The Peace Process, National Reconstruction, and the Transition to Democracy in Palestine
Peace Process
Palestinian Authority

With the signing of the September 1993 Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles (DOP), the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have witnessed the acceleration of the development and interaction of three processes-the peace process, the national reconstruction and nation- building process, and the transition to democracy. This paper seeks to describe the three processes and to examine their interaction, with special focus on democratization and the impact of the first two processes on its pace, dynamic, and prospects.

Khalil Shikaki teaches political science at al-Najah National University in Nablus, Palestine, and is director of the Center for Palestine Research and Studies (CPRS) in Nablus. This paper contains preliminary findings of a CPRS project on the transition to democracy in Palestine.

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With the signing of the September 1993 Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles (DOP), the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have witnessed the acceleration of the development and interaction of three processes-the peace process, the national reconstruction and nation- building process, and the transition to democracy. This paper seeks to describe the three processes and to examine their interaction, with special focus on democratization and the impact of the first two processes on its pace, dynamic, and prospects.

The Peace Process

Peace, national reconstruction, and democracy are the three most important issues shaping the Palestinian future today. Of the three, the peace process has been the most effective. The DOP, which provided a basis for ending decades of conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, was followed by the Gaza-Jericho agreement of May 1994 which ended the Israeli occupation of most of Gaza and a small part of the West Bank. The interim agreement ("Oslo II") signed in Taba in September 1995 calls for Israeli redeployment from about 31 percent of the West Bank in a first stage, to be followed by three further redeployments that should take Israel out of most of the West Bank by the end of 1997. Negotiations for the final status of the West Bank and Gaza, including the most difficult issues of settlements, Jerusalem, refugees, and borders, are scheduled to begin in May 1996. Despite continued violence from both sides, but especially from the Islamist groups, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has gradually been able to maintain security in areas under its jurisdiction.

Palestinian public opinion has been very supportive of the peace process and has gradually shifted from supporting armed attacks against Israelis to opposing them. Data from regular polls conducted by the Center for Palestine Research and Studies (CPRS)[1] in Nablus have shown consistent support for the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. Even at a time of widespread disappointment on the Palestinian street due to the Israeli failure to keep deadlines, 51 percent in January 1994 supported the negotiations; support increased to over 65 percent in March and May 1995, when progress in the negotiations created a measured degree of optimism. In an August-September 1995 poll, in the wake of leaks of an impending agreement, support for the peace process reached 71 percent. Even among students, the most hard-line group in the Palestinian community, support for negotiations increased from 44 percent in January 1994 to 62 percent in August-September 1995, with opposition to the talks dropping from 47 percent to 24 per- cent over the same period.

Support for the specific agreements has been less stable, fluctuating in response to major events and the pace of negotiations. The DOP received 65 percent support in September 1993, but that support dropped to 40 percent in February 1994 due to continued deadlock in the negotiations. Support for the Gaza-Jericho agreement shortly after its signing in May 1994 reached 57 percent, while Oslo II received 72 percent sup- port in October 1995, the highest level of support for the peace process ever registered. On the other hand, while about 57 percent were willing to amend the Palestinian charter in order to gain Israeli recognition of the PLO in September 1993, by October 1995 only 50 percent were willing to do so as required by the interim agreement.

The success of the peace process can also be seen in the level of sup- port received by the factions that embraced it. Political forces in the West Bank and Gaza can be divided into three main groups according to their positions on the peace process: the "peace" or "support" camp consists of Fatah, FIDA (the DFLP faction headed by Yasir 'Abid Rabbu), and Hizb al-Sha'b (the Palestinian People's Party); the national opposition consists of the Syrian-based PFLP and DFLP; and the Islamist opposition consists of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other Islamist parties and independent Islamists. Monthly CPRS polls show an in- crease in general public support for the "peace camp," from 39 percent in January 1994 to 55 percent in October 1995. Meanwhile, the level of support for Yasir Arafat rose from 44 percent in November 1994, when performance of the PA was poor, to 58 percent in October 1995, after the signing of Oslo II. During the same period, support for Ahmad Yasin, the leader of Hamas, dropped from 20 percent to 14 percent, and support for PFLP head George Habash dropped from 7 percent to 3 percent. Among the young and educated, especially students, support for the opposition is higher than among the general public, yet among students, too, support for the opposition dropped from 41 percent in January 1994 to 25 percent in October 1995.

