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Experts: Palestinian Elections Could Have Significant Impact


Palestinian voters go to the polls Wednesday to elect a new parliament.

Palestinians from the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem will cast ballots for a 132-member legislative council, or parliament. And experts say the outcome could have a significant effect on the political landscape in the Palestinian territories.

For decades, the dominant Palestinian political party has been Fatah. It has run the Palestinian Authority since it was established in 1995. Fatah's current leader, Mahmoud Abbas is also president of the Palestinian Authority. He replaced Yasser Arafat, who died in November 2004.

Mr. Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian Authority last January, pledging to fight corruption, reform the security forces and improve the economic and social well being of Palestinians. But many analysts say Mr. Abbas has been unable to deliver on his promises.

Seth Jones, Middle East expert with the Rand Corporation, says corruption remains a major problem.

"Abbas has a very difficult problem with issues of corruption. Large numbers of the Palestinian population continue to view Fatah, and especially the older members, as corrupt," said Mr. Jones. "There has been some progress since the death of Arafat but there are still concerns among the population about the economic conditions and about the levels of corruption and political competence."

For his part, Alon Ben-Meir, Middle East expert teaching at New York University, says Mahmoud Abbas has been an ineffective leader.

"Mahmoud Abbas is extremely weak and has not been able to rein in the various factions both in the West Bank and Gaza," he said. "And he has not been able also to control his security forces and really has been unable to take advantage of the fact that Israel withdrew from Gaza and begin to convert Gaza from an occupied territory to a liberated territory. Nothing of this sort has happened. So he is perceived by the majority of the Palestinian public as a very weak leader."

In addition to problems in running the Palestinian Authority, the ruling Fatah party has internal divisions. Fawaz Gerges, an expert on the Palestinians and a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Sarah Lawrence College says the split is along generational lines.

"You have a young generation within Fatah, the ruling party of the Palestinian Authority, that is basically saying 'enough is enough," he explained. "We want more transparency, more accountability. We want a bigger slice in the political representation, so that at least we could hold you responsible for your promises.'"

Experts say corruption, divisions within Fatah and the inability of the ruling party to address economic and social issues within the Palestinian territories, all of those issues have benefited the main Islamist party, Hamas, whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel. Along with other extremist groups, such as the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade and Islamic Jihad, Hamas is on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations.

But Fawaz Gerges from Sarah Lawrence College says Hamas is an integral part of the social fabric of Palestinian society, providing much needed services on the local level.

"They have hospitals," said Mr. Gerges. "They have clinics. They have childcare. They have services. They have financial aid - all kinds of services. When you have unemployment at more than 30 percent, or even 40 percent in Gaza, when you have 30 percent of the Palestinian population who live below the poverty line, social services are critical, are pivotal. And unfortunately, the Palestinian Authority, which is led by president Mahmoud Abbas, has not been able to provide the essential social services."

Gerges and other experts say Hamas is also perceived as being incorruptible. Nadia Hijab, from the Institute for Palestine Studies, says fighting corruption is a major tenet of Hamas's electoral platform.

"Hamas, for the elections, is running on a platform of what they call 'change and reform,'" he noted. "They want to put the Palestinian house in order. They want to see an end to corruption. They want to see an end to favoritism and they want to manage better than they think Fatah has been managing. And on that platform, they are very popular."

Last year, Hamas was very successful in local elections - getting, for example, 74 percent of the vote in the West Bank city of Nablus. And they hope to have a strong showing in the upcoming parliamentary vote.

Seth Jones from the Rand Corporation says Hamas poses a considerable danger for Fatah.

"Hamas is a very significant political threat and its public opinion polling over the last - not only over the last month or so, but over the last few years - has increasingly crept upward, both in Gaza and also in the West Bank," said Mr. Jones. "So it will unquestionably win seats. The question is how many. Public opinion polls have sort of varied, but I think you can expect to see 20, 30, maybe even as high as 40 percent in the new parliament."

David Makovsky, from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agrees.

"They [Hamas] are a potent threat," he noted. "I have just returned from the region. I was in the West Bank and I saw the Hamas signs and I have seen the polling numbers, and they are gaining. The more fragmented Fatah has become, the more people become wary, and they seem to be moving towards Hamas."

Experts say if Hamas does well in the upcoming national elections, that will have a major effect on Palestinian politics, on the broader search for a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and on relations with the United States.

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