On January 9, Mahmoud Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian Authority in a landslide, winning 62.3 percent of the vote and a clear mandate to lead Palestinians in the aftermath of Yasser Arafat's death. Within hours after he declared victory, President Bush and Israeli leaders extended congratulations and olive branches that signaled signs of life in the long-moribund Middle East peace process. But what does the victory signal for the Palestinian people?

I confess: When I began a series of conversations with friends on both sides of the Green Line about Sunday's presidential election in the Palestinian Authority, I approached the event pretty cynically.

It's easy to give in to despair over the prospects for transformative change in that blood-stained part of the world. After all, the historic first Palestinian elections in 1996 that brought President Yasser Arafat and a newly minted 88-member Legislative Council into office has yielded bitter fruit. Arafat proved to be a flawed, autocratic leader who stifled the development of civil society among his people and squelched the emergence of a new generation of young leaders. And the years since his election have brought unending Israeli settlement construction in Palestinian territory, wave after wave of Palestinian suicide bombings, economic chaos, disingenuous and often incompetent negotiating strategies on both sides, and the joint efforts of the Palestinian, Israeli, and American intelligence services to undermine the power of the Legislative Council and Palestinian civil society at large. All this strangled the Oslo peace process, and with it the possibility of realizing in the foreseeable future the dream of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Tip #1: Kick-starting the peace process isn't the point

Obviously, no election can be a quick fix for the seemingly insurmountable problems of the Palestinian people, let alone a recipe for Middle East peace. But however problematic Sunday's voting proves to be, it is wrong to suggest that the larger electoral process is meaningless on the ground. Indeed, the dynamics of the electoral process literally in the wake of Arafat's death, coupled with the strong need of Palestinian society for political change, give a sense of importance to the elections that goes well beyond their limited impact on the peace process.

Sadly, the elections will not mark anything so profound as a "fork in the road" for the Palestinian people's future, as the commentator Maher Anman hopefully argued in the Arabic daily al-Hayat on January 7. Nor is it likely that the world community--and especially the United States and Israel--will "reward the Palestinians" for doing their civic duty, as the Christian Science Monitor urged in its lead editorial of the same day.

Instead, Bush, Blair, Powell and other leaders of the "Quartet" have all pledged strong support for the elections, and Israeli Prime Minister Sharon will no doubt (in the words of left-wing commentator Uri Avnery), "make the occupation 'easier' for 72 hours [and] theatrically remove two mobile homes of a settlement outpost." By January 12, however, Sharon will again use "every means, overt and covert, in order to destroy any 'moderate' Palestinian leadership" that would threaten his stated desire to retain permanent control of 58 percent of the West Bank."

Such a strategy has in fact been the standard operating procedure of Israeli governments in the Oslo era and is evident today in the widely reported beatings by Israeli soldiers of Palestinian presidential candidate Mustafa Barghouti, as well as in the arrests of candidates for the local and legislative councils. The continued interference with the election process has greatly angered many Palestinians. As Birzeit University Professor Rema Hammami explains, "For the last three years, Palestinians have been begging for an international observer force to protect us from the violence, humiliation at check points, home demolitions, land expropriations, uprooted olive trees, and the like. Now they've finally come and it's only to watch our elections. The observers aren't being trained at all to report on, let alone deal with, Israeli actions against the electoral process and in fact are having security provided by the IDF. The position of the international community, and especially the US and EU, is dirty and hypocritical."

Tip #2: Other elections matter just as much as this one

The elections this weekend are in fact the second of four voting rounds. The first, in late December, elected representatives to 26 West Bank municipal councils. They were historic, too, for bringing in a new generation of Palestinian leaders at the grassroots level. Most major Palestinian political factions, including Hamas, participated, with a little under 1,000 candidates running, 140 of them women (some of whom represented conservative religious groups). Because of a quota system for these elections, most town councils will have at least 2 women out of an average of 13 members. Several councils elected more than the required minimum of women, a major victory for the Palestinian women's movement and a symbol of the strength and maturity of Palestinian civil society. Council members of both genders, however, will have to deal simultaneously with issues as diverse as schools, sewers, and continuing land expropriation by Israel, all with drastically underfunded budgets. Municipal elections in 10 Gaza Strip towns are slated for January 27.

The January 9 election is to choose a successor to Arafat as president/chairman of the Palestinian Authority. Hamas is boycotting the election because of its foundation in the Oslo peace accords, which the movement continues to reject (Hamas is careful to point out that Prime Minister Sharon has similarly rejected Oslo). While Fatah Party Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, known to Palestinians by his nom de guerre Abu Mazen, is certain to win the presidency, other parties are fielding candidates, including the People's Party of Bassam al Salahi, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (fielding long-time activist and politician Taysir Khaled as its candidate), and a plethora of minor candidates including university professors, the Speaker of the Legislative Council, a female journalist and a lawyer.

