Last month, Palestinians in the West Bank were supposed to vote on a new set of local politicians. To Americans and Europeans, municipal elections aren’t such a big deal. But for people who haven’t had a taste of democracy in years, just the slightest chance of waiting on line to cast a ballot is an exhilarating experience. For Palestinians — a people under persistent occupation, divided between two political factions, and separated in two geographical areas — this exuberance would have been even more fulfilling.
Sadly, the elections were canceled by the Palestinian Authority, which argued that they would have fragmented Palestine’s national identity and diverted attention away from the more pressing problem of Gaza’s humanitarian catastrophe.
Little do they know that Palestinian identity hasn’t been unified for quite a long time. Hamas and Fatah have been battling it out for the past four years. 1.5 million Palestinians in the slim coastal enclave of the Gaza Strip are separated from another 2.5 million in the West Bank. And if you want to get mired in technicalities, the Palestinians don’t even have a national identity. The lack of a Palestinian state kicks the “national” right out the door.
Something else is at work here. The cancellation had nothing to do with Gaza, and it certainly had nothing to do with efforts at unity. Instead, fear of who would win and who would lose was most likely the culprit. And in some strange way, the United States is partly to blame for Palestine’s increasingly authoritarian behavior.
Back in 2006, the United States encouraged Palestinians to come out and vote for their next national government. At the time, it was an historic moment; the first elections since the death of longtime leader Yasser Arafat and the beginning of a new era in Middle East democracy. But when the elections were over, and the winner was announced (Hamas), encouragement in Washington quickly turned into despair and disappointment.
The right thing for Washington to do was applaud the Palestinians for their trust in democracy — even if the United States didn’t necessarily like the results. Such a positive response could have served as a precedent for further elections into the future.
Unfortunately, the Bush Administration took the opposite approach. The same democracy that Washington trumpeted beforehand quickly turned into an embarrassment. Due to Hamas’ place on Washington’s terrorist list, the United States refused to declare the contest legitimate. The administration dug itself deeper by not engaging Hamas at a low level, which would have at least shown Palestinians that America meant what it said about democratic institutions.
Four years later, what we have in the Palestinian territories is a powerless legislative branch, a Palestinian president ruling by decree, and an authority that is divided internally between old-time technocrats and upwardly mobile moderates.
We are still suffering from that disastrous 2006 experience. Just as America was afraid about the results back then, the PA is afraid about what’s on the minds of Palestinian voters today. Canceling the elections gives them more time to delay the inevitable.