The first Palestinian election since 1996 has been greeted with a great international fanfare of publicity and a groundswell of expectations that it will usher in a new era of peace and stability, the attack on the Israeli checkpoint of Karni notwithstanding.
Both Bush and Sharon expressed satisfaction that 'their man', Mahmood Abbas (Abu Mazen), had been elected president following the death of Yasser Arafat. Most pundits and politicians seem united in the fond belief that Abbas has been given a mandate, first to eliminate corruption within the Palestinian Authority, and second to rein in the Palestinian resistance and deliver the Palestinian people's consent to a deal with Israel. All claim that this 'pragmatic' politician, who has called for the demilitarisation of the intifada, will be better able to negotiate peace than his predecessor.
The assumption behind these claims is that it is the Palestinians who bear the major responsibility for the continuing state of war with Israel. History is thus rewritten to excise certain rather important facts: the expulsion of 75 percent of the Palestinian people in 1948; Israel's brutal occupation of the Palestinian lands since 1967; the doubling of the number of illegal settlers under Yitzhak Rabin in the 1990s and during the Oslo negotiations; and the collapse of Palestinian living standards as a result of Israel's closure policy. More recently, Israel's apartheid wall, when completed, will enable Israel to annex 58 percent of the West Bank. Between October 2003 and September 2004 the Israeli army killed 698 Palestinians (3,334 in the four years since the intifada began in September 2000). Since 2000 Israel has destroyed 4,000 Palestinian homes.
The elections, deemed 'free and fair' by the international monitors and in which, according to the Central Electoral Commission, the turnout was at least 66 percent, were said to represent the will of the Palestinians. However, there appear to have been serious flaws, hardly surprising in a country under military occupation. Firstly, in the run-up to the election, the Israeli army did not keep its promise to ease restrictions on the movement of Palestinians. Secondly, the initial official turnout figure seems to have been over-sanguine - there is doubt over the eligibility of some 40,000 people whose names appeared on an old residency roll, and of a further 30,000 who were neither registered nor on the residency roll. Moreover, only 21.9 percent of the 120,000 Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem were able to vote due to Israel's obstruction based on its claim to sovereignty over the entire city. Thirdly, according to the commission, 775,146 Palestinians voted out of a total of 1.1 million who registered. However, this represents only 43 percent of the 1.8 million Palestinians eligible to vote, some 700,000 of whom didn't register. And of course some 1.5 million adult refugees outside Palestine had no vote.
Despite these flaws, Mahmood Abbas emerged the clear winner, with 483,039 votes compared to the 153,516 who voted for his nearest rival, Mustafa Barghouti, secretary general of the Palestinian National Initiative, who supports the idea of a single state. In general the left did well. Barghouti, together with the Democratic Front and Popular Front candidates - third and fourth respectively - won 201,478 votes, 25.9 percent of the turnout. The militant Islamic organisations, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, boycotted the election. Abbas's victory would seem partly to flow from the fact that his Fatah movement had the most extensive party organisation.
So will his election bring peace any nearer? Israel's principal motive in embarking upon the Oslo negotiations in the early 1990s was the containment of the Islamic resistance. Arafat and the PLO came to be seen as the only force which could effectively suppress or at least contain them. Today 30 to 35 percent of Palestinians support Hamas and Islamic Jihad, though in Gaza the figure rises to 50 to 60 percent.
Arafat had perhaps some control over them at the start of the 'peace process', but as the situation deteriorated this became less and less possible. Contrary to what Bush and Sharon keep repeating, during the Oslo negotiations Arafat certainly tried to suppress them. On several occasions he arrested Islamic militants, only for ordinary Palestinians to force their release following a demonstration outside the prison.
Abbas will be no more able to exercise control over the militants than Arafat was. There is no serious political difference between the two leaders except style - Arafat adopting a more demagogic, populist approach. There is no evidence that the majority of Palestinians perceive Abbas any differently from the way they perceived Arafat. Both he and they know that it will be impossible for him to sell a deal to the Palestinians that falls significantly short of their aspirations. Israel's refusal to countenance any serious concession - ending the occupation, dismantling the settlements or conceding the right of return of the refugees - will make it impossible for Abbas, as it was for Arafat, to sign an agreement.
Israel wants Abbas to be a colonial policeman, but the more of a puppet he becomes the more he cedes influence to Hamas and the less use he is to Israel. One thing is certain - the Palestinians will not surrender.