Tip #3: The fate of one challenger is crucial (not the one you think)

The most important challenger to Abu Mazen is Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, founder of the Palestinian Medical Relief Society (PMRS). Barghouti is a world-renowned human rights activist who many Palestinians view as the conscience of their people. He established his party, the Palestinian National Initiative (PNI), in 2002 with the late scholar and Palestinian rights activist Edward Said and Dr. Haidar Abdul Shafi, founder of the Palestinian Red Crescent and the elder statesman of Palestinian politics. Barghouti--a distant cousin of Marwan Barghouti, the jailed leader of the militant Tanzim faction of the Fatah party who was considered the major threat to Abu Mazen until he dropped out of the race to preserve the unity of the Fatah movement--is also popular because of his strong reputation for honesty and incorruptibility, rare qualities in a politician today in any country. While he will not carry the election, his participation in the electoral process is inspiring to Palestinians hungry for the growth of civil society.

In contrast to either of the Barghoutis, Abu Mazen is a favorite of President Bush and many moderate Israelis. A major reason for their support is that Abu Mazen looks and acts like a proper politician: He wears business suits rather than Arafat-style fatigues, speaks English fairly well, and is widely considered to be less corrupt than other senior Palestinian political operatives (and thus flexible without being ostensibly on Israel's payroll).

However attractive a candidate Abu Mazen might appear to the international community or Israel, many Palestinians scorn him as "America's candidate." Nevertheless, the majority will vote for him in the interests of "transitional stability."

Tip #4: Keep your eye on the next elections (and the last one)

The upcoming Legislative Council elections, planned for early spring 2005, could be even more important than the presidential vote. This is especially true if they produce a group of legislators who can stand up to attempts by Israel, the United States, and Mahmoud Abbas to weaken the Council when it restarts corruption investigations or refuses to accept the compromises being demanded by Israel. Moreover, a strong showing by Hamas in the legislative elections would lend legitimacy to the council as representing the will of Palestinian society.

In the long term, however, the recent municipal elections may prove to be the most important. In the past, local Palestinian politics have tended to be conservative and based on family ties. In this context, the strong showing by women, Hamas candidates, and independents might mark the rise of a new brand of local politics. As Abdulnasser Makky, former general coordinator for local elections in the West Bank, puts it, such a result makes the municipal elections "crucial to achieving a true democratization and break on corruption within the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian society at large."

In fact, the political coming of age of a new, younger generation of Palestinians is perhaps the most important dynamic of the electoral process. As leading Palestinian sociologist Salim Tamari explains, while the newly elected council members "don't represent a total changing of the guard, the process is important because it is giving legitimacy to new forces on the local level." Similar, the Gaza-based Fatah official Ziad Al Sarafendi explains, "It is important for the young generation to start assuming positions of leadership."

A year and a half ago, sitting in the Azza refugee camp in Bethlehem with a young Palestinian community organizer named 'Ala al-Azzeh, I first realized how crucial it is to bring younger, educated Palestinians into positions of authority. As al-Azzeh explained it, few of his peers have faith in the current political system or the possibility of achieving Palestinian statehood any time soon. "So we have to think long term, be patient and educate a new generation with the knowledge and tools" that for him are crucial to building a strong civil society, one that can survive the occupation and plant the seeds for a truly democratic future.

I saw how far al-Azzeh and his people have to go when I visited his community center, where a group of six- to 12-year-old children were learning a new version of the Palestinian national anthem in which the lyrics praised hand-grenades. Like me, Al-Azzeh was disturbed by the lyrics, and explained that "we try hard to bring in more positive lyrics that don't involve violence, but the reality of life here is so bad that they make no sense."

As I've traveled periodically through the Occupied Territories since the start of the al-Aqsa intifada in 2000, I have been struck by the increase in chaos and social fragmentation that is a direct result of the extreme violence (economic as well as political) of the occupation and the resistance to it. The violence of the occupation is being used as a justification for violent retaliation; meanwhile, the upcoming elections are being portrayed by those in power as the best means for reducing the chaos and violence and achieving independence, peace, and democracy. As Israeli-Palestinian Knesset member Azmi Bishara explained in the Egyptian al-Ahram Weekly in November, "No one these days says that they are against resistance; they say they are against chaos."

The answer to chaos is, of course, "unity." And a desire for unity is a natural response to the increasing chaos of the intifada and the death of the Palestinians' founding father, Arafat. "We need internal transitional stability. This is not the time for more massive change at the level of the national leadership," Rema Hammami explained. But whose unity, under what kind of leadership, and at what price?

The election of Mahmoud Abbas is not likely to answer these questions. But if we pay close attention to the emerging generation of politicians sweating away in the municipal and legislative councils, creating the foundations for a more powerful, democratic Palestinian civil society and public sphere, we might well spot the future president of an independent Palestine.

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