection of the principle that allows political factions to dictate their ideals and standards to the people, as was the practice in the past. Instead, there are increasing calls for democracy, accountability and respect for the rule of law, within the framework of an elected parliamentarian system. Such a system will con¬tribute to the separation of powers, and will provide individuals with the possibility to express their political views and stands.
Third, the transfer of the center of political life from the "outside" to the "inside" has led to a change, not very discernible at this point, in Palestinian political life from one of a struggle to achieve "maximalist Palestinian aims," to a stage of reductionalism and the accumulation of "minimalist Palestinian aims." In other words, what is going on now on the Palestinian scene can be summarized in the curtain call of the "revolu¬tion" stage, aimed at the establishment of the legitimate Palestinian rights over the whole of Palestine, and the beginning of a new stage of accepting the building of a national entity on only part of the homeland.
Because the acceptance of change from the "total condition" to the "partial condition" remains a thorny, complex and complicated matter, the general Palestinian condition is now witnessing a state of schizophrenia. It is split between a political discourse still carrying the remnants of the style and utterance of the "revolution" stage, and realistic action aimed at build¬ing the Palestinian national entity, hampered by heavy Israeli constraints. It is expected that such schizophrenia will recede during this interim political stage by the restoration of harmony through national ceiling reduction.
Fourth, the interim political phase is going to witness structural changes in the Palestinian political arena. Since the "revolution" stage, with its related mentality and systems, is now passing through the final stages, it is expect¬ed that the transformation will affect all political movements without exception, and will lead to changes in the political map in the coming three years. The Palestinian factions and movements on the arena now, and which have expressed the stage of "armed struggle" and "resistance to occupation," will find that they cannot proceed with old ideologies, politi¬cal discourse and organization.

The New Stage

It is obvious now that this interim political stage will see a departure from the phase of the "improvisational" style of factions and movements to that of political parties with clear political platforms. In other words, "dogmatic ideology" will gradually give way to "politics," providing the Palestinian arena with new parties, acting according to the dictates of a staged political program. This was witnessed in the disarray among the factions and political movements during the elections, be it in the depar¬ture of some of the Fatah candidates from the official lists of the move¬ment, or the controversy among the opposition about official participation in the elections.
At the end of the day, it would seem that the ossification characteriz¬ing Palestinian political life will gradually begin to disintegrate. The new stage will see a political activity pivoted on the "inside." With the end of the 20th century there will be a new Palestinian political map in the coun¬try, which is witnessing the birth of the future Palestinian state.