As the peace process progressed, Palestinian support for armed at- tacks against Israeli targets declined from 57 percent in November 1994 to 46 percent in February 1995 and to 33 percent a month later. These polls were conducted in the aftermath of major suicide attacks carried out by members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad. In Au- gust-September 1995, only 18 percent of the Palestinians surveyed sup- ported attacks on Israeli civilian targets, although 70 percent supported attacks against settlers and military targets (this indicating not opposition to the peace process but Palestinian insistence that the process entail an end to occupation and the settlements). Even among students, support for suicide and civilian attacks dropped from 72 percent in November 1994 to 30 percent in August-September 1995.

Support for the peace process, however, does not necessarily mean optimism concerning the desired outcomes of Palestinian statehood or a lasting peace. In September 1993, only 45 percent believed that the Oslo agreement would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state; some 34 percent believed it would not. These figures reached 55 per- cent and 33 percent, respectively, in February 1994. By August 1995, almost 60 percent did not expect a lasting peace. Skepticism increased with the level of education: In the August 1995 poll, 69 percent of those with university degrees believed the peace process would not lead to lasting peace. Part of the explanation for such pessimism lies in Palestinian perceptions of Israeli intentions: In response to another question in the August 1995 poll, only 7 percent said they trusted Israeli intentions concerning the peace process, while 81 percent said they did not. On the other hand, some of those who answered pessimistically may not want a "lasting peace" if it is considered to be "dictated" and not reflecting their vision of what peace should be.

Despite the lack of trust, the process of "normalization" has been more extensive between Palestinians and Israelis than between Israelis and Egyptians or Jordanians, even though Palestinians have sometimes called upon the Arabs to slow down normalization. The Palestinians and Israelis have been forced to "live" together for over twenty-eight years. The Palestinian economy has been totally dependent on Israel. Palestinian workers seek employment in Israel by the tens of thousands; most of what Palestinians consume is either produced in Israel or imported by Israelis; Palestinians see in Israel their most profitable market. Extensive links in many social and technical spheres have resulted in daily contacts between thousands of average Israelis and Palestinians.

National Reconstruction

The peace process, by giving rise to the establishment of the PA that will soon have jurisdiction over all Palestinians, has given strong impetus to the state-building process and in so doing has greatly strengthened Palestinian's sense of identity and independence after decades of life under occupation and in exile.

At the same time, however, the peace process has had a negative impact on national reconstruction by leaving unresolved the major issues of the conflict, including the future of Arab Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, and Palestinian refugees, to say nothing of the question of sovereignty over the land and the nature of the Palestinian political entity. Deferral of these issues to future negotiations has created serious defects in the state-building process and deepened Palestinian divisions regarding the Palestinian political order and the consensus on which it was built.

At the core of the Palestinian political system was the PLO, which had emerged under difficult circumstances in the diaspora and under occupation. [2] Its legitimacy derived from a Palestinian consensus on "national liberation" as the goal and "armed struggle" as the means to achieve it-core values expressed in the Palestinian national charter as amended in 1968. Cracks in the structure began to appear in the mid- 1970s when the PLO embarked upon the path that eventually led to its formal embrace of the two-state solution at the Palestine National Council (PNC) of November 1988. The internal erosion of legitimacy that accompanied this evolution was compounded by the Gulf War of 1990-91, which not only ended the PLO's funding sources but tremendously weakened its status and legitimacy at the regional and international levels.

The peace process came at a time when many were expecting the demise of the existing Palestinian political center. The emergence with the peace process of a new political order, based on independence and state building as the goal and negotiations as the means to attain it, has not achieved consensus. Indeed, even as the PA and its institutions were being established, many Palestinian political factions, both inside and outside the PLO, saw the emerging body as illegitimate. The bloody confrontation in Gaza in November 1994 between the PA security forces and supporters of Hamas exemplified the depth of the gulf be- tween an order claiming legitimacy and contending forces refusing to acknowledge its legitimacy. Still, even while the peace process dealt the final blow to the old consensus, it provided the basis for a new source of legitimacy: the popular will and the elections through which that will could manifest itself.

