Michael Meyer-Resende and Michel Paternotre*

Source: Daily Star (, July 11 2007. Distributed by Common Ground News service with permission to republish.

The West got it wrong, when it believed it was right to promote democratic elections in the Palestinian territories last year, but that Hamas could not win those elections. Western leaders are getting it wrong again, when they suggest that President Abbas is the only Palestinian player with democratic legitimacy and that he won elections with a ‘landslide’, in the words of the UN’s Roed-Larsen.

This is not supported by the facts. Abbas was elected in 2005 with some 60% of the votes but those elections were not contested by Hamas. He received 500,000 votes in an electorate of some 1,2 million. A year later, in more competitive elections, Hamas gained 44% of the votes, amounting to 440,000 votes. Both elections were considered to have been genuinely democratic by a myriad of international observers.

The latest opinion poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research indicates that a meagre 13% of respondents declared themselves satisfied with President Abbas’ handling of the crisis and his overall approval rating fell to 36%. Of course Abbas remains the legitimate President, but not more than Hamas was the legitimate government party. Contrary to perceptions that the West Bank is ‘Fatahland’, last year Hamas won a higher proportion of seats there than in the Gaza strip.

Legitimacy and the perception of legitimacy is important: It is the only bastion against a complete breakdown of government in a context where ‘state’ security forces have degenerated into partisan actors. It is therefore vital to look for solutions to the crisis that are based on Palestinians’ sense of legitimacy, not that imagined in some Western capitals.

President Abbas’ legitimacy will wear thin if he cannot deliver stability fast. Legally the authority of the emergency government appears to expire after 30 days. According to the basic law, 2/3 of the Legislative Council would have to confirm the emergency, but that will not happen, given that Hamas dominates the council and many law-makers are in Israeli prisons. The expiry of the 30 days may be a legal problem for donors, who need transparent and lawful accounting mechanisms, but all this is widely considered to be a political rather than a legal issue.

Some 75% of Palestinians want fresh Presidential and legislative elections, which would overcome the legitimacy issue. This may look tempting for Fatah, as opinion polls point at a slump in support for Hamas (33%) and a lead of Abbas against Hamas’ Hanyieh if there were Presidential elections. However, elections would be a risky gamble for Fatah, because it created an election system that favours disciplined candidates and voters, not a Fatah strength. More importantly, it appears impossible that proper elections could be held in the current conditions. The independent election commission did an admirable job in the last elections, but who could guarantee their independence in the current situation? And how could Fatah campaign in the Gaza strip or Hamas in parts of the West Bank?

How then can further civil war be avoided and where should legitimacy flow from? One opinion poll result that is often drowned out by crisis reporting on Palestine is that 70% of Palestinian favour negotiations with Israel on a Palestinian state in Gaza and most parts of the West Bank. Rapid negotiations on a final status could possibly keep Abbas’ legitimacy up, but this is an unlikely prospect. It may therefore be necessary to legitimise such negotiations upfront. Last year President Abbas played with the idea of holding a referendum on the “prisoners’ document”, a declaration by Palestinians held in Israeli prisons, including the popular Fatah-leader Marwan Barghouti. The document called for a unity government and peace negotiations with Israel to be carried out by the President Abbas and the PLO. At the time Abbas’ used the referendum idea to pressure Hamas into a more flexible position.

The referendum plan may still have merits in comparison with fast or no elections. Whether in reference to the prisoners document or not, President Abbas could call for a referendum to give him a mandate to negotiate a peace agreement in a specific timeframe, promising that any peace deal would again be put to a referendum. For Hamas it may be difficult to object to such a plan, which after all promises to go back to the Palestinians on the most important question, in the face of a collapse of the Palestinian Authority. However, Abbas would need to propose this in good faith negotiations with Hamas, because there is no clear legal basis for holding a referendum and Hamas should not perceive this as a mere replay of last years’ initiative. Abbas would have to offer something in return, such as a government of technocrats to oversee internal affairs until the conclusion of peace negotiations and subsequent general elections.

The moment for peace negotiations is worse than two years ago, when nobody pressed Israel to talk to Abbas and his Fatah government, but it is unlikely to get better. The West should not support Fatah to fight it out with Hamas, which would turn the territories into another Iraq. Fatah and Hamas have committed egregious crimes against each other, which cannot be undone. The international community should strongly encourage them to talk to each other and support Israel to negotiate. Most Israelis favour the two-state solution. Only a peace deal with agreed borders will allow the world to distinguish whether Israel’s use of force in the West Bank is aimed at defending borders or at providing cover for ever-expanding towns and settlements, but time seems to run out for a two-state solution. By voting in favour of a mandate for peace negotiations by Abbas, Palestinians would not only extend his political legitimacy, they would also create the political momentum for the type of serious negotiations missing since 2001.

*Michael Meyer-Resende and Michel Paternotre work for Democracy Reporting International, a Berlin-based group promoting democracy. This is a personal opinion.