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Wednesday, June 26, 2002
Daniel Polisar: How Arafat rigged the 1996 Palestinian elections

Daniel Polisar: How Arafat rigged the 1996 Palestinian elections

[Excerpt from Daniel Polisar: Yasser Arafat and theMyth of Legitimacy

Azure - SUMMER 5762 / 2002
http://www.shalem.org.il/azure/13-polisar.htm ]


As the January 1996 elections approached, Arafat was assured of victory for
himself and his loyalists in Fatah. The steps he had taken since assuming
power had succeeded in bolstering his position and shunting aside most
potential challengers. In fact, Arafat almost ended up running unopposed, as
the best-known individuals who considered challenging him-including rights
activist Iyad a-Sarraj and the popular Haydar Abed a-Shafi (who had headed
the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid conference) decided that there was
little point in running in the political climate that had been created. In
the end, the only person who decided to face off against Arafat was Samiha
Halil, a little-known, 72-year-old women's rights activist, who was hardly
in a position to compete for mainstream support in the traditional society
of the West Bank and Gaza.

Nonetheless, Arafat took advantage of his monopoly on power to turn a sure
victory into a landslide. He adopted an electoral system for the Council
races that favored Fatah and undercut the chances of the smaller parties,
and that played a role in persuading most Islamic and left-wing groups to
boycott the elections.154 Within Fatah, he overturned the results of party
caucuses and replaced independent-minded local nationalists chosen in
balloting among party activists in each district with his own hand-picked
slates-often dominated by loyalists who had come with him from Tunis. During
the campaign, PA police stepped up their intimidation of candidates running
against Fatah nominees for seats in the Council, while government ministers
and other PA officials used the resources of their offices to further their
candidacies. On election day, the massive presence of Palestinian policemen
in and around the polls-in direct violation of the campaign law Arafat had
promulgated-had a clear effect on voters. This effect was especially
pronounced with regard to the approximately 100,000 illiterate voters, who
were often "assisted" in filling out their ballots by policemen or Fatah

When the results were announced, it became clear that Arafat's work had paid
off handsomely. He received an overwhelming mandate, capturing 87.3 percent
of the votes, compared to 9.9 percent for Halil.156 Though Arafat claimed
that he "was looking for 51 percent," he certainly did not mean it. Winning
by a landslide was a strategic goal, whose purpose was to make him appear to
be the unchallenged leader of his people.157 Arafat also got most of what he
wanted in the Council elections: Fatah won 50 seats and candidates closely
tied to it won an additional 17.158 Thus Fatah captured a solid majority on
its own, while the broader bloc it commanded won more than three-quarters of
the seats-67 of 88. Moreover, about half of Fatah's 50 spots went to veteran
PLO-Tunis officials who had entered the territories with Arafat, while the
remainder were mostly local candidates drawn from the ranks of Arafat's most
loyal boosters.159

Since his victory at the polls, Arafat has continued to run the PA precisely
as he did before elections. The PA police force has expanded apace, and
today has more than 50,000 members. The government payroll has bloated
further, and remains a patronage machine in which all important decisions
are made by one man. Though Council members, in a rare display of
independence, succeeded in passing a comprehensive basic law that would
provide a constitutional framework, Arafat has refused to sign it, and the
Palestinian Authority has at no point had either a discernible
constitutional or legal framework, or anything like an independent
judiciary. The media have continued to function as an adjunct of the
government, while human rights groups-with a few notable exceptions,
including organizations founded by a-Sourani and Eid-have remained weak and

More than three years have gone by since the second set of Palestinian
elections were supposed to be held-Arafat and the Council were chosen for
terms that were to end on May 4, 1999-but no new elections have been
called.161 Ostensibly, the reason for this delay is that Arafat is waiting
for the conclusion of final-status negotiations with Israel. But the real
reason is that he was content with the results of his first election, and
has not yet seen a reason to face the voters again. Even municipal
elections, which were supposed to take place during the summer of 1996, have
been delayed for six years; in the very long interim, Arafat has continued
to make appointments to local offices himself, without the assistance of the

In light of what Arafat did to secure his election victory and in light of
the manner in which he governed before and after elections, it is clear that
his standing as an elected leader hardly resembles that of the
democratically chosen Western leaders who defend him. Thus the claim that he
cannot and should not be replaced can hardly be sustained on the grounds of
his democratic mandate or credentials.