The Transition to Democracy

While the most successful of the three interacting processes has been the peace process, the least successful has been the transition to democracy. Indeed, this last has seen some reversal. The very early stages of the process in the early 1990s had brought a gradual loosening of Israel's grip on Palestinian life, entailing for the Palestinians greater freedom of the press, a freer rein for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), party and factional activities, and political mobilization. The result was a revitalization of democratic life and "resurrection" of civil society.

But the peace process and the PA it engendered also had negative repercussions on the transition to democracy. Holding to the view that the requirements of democracy may contradict those of national reconstruction, [3] and that in the early stages of state building it is more important to assert the state's right to monopolize power and eliminate competitors for the people's loyalty than to democratize the political system, the PA adopted undemocratic policies aimed at "protecting" the peace process and the process of national reconstruction. Meanwhile, the donor community's emphasis on building the capacity of the PA, rather than supporting institutions of civil society, reveals a similar belief that the success of the peace process requires political stability achievable only through the creation of a strong central authority. [4] 

The setback to the democratization process can be seen particularly in two areas: civil institutions and NGOs, and the authority's practice for the rule of law.

Concerning the first, the Palestinians during the 1980s had succeeded in creating social, political, professional, and popular civil institutions and NGOs that fulfilled many functions, including those performed in normal circumstances by the state. Most of these institutions received the full support of the PLO, which saw in their creation preliminary steps toward a future Palestinian state. With the establishment of the PA, some of these institutions became redundant. Some had already been weakened by the financial difficulties brought on by the Gulf War. Others were absorbed by PA institutions and ministries established in 1994 and 1995; still others lost their top men to the PA.

After the DOP and especially the Gaza-Jericho accord, many of these Palestinian NGOs found themselves without the foreign financial sources they had counted on to fund their projects: With the delays in the peace process and weakening of the PA under the impact of rising unemployment, economic stagnation, political violence, and Israeli closures, donor focus shifted from strengthening Palestinian civil society to building the capacity of the central government. More resources went directly to PA institutions, bureaucracy, and security services. [5] The shift in priorities not only weakened the institutions of civil society, but also served to strengthen the ability of the PA to contain and, if necessary, emasculate these institutions.

As to respect for civil liberties and democratic practice, these have been seriously undermined by PA policies aimed at strengthening central control, "protecting" the peace, and asserting national agendas. The military security courts, established in February 1995 to deter Hamas and Islamic Jihad from attacking Israeli targets and to demonstrate to the Israeli government the PA's seriousness about combating terrorism, were based on the hated 1945 Emergency Regulations under which Palestinians were subjugated by the Israeli military occupation for over twenty-eight years. [6] Several people, including opposition figures not directly involved in attacks against Israelis, were convicted by these courts, sometimes in the absence of lawyers. Mass arrests of opposition leaders and activists, without charge or trial, became routine after every major attack on Israeli targets. Many people complained of torture, and several suspects died in jail during interrogations.

The PA also took repressive measures against the press, including temporarily closing opposition papers and banning the distribution of the mainstream Al-Quds for publishing anti-Oslo views. Al-Nahar was temporarily banned, in July 1994, for its pro-Jordanian tendencies, and was allowed to reopen only after insuring a change in editorial direction. Another pro-Jordanian paper banned at the same time, Akhbar al- Balad, never reopened. Newspaper editors got the message and began to exercise self-censorship. Al-Quds has refrained from publishing stories about torture in Palestinian jails, reports by human rights organizations on press freedom, and opinion polls showing widespread op- position to PA restrictions. Threats have also been made against several academic and political figures opposed to the peace process and to Arafat's leadership. At least one human rights organization and some NGOs have come under similar pressure. [7] 

Meanwhile, proposed legislation along these lines will soon provide the PA with legal means of coercion. A press law requires research institutions, publishing houses, printing shops, and polling organizations to obtain permits for their activities and to submit copies of their publications to the information ministry. Under pending legislation, NGOs are required to seek permission before they can accept funding from foreign sources; political parties must make their files and mail avail- able for government inspection on a routine basis. [8] 

Needless to say, the PA's antidemocratic trend goes beyond the constraints of the peace process and the requirements of national reconstruction. Deeper dynamics, such as socioeconomic development and political culture, are clearly also at work. Public opinion, the nature of the emerging ruling elite, and the structure of the new electoral system also play a significant role in the transition process.

