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Palestinian Quest for State Should Start With Elections

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Oct. 24 (Bloomberg) -- Judging by the Palestinians’ first election in six years, you wouldn’t know they yearn for self-determination. Turnout for Oct. 20 municipal polls was just 55 percent. A third of towns and cities had no voting at all for lack of sufficient candidates.

Hamas, the militant Islamic group that opposes peace with Israel, declined to field candidates in the West Bank, which is dominated by the rival Fatah organization. And Hamas refused to hold balloting at all in the Gaza Strip, which it controls.

The Fatah-Hamas bifurcation is impeding more than just local politics. It’s also hindering Palestinian progress toward their goal of independence from Israel. Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas has turned to the United Nations to elevate the Palestinians’ status, but the world body can only do so symbolically. To achieve self-determination, the Palestinians will have to negotiate the terms of statehood with Israel. To do that, they must speak as one.

In theory, Abbas speaks for all Palestinians, including refugees, in his capacity as chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The legitimacy of that monopoly, however, was undermined by Hamas’ victory over the main PLO faction Fatah in 2006 legislative elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The ensuing fragile Hamas compact with Fatah and Abbas, who’d been elected president of the Palestinian Authority the year before, succumbed to tensions that led to armed conflict and the 2007 split in governance between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The U.S. and others with an interest in a peace agreement have looked to the moderate Abbas to deliver the Palestinians. Yet without a mandate, he has neither the strength to impose his red lines nor the confidence to bend on other issues. Even if Abbas could seal a deal with Israel, he could enforce it only in the West Bank.

Periodically, Hamas and Fatah have pledged to heal the Palestinian schism with a power-sharing accord, but they’ve failed to agree on terms each time. Neither group is eager to give up the undiluted power it enjoys in the territory it controls. For the same reason, the two haven’t delivered on occasional talk of new elections.

Yet fresh elections offer a way out of the current paralysis. If Palestinian negotiators had a unified leadership behind them, they would have firm backing and clear direction. They would be in a better position to deal with the Israeli government that will emerge after elections in January.

Of course, a Palestinian election might produce mixed results, with Fatah and Hamas forced to rule together. In such a case, Fatah would stand a reasonable chance of softening Hamas’ position toward Israel. Otherwise, Israel might extend to the West Bank the harsh sanctions it has imposed on the Gaza Strip, which have contributed to deteriorating living conditions there.

Although Hamas, which is committed to an Islamic state in all of historic Palestine, says it won’t recognize or negotiate with Israel, it could nevertheless allow its coalition partners to do so. Having responsibility for the Gaza Strip has already modulated the group. Rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel have significantly declined in recent years; most of those that still occur are launched by groups more radical than Hamas.

The various election scenarios are less significant than the fact that Palestinian elections are overdue. The terms of both the president and the legislature expired in 2010. That’s the kind of detail that was easily overlooked before the Arab Spring but not so easily now.

Both U.S. President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney say they are committed to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Yet neither explains how to ensure a legitimate Palestinian partner is capable of winning and making concessions. A more constructive policy would be to encourage the Palestinians to hold elections, to make clear the U.S. would honor any result, and to lean on the Israelis to let voting take place.

There’s no guarantee that the election of a new Palestinian leadership would revive peace talks, but it does offer that hope. In the absence of a fresh mandate, there’s very little of that.

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