Politics & Policy

A Tale of Two Elections

Abbas and Allawi.

The Palestinian election on January 9 was the first of two important national votes in the Middle East, the second being the Iraqi polls on January 30. Whether the two sets of votes mean that two new democracies will be born is uncertain. Upon these elections hang considerable expectations, not just of Palestinians and Iraqis but of their neighbors and the broader Middle East. Many expect that they could provide an opportunity to resolve the instability that bedevils the Middle East.

The similarities between the elections are striking, the stakes in both cases equally high. The two incumbents, Mahmoud Abbas who was confirmed as Palestinian leader on January 9, and Iraqi interim prime minister Ayad Allawi, running to remain in office, are both the local successors to violent strongmen.

Abbas follows in the footsteps of the late, and excessively lamented, Yasser Arafat, and he is already demonstrating Arafat-like traits. The “chairman, as Arafat liked to style himself, was unwilling to take the risks that he demanded of others. Arafat preferred to lead from behind, as those of his fellow Palestinians dispatched for “martyrdom” and brave Israelis who took his peace overtures seriously, discovered. Abbas, in turn, has been careful not to denigrate Arafat and his legacy, despite the fact that Arafat did his best to undermine Abbas during his short spell as Palestinian prime minister from March to September 2003.

Following the brief interregnum of the U.S. administrator of Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, Ayad Allawi has now taken the reins of power in Baghdad that were once held by his personal nemesis, Saddam Hussein. Unlike Abbas, who seems to harbor a sneaking respect for Arafat, Allawi had long loathed Saddam and his regime. Saddam had returned the compliment, sending his thugs to attempt to murder Allawi in exile in London in 1978.

Both men are still operating within the ideological frameworks set by their brutal predecessors. Abbas remains committed to Arafat’s brand of Palestinian nationalism, with its failed strategy of gradually regaining territory from the Israelis while not renouncing the use of violence. Like Arafat, Abbas gives the impression that he is more interested in continuing the “struggle” against Israel than in securing a state for the Palestinians.

Allawi’s democratic credentials are more substantial than those displayed by Abbas, but they are not fully convincing. All too often Allawi has expressed a nostalgia for the Iraqi army, Saddam’s chief instrument of external aggression and internal repression. He has sought to downplay the extent to which large sections of Iraqi society were implicated in Saddam’s crimes. Still, it is to Allawi’s credit that despite expressing reservations about Iraq’s interim constitution, the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), after he had signed it in March 2004, he has largely abided by its provisions.

Not so Abbas, who has learned the Arafat technique of pandering to different audiences with inconsistent messages. Abbas called the second intifada (uprising) against Israel a mistake on December 15, 2004. By January 1, 2005, however, he was willing to promise to protect Islamist terrorists such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad from Israeli attacks. He told the Associated Press that “This debt always is to protect them from assassination, to protect them from killing, and all these things they are subject to by the Israelis.”

Both men face a similar challenge from terrorists who wave the two-sided banner of Arab nationalism and Sunni Muslim fundamentalism. The Palestinian rejectionist movement, those who do not even believe in a temporary accommodation with Israel or a tactical pause in their campaign to end the existence of the Jewish state, is today dominated by Islamists who use religion to justify their nationalism. The secular, often Marxist-inspired movements that used to advocate unrelenting war against Israel are now a shadow of their former selves.

In Iraq, by contrast, the insurgency against Allawi’s Iraqi interim government, and its U.S. and Coalition allies, is dominated by members of the former Baathist regime, a regime that was secular or slightly Islamist according to political convenience. That insurgency is in a tactical alliance with Islamist terrorists, many of whom are foreigners, jihadists who are responsible for the most widely publicized atrocities, the beheadings, and the suicide bombs. The jihadists tend to leave the day-to-day sniping and fighting with US and Iraqi troops to their Baathist “brothers.”

In both the Palestinian territories and Iraq, the insurgents and terrorists have no hope of winning and no rational political aims, even though both Abbas and Allawi have been willing to talk to them. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad appear not to want to bear the responsibility of actually governing the Palestinians and attempting to improve their lot. Nor do they have any hope of defeating Israel. Equally, the Baathists must know that they can never regain the government of Iraq.

There, however, the similarities end because the critical difference between Abbas and Allawi is their commitment to fighting terrorism. Allawi’s willingness to engage with representatives of the insurgency from Fallujah in the months before the November 2004 recapture of the city was a demonstration of good faith, an offer of a last chance to avoid conflict, not appeasement. Allawi has made it clear that there are no barriers to entering the Iraqi political process, but that those who oppose the government through violence will not be indulged. The problem for Allawi is that his determination to combat the terrorists and insurgents is hampered by the weakness of his security forces.

Abbas’s frailty, however, is of the will. The Palestinian Authority has at least 40,000 trained security personnel at its disposal for a population of around 3.5 million, but is unwilling to fight Palestinian terrorists. Yet in Iraq, where trained Iraqi security-force personnel number barely 100,000 in a country of 25 million, the security forces take casualties every day in battles with insurgents and terrorists.

That is because most Iraqis regard terrorism as a threat to their cause, a menace that prevents them from building a democratic state. As poll after poll has shown, many Palestinians regard terrorism against Israeli civilians as justified. For too many Palestinians, probably Abbas included, terrorism is not a threat but a tool, one of their last remaining strengths. That most Palestinians turned out to cast ballots on January 9 was a welcome peaceful expression of opinion, but unless they now follow the Iraqis and vote against terrorism, little will change.

Andrew Apostolou works at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.


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