Prerequisites to Democracy

Does the Palestinian case, as an Arab and Islamic case, represent an exception to the universal trend toward democracy? Conceptually, modernization theory postulates as preconditions for democracy the development of a socioeconomic structure and a certain political culture. [9] It has been argued that such socioeconomic development-entailing the emergence of a strong middle class, redistribution of wealth, urbanization, and a high level of literacy-is a precondition for democracy insofar as it contributes to breaking old authority structures and the emergence of new political forces and pressure groups. A market economy is also seen as a contributing factor since, by weakening state control over the means of production, it facilitates the emergence of new economic power bases and strengthens the institutions of civil society. Still, it is possible to make the transition to democracy without such prerequisites. In any case, the Palestinian level of socioeconomic development, urbanization, GNP, and literacy rate, particularly in the West Bank, is not far behind (and may even exceed) that of some of the southern European and Latin American countries that have recently made that transition. [10] 

Some see in Arab and Islamic political and social culture obstacles to the democratization process. Islam, it is argued, emphasizes sacred as opposed to secular sources of authority, and divine as opposed to popular sovereignty. It is also claimed that Islam stresses values of law and order rather than those of rebellion against tyranny; that it institutionalizes inequality with regard to religious minorities and women; that it does not embrace the principle of freedom of expression and belief. Others see as an obstacle to democratization Arab culture's traditional emphasis on narrow loyalties to family, tribe, and ethnic community, or postulate Arab and Islamic lack of tolerance for opposition and defectors. The debate on Islam and democracy is a rich one, [11] but this is not the place for it. The characterization of Islam as nondemocratic can be argued, and, judging from recent democratization experiences in southern Europe and Latin America, what can be seen as deeply rooted cultural attitudes might be nothing more than products of political and social coercion. When regimes change, attitudes and behaviors change; cultures become adaptable to democracy.

Public Opinion and Democracy

To the extent that public attitudes reveal a deeper culture and value system, survey research on Palestinians appear to show a political culture hospitable to democratic values and practices. Palestinians overwhelmingly support a democratic political system and show readiness to participate in the political process. They support freedom of the press, the rights of the opposition, and the right of women to political participation.

As shown in a November 1993 CPRS poll, [12] 74 percent supported a democratic political system or a system similar to that of Israel's. Support for a democratic/parliamentary system is widest among supporters of nationalist and secular forces such as those who support Fatah and PFLP. The same poll showed 72 percent supporting guarantees for the right of opposition groups to exist and freely express their views, though the data show more West Bankers (80 percent) supporting these values than Gazans (59 percent; 54 percent for Gazan refugees) and more Fatah sympathizers (79 percent) than Hamas sympathizers (65 percent). Gazans are also more supportive of the opposition's right to violent expression, with a September 1993 poll [13] showing 28 percent of Gazans (40 percent for Gazan refugees) approving the use of "violence if necessary," compared to only 6 percent of West Bankers holding this view.

Elections have been supported since September 1993 by an average of 77 percent in both the West Bank and Gaza: Even among Hamas sympathizers, such support reached an average of 75 percent. Since September 1993, an average of 71 percent of all Palestinians questioned have said that they will participate in the elections for the Palestinian Council. In October 1995, 68 percent said they would participate even if the opposition called for a boycott. Support for elections is strongest among the most educated and weakest among the least educated.

Concerning freedom of the press, an August 1994 poll showed some 66 percent opposing a decision by the PA to ban the distribution of two Palestinian newspapers with pro-Jordanian tendencies, Al-Nahar and Akhbar al-Balad. Only 16 percent supported the ban, and only 13 percent favored a Palestinian press that expressed only the official PA line.