What is true is that Arafat has made himself irreplaceable in a very
different sense: He has acted successfully to destroy the elements of a
pluralistic society that had been present in the West Bank and Gaza, and to
mold the Palestinian Authority into a police state and a personal
dictatorship. As a result, he has done much to damage the prospects of a
viable, alternative leadership emerging. In other words, having succeeded in
eliminating his opposition, he is now turning to the democratic world and
pleading to stay in power on the grounds that he knows of no one who could
replace him.

This argument sounds much like that of the apocryphal boy who kills his
parents, and then pleads for mercy from the court because he is an orphan.
Of course, it contains a kernel of truth: That is, the boy really is an
orphan, and the dictator who eliminates his opposition really lacks an
obvious successor. Yet it would be a grave mistake for Western leaders, and
especially an American government that seeks to lead the free world, to
accept the idea that Arafat's success in building a dictatorship should
entitle him to continue representing the Palestinians. On the contrary,
Arafat has long ago demonstrated that his continued leadership is inimical
to peace, no less than it is inimical to the Palestinians' own aspirations
for a regime that accords them basic freedoms.

It took Arafat nearly two years to pave the way for the electoral landslide
that gave him the counterfeit aura of democratic legitimacy that still
clings to him, and he has spent an additional six years strengthening his
dictatorship and weakening potential opponents. The process of recovering
from the damage he has done during this time will no doubt be a long one.
But prolonging the current situation by attributing to Arafat a legitimacy
that he does not deserve contributes nothing to that process.

Daniel Polisar is Editor-in-Chief of Azure. During the January 1996
Palestinian elections, he led the observer team of Peace Watch, a
non-partisan Israeli organization accredited by the Palestinian Authority as
an official elections observer.

154. On the adoption of the electoral system for Council races and the
impact of this system on the decision of Islamic and left-wing groups to
boycott elections, see Polisar, "Electing Dictatorship," pp. 265-283.

155. On Arafat's efforts to shape the Fatah lists, and on his behavior and
that of other PA officials during the campaign and on election day, see
Polisar, Electing Dictatorship, pp. 283-310, and reports of the various
monitoring groups cited there.

156. These results are as reprinted in jmcc, The Palestinian Council, 2nd
ed. (Jerusalem: jmcc, 1998), pp. 49-50. The remaining votes, according to
the official results, were invalid.

157. Jon Immanuel, "Arafat Wins 88 percent of Vote; 75 percent of Council to
Fatah," The Jerusalem Post, January 22, 1996.

158. The classification system for assigning nominal independents to the
parties is based on my own assessments, which are largely in line with those
made by the jmcc in The Palestinian Council, which has become the standard
reference on this subject. I am including in the Fatah bloc the single
candidate elected on the ticket of the fida party, which ran in an alliance
with Fatah.

159. Among the veteran PLO-Tunis officials who won positions were Tayyeb
Abed a-Rahim, Nabil Sha'ath, Hakam Bal'awi, Intisar al-Wazir, Fayez Zeidan,
and Abu Ala. Among the local loyalists who won seats, the most prominent
were cabinet members Saeb Erekat and Freih Abu Medein.

160. On the nature of governance in the Palestinian Authority since the
January 1996 elections, see Polisar, "Electing Dictatorship," pp. 423-474;
and David Schenker, Palestinian Democracy and Governance: An Appraisal of
the Legislative Council (Washington, D.C.: Washington Institute for Near
East Policy, 2000). For an optimistic account of PA governance in this
period, see Rubin, From Revolution to State-Building.

161. On the requirement to hold elections by May 4, 1999, see Israel
Ministry of Foreign Affairs, "Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the
West Bank and Gaza Strip," September 28, 1995, article 3, section 4; and
Palestinian Central Election Commission, "The Palestinian Council, Its
Executive Authority, and the President of the Palestinian National
Authority: Institutions and Competences," December 31, 1995.

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