From table 1 below, it is clear that most Palestinians consider democratic values to be "very important" or "important." This table [14] shows the extent of support for the following values: free press, multiparty system, right to criticize government without fear, fair and periodic elections, equality for all under the law, control of police and security forces by civilian government, minority rights, and the establishment of an elected parliament.


table 1.png

Concerning women's rights, a majority of about 80 percent in April 1994 supported women's right to vote and 63 percent said they would vote for a competent women candidate. Only 11 percent opposed women's right to run for elections. In May 1995, 71 percent said they would vote for a woman candidate. In August-September 1995, 74 percent agreed, or agreed strongly, that women should be represented in parliament; 81 percent agreed, or agreed strongly, that women should have equal job opportunities and wages as men. West Bankers are slightly more liberal than Gazans in this regard. Also, the young and educated are more supportive of women's rights. Islamists tend to be less liberal: in May 1995, 48 percent of Hamas supporters, compared with 78 percent of Fatah supporters, said they would vote for a woman candidate.

Nonetheless, while data from public opinion research show wide support for democratic values, they also show a large degree of public opinion vulnerability to manipulation by political authorities, perhaps an effect of the kind of political socialization prevalent in neighboring authoritarian Arab countries. As can be seen from table 2 [15] below, a majority of respondents in the West Bank and Gaza agree or strongly agree that leaders must be obeyed because they are more knowledgeable of the public interest; that improving economic conditions is more important than democracy; and that the president of the Palestinian state must have a wide-ranging authority. These attitudes reveal the extent of fragility of Palestinian public opinion support for democratic values.


table 2.png

The Emerging Ruling Elite

The prospects of democratization in Palestine and the emerging power structure under the PA cannot be understood without a brief survey of the successive political elites that held sway in the West Bank over the last decades. There are three such elites: (1) the traditional commercial class and big clans, (2) the national bourgeoisie, and (3) the grass-roots and popularly supported leadership of the factions and resistance movements. [16] 

In the aftermath of the 1948 defeat and during the years of Jordanian rule, the traditional commercial class and landowners predominated. The Israeli occupation in the West Bank in 1967 unintentionally led to the gradual weakening of this class. Israel's land confiscation, water, and labor policies, by hastening the process of the proletarianization of the Palestinian peasantry and its movement to the cities, weakened the hold of this class over Palestinian rural society. At the same time, the rise of Palestinian nationalism in opposition to the Israeli occupation forces weakened this class's hold over the cities and towns: Its traditional support of the Hashimites and continuing pro-Jordanian tendencies made its loyalty to the national agenda suspect in the eyes of the PLO and its supporters.

The late 1960s and early 1970s witnessed the emergence of the Palestinian national bourgeoisie, whose nationalist agenda and opposition to the occupation gradually gave it popular legitimacy. The members of this new elite came from families belonging economically to the commercial class and from urban middle-class intellectuals and professionals. This elite was the first to articulate the demand for an independent Palestinian state and certainly contributed to the PLO's adoption in the mid-1970s of statehood as a national goal. But before it succeeded in organizing grass-roots support, the new elite was decapitated by the policies of then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, who preferred to revive a traditional rural class of landowners and elite families. By the early 1980s, then, West Bankers were without a dominant elite.

A popular leadership of national activists emerged to fill the vacuum. Many grass-roots, student, and professional organizations flourished in the 1980s, a period that saw the politicization of the poor and the middle class and its mobilization in the service of organized political and paramilitary factions. During the same period, the Israelis, in an attempt to weaken the nationalists, contributed to politicizing the traditional Palestinian Islamists. It was the new popular leadership, mostly poor and lower middle class, that led the intifada that broke out in 1987.

The peace process in the early 1990s led to the creation of a coalition between the grass-roots leadership that effectively controlled the street and the national bourgeoisie that received the media attention. While the former's legitimacy derived from popular support, the latter had to rely on PLO backing for legitimacy. With the formation of the PA and the return to Palestine of Yasir Arafat with some 5,000 Palestine Liberation Army (PLA) men and several hundred members of the PLO bureaucracy, a new coalition began to take shape.

In the first months of his arrival, Arafat sought to base his authoritarian rule on three main groups: (1) PLO senior officials, professionals, and bureaucrats from the national bourgeoisie; (2) business leaders from the commercial class and the big families; and (3) the leadership echelons of the PLA.

The first group, primarily returning PLO cadres and Fatah leaders who belonged to the middle and upper middle class, owed their positions to Arafat rather than to their own power within the community. This political elite, socialized in Arab countries, had been raised with an emphasis on national as opposed to democratic agendas: a quota system such as prevails within the PNC was the closest they had come to democratic practice.

The second group, the commercial class needed in the reconstruction effort, posed no immediate threat to Arafat's hold on power. Commanding little loyalty in the street and having been effectively eliminated from power positions during or just before the intifada, most of the leaders of this class had only recently returned to the West Bank. One might remark that the economic interests of the commercial class do not necessarily invite public participation in the political process.

The third partner in Arafat's original coalition was the Palestinian military. Initially, in his attempt to present himself as the leader of all Palestinians, Arafat had sought to marginalize Fatah, whose effective participation in the ruling elite could be seen to weaken his hold on power. In contrast, the PLA, an essentially apolitical body, posed no threat to Arafat's rule, having been deployed in several Arab countries and never having had any effective unified command and control. The fact that the PLA came from the outside meant that they had no local constituencies, and the man Arafat appointed to head the national security forces had little political ambition or following. Arafat believed that a nonpartisan PLA would be more successful in maintaining security, the most essential element in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The failure of Arafat's policy of relying on the PLA to shield him and the peace process from the Islamist opposition became apparent with the bloody confrontation between the Islamists and the Palestinian security forces in November 1994. The Gaza clash led Arafat to introduce changes in his ruling coalition. Fatah now was invited to become a true partner in order to confront and neutralize Hamas. Palestinian security forces were opened to thousands of Fatah activists. The number of armed Palestinian policemen increased from 8,000 to about 18,000. Most of the Fatah men had spent years in Israeli jails and had been repeatedly subjected to Israeli interrogation techniques.

Palestinian Elections and the Three Processes

Palestinian elections-both for the eighty-eight-member council empowered under Oslo II to enact "primary and secondary legislation, including basic laws, regulations, and other legislative acts" and for the president of the executive authority (who will form a cabinet from among the council's elected members)-are likely to be one of the most critical developments in modern Palestinian politics. Elections will have a significant impact on all three processes of peace, national reconstruction, and democratization.

With regard to the peace process, three highly significant developments are awaiting the holding of elections: the formation of the council and transfer of powers, further Israeli redeployments and the extension of Palestinian jurisdiction, and the amending of the Palestinian charter. Under Oslo, it is the elected Palestinian Council that is to exercise the powers and responsibilities being transferred by the Israeli military government and civil administration; the PA created by the Gaza-Jericho agreement is carrying out these powers only temporarily, pending the inauguration of the elected council. The elections are also the event signaling further Israeli redeployments, which are to commence six months afterward, and the consequent extension of Palestinian jurisdiction to the areas from which the Israeli military pulls back- in effect all the West Bank and Gaza except for the areas subject to final status negotiations. Finally, it is after the elections that the PNC is to be convened to amend the Palestinian charter by removing articles which deny Israel's right to exist and other references which violate the Palestinian commitment to renounce violence. By consecrating the new political order, elections deny legitimacy to the use of violent and nondemocratic means, hitherto deemed legitimate under the Palestinian charter.

Concerning the impact of elections on national reconstruction, the legitimacy conferred on the emerging Palestinian political system by democratic elections will give a powerful boost to the creation of strong political institutions and help institutionalize a new consensus based on modern political practices. Elections are also a useful means of unifying Palestinians in the two geographically separate areas of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and for integrating the Palestinians of Arab Jerusalem into the political process of national reconstruction. Given that Oslo II describes elections as "a significant interim preparatory step toward the realization of the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people," many Palestinians (and non-Palestinians) see them as an expression of popular sovereignty and a prelude to self-determination and statehood.

On the other hand, elections in the "inside" (i.e., the West Bank and Gaza) may lead to the marginalization of the concerns and institutions of the Palestinian diaspora, a process exacerbated by Oslo. It is worth recalling that elections in every Israeli self- rule proposal since Menachem Begin's Camp David proposals in 1977 have aimed at creating a local Palestinian leadership that would replace, or rival, the PLO. While replacing the PLO is no longer an issue, elections still serve a related Israeli goal: to focus Palestinian energies on the inside and its agendas, that is, independence, thus marginalizing Palestinian diaspora and its agendas, such as the right of return. The election of a council for the "inside" accelerates the marginalization of the "outside" insofar as the new elected council could be seen as having more legitimacy than the appointed PNC in Tunis, whose mandate might now be questioned. Other PLO institutions are likely to be weakened as their functions are gradually assumed by the new institutions in the "inside" and as they lose their financial resources.

But it is for the transition to democracy that elections are most important. In such a participatory process, individuals, factions, and political parties have the opportunity to exert influence, mobilize forces, and aggregate interests, thus enhancing respect for political and civil rights. Palestinians committed themselves in Oslo II to "open government," accountability, and the separation of powers as the democratic basis for the establishment of Palestinian political institutions.

But elections could also become the means to regulate and institutionalize dissent or, even worse, legitimize repression. The ruling Palestinian elite could use them to obtain legitimacy and consolidate power. An examination of the nature of the election law that will regulate the Palestinian electoral system may provide some understanding of the potential role of elections in Palestinian politics.

The election law, as designed by an officially appointed election commission headed by the minister of local government, Saeb Erakat, calls for a simple majority system with open lists. [17] Under this system, the West Bank and Gaza Strip are divided into sixteen districts of unequal size, each with a number of seats proportionate to the number of eligible registered voters. Political parties, factions, and groups of individuals in each district can present their candidates in "party lists," the number of candidates on each list not to exceed the number of seats allocated to that district. Ballot splitting is permitted, though voters can- not vote for more candidates than there are seats in that district. Thus, voters in the largest district, Gaza City, can vote for twelve candidates, while voters in Tubas district, near Nablus, can vote for only one. The candidates with the largest number of votes win in their districts.

The majority system has been severely criticized by the opposition factions, the Independent Palestinian Election Group, and large numbers of academics and intellectuals. [18] Their argument is that the majority system and the districting scheme give Fatah, the "ruling party," a major advantage; indeed, Fatah, which has a plurality if not majority in all districts, may actually win all eighty-eight seats. A majority system could therefore help consolidate the hegemony of the emerging ruling elite and the largest political faction, raising questions about the legitimacy of the new political system. Moreover, it is argued, a majority system in these circumstances would not promote compromise in the manner of coalition formation politics. While a majority system might be suitable for stable democracies, it might not be appropriate for societies with deep political divisions and in which fundamental questions about national identity and territorial boundaries remain opened.

Many of those opposing the majority system, including the Independent Palestinian Election Group and prominent political figures such as Faisal Husseini, had advocated a proportional representation system of countrywide voting that would allow all political factions to be represented in the Palestinian Council. This system, it was felt, would not only have encouraged the participation of all factions, but could also have helped moderate Palestinian political discourse. Through coalition formation politics, it would also have encouraged the creation of a participatory political culture.

When it became apparent by late 1994 that a majority system was being designed, two trends emerged among those objecting to the system. One was to back the opposition forces that had been calling for an election boycott on other grounds. The other was to try to form a "third bloc" from the scattered and fragmented leftist, secularist, and democratic political forces critical of Arafat and the management of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. This "third bloc," it was hoped, could situate itself between the "ruling party" (Fatah and its allies in the commercial class and the "peace" camp) and its Islamist opposition, [19] and hopefully be reinforced by other marginal groups, some seventeen of which have already been established. [20] Under the "three bloc" scenario, the election campaign would probably focus on ideologies and serious political issues such as the peace process, democratization, and secular versus religious values and political identities.

Today, however, one month away from the elections, this scenario appears unlikely. The Islamist and national opposition seem deter- mined not to run even though they appear willing to allow supporters to participate in the voting (and a few "independent" Islamist and national opposition figures may run separately or in conjunction with other independents in an effort to capture such votes). If the opposition maintains its decision to boycott, the main competing forces could be clans and special interest groups. Moreover, in the absence of a threat from the opposition, Fatah might not even be needed by the emerging ruling elite to block threats to its dominance. The debated issues will change to socioeconomic interests and localized issues. And old family and clan rivalries could return to haunt Palestinian society in the major cities.


The process of transition to democracy in the West Bank and Gaza faces severe challenges. The peace process will probably continue to affect it negatively, particularly as popular frustration mounts when final status negotiations are deadlocked. The resolution of the conflict between national and democratic agendas will depend on how decision makers order the hierarchy of their priorities. Will the security-related agenda, political independence, and economic well-being continue to take precedence over political participation, accountability, and freedom of expression? Will the elected council play a prominent role in Palestinian politics? Or will it become subordinate to the executive authority? The preceding discussion may have already provided some answers to these questions, but the next few months will provide more needed and critical clues.


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Khalil Shikaki teaches political science at al-Najah National University in Nablus, Palestine, and is director of the Center for Palestine Research and Studies (CPRS) in Nablus. This paper contains preliminary findings of a CPRS project on the transition to democracy in Palestine.

1. Public opinion survey research in the West Bank and Gaza is a recent development. In the past, attempts to conduct such research met political and social constraints, and those which succeeded suffered from lack of political credibility and/or scientific reliability. Since the beginning of the peace process in 1991, however, survey research gained momentum. Today there are at least three Palestinian media and research institutions conducting public opinion polls. The Center for Palestine Research and Studies (CPRS) in Nablus has been conducting regular polls since September 1993. All data used in this article are based on CPRS regular polls.

2. For more information the PLO and the Palestinian political system, see Cheryl Rubenberg, The Palestine Liberation Organization: Its Institutional Structure (Belmont, MA. Institute of Arab Studies, 1983); and Helena Cobban, The Palestine Liberation Organization: People, Power and Politics (London: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

3. Briefings and interviews at CPRS with Palestinian officials.

4. Briefings and interviews at CPRS with officials from donor countries.

5. Briefings at CPRS with officials from donor countries.

6. For the full text of the PA order to establish the security courts, see "Document," Al-Siyasa Al-Filastiniyya 5 (Winter 1995), pp. 183-86 [in Arabic].

7. See reports by human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch, B'Tselem, Al-Haq, and Gaza Center for Rights and Law. A summary of such reports is in "Reports by Human Rights Organization," Al-Siyasa Al-Filastiniyya 5 (Winter 1995), pp. 104-32 [in Arabic].

8. Draft laws have been published in the local Palestinian newspapers. They have also been reprinted in issues of Al-Siyasa Al-Filastiniyya, issued by CPRS.

9. See, for example, Dankwart Rustow, "Transition to Democracy: Toward a Dynamic Model," Comparative Politics 2, no. 3 (April 1970), pp. 337-63.

10. For information on the Palestinian economy, see Israeli Statistical Yearbook. For information on countries of Latin America and Southern Europe, see Tatu Vanhanen, The Process of Democratization (New York: Crane Russak, 1990).

11. See in particular, Ghassan Salame (ed.), Democracy Without Democrats? The Renewal of Politics in the Muslim World (London: I.B. Tauris, 1994); and Yahya Sadowski, "The New Orientalism and the Democracy Debate," Middle East Report, no. 183 (July-August 1994), pp. 14-26.

12. CPRS, Poll no. 3, November 1993.

13. CPRS, Poll no. 1, September 1993.

14. CPRS, Poll no. 19, August-September 1995.

15. Ibid.

16. On West Bank leadership, see Emile Sahliyeh, In Search of Leadership: West Bank Politics Since 1967 (Washington: Brookings Institution, 1987).

17. The proposed election law has been published in series by Al-Quds newspaper during the first week of February 1995. It has also been published in a booklet format by the Palestinian Election Commission.

18. See, for example, The Independent Palestinian Election Group, Al-Intikhabat Al-Filastiniyya [Palestinian elections] (Jerusalem: Author, October 1994).

19. Attempts to form a"third bloc" are led by the Palestinian Peoples Party. Several political meetings and academic conferences had been organized in Ramallah during the past few months in order to create interest and promote the idea.

20. CPRS has compiled information on all seventeen groups as part of a project on Palestinian opposition. 

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