Shamir’s Election Plan:

Solvable Problems


Los Angeles Times, June 27, 1989


It was a thoughtless act when 94 U.S. senators called on Secretary of State James A. Baker III to “strongly endorse” the Israeli prime minister’s proposal for elec­tions in the West Bank and Gaza. The plan is seriously flawed, and it will not go forward unless Baker can get the Israelis to make changes. Unfortunately, the message of the senators is that the plan is fine as it is. Their endorsement weakens the secre­tary’s leverage with both the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Israelis.

            The most important point to understand is that the Palestinians see the proposed elections as a trick, not a solution. Ameri­cans look to elections as a way of solving conflicts. There is some evidence of their value in deciding who will rule in countries wracked by civil war. But that is not the situation in the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinians are not fighting each other. They are fighting the Israelis.

            The Palestinians already have an estab­lished leadership, the PLO, which is pre­pared to negotiate with the Israelis. The elections idea emerged because Israel won’t talk to the PLO. If it goes forward, it will be because the Palestinians bend to American arguments that they accept elections as a fig leaf.

            If there is any doubt about whether the PLO represents the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, the appropriate test is a referendum on the PLO. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s plan proposes nothing of the sort. In fact, the people in the territories would not be allowed to vote for Yasser Arafat or any other PLO leader. Under present law, any candidate who announced that he is a member of the PLO would be disqualified and subject to arrest as a member of a terrorist organization. Thus, the entire elections proposal is suspect as an attempt to separate local Palestinians from their leaders of longstanding.

            In bypassing the PLO, Shamir’s proposal provides no way in which diaspora Pales­tinians would be represented. The status of stateless Palestinians throughout the world and their claimed “right of return” are at the emotional and political core of the conflict. Local Palestinians cannot go for­ward on their own accord. To do so would be to divide the Palestinian people and arrogate to themselves a decision-making authority that they do not have. An end to the conflict cannot be negotiated unless the party that signs for the Palestinians truly represents those inside and those outside.

            The Israeli plan does not firmly close the door on the involvement of diaspora Pales­tinians. It refers to the local Palestinians who administer the transition phase as “the central Palestinian component” in the final status negotiations. This is a crack in the door that needs expanding. Several alter­natives are possible. A referendum on the PLO could be used to establish who will negotiate final status issues. Or Israel could permit candidates to identify themselves as members of the PLO and to run on that basis. Or local Palestinians could be elected to a transnational Palestinian body that would itself select the actual negotiators.

            The Shamir proposal calls for a 5-year transition period leading to the final settle­ment; negotiations of substance would not begin until well into this period. To Palestinians this looks like a proposal for replacing the intifada with years of fruit­less negotiations. Since their situation had long been ignored by both the Arab world and the Israelis before the intifada, relin­quishing it would be a major risk.

            Some Palestinians have responded by calling for Israel to withdraw from the territories before the elections. This is a nonstarter from the Israeli point of view, since withdrawal would ensure the emer­gence of a Palestinian state prior to negotiations.

            While the Palestinians cannot be guar­anteed a state before negotiations, the Israelis must agree that the point of the negotiations is to find a way both to end the occupation and guarantee Israel’s security. The negotiations must be clearly based on the formula “land for peace.” The Israelis could be asked to demonstrate acceptance of this principle by an early redeployment of troops from populated areas to security zones.

            Further, the Palestinians could reasona­bly insist that while they accept the idea of a transition period, the final status negotia­tions should begin at once, or within a year. They could also reasonably demand a halt to settlement activity by the Israelis, as Secretary Baker has suggested.

            A third problem with the Shamir plan is that it doesn’t provide an acceptable envi­ronment for elections. There can’t be free elections without freedom of speech and assembly. Palestinians can’t be expected to participate in the electoral process as long as the present level of violence continues. And how will Palestinians who emerge from underground to run for office be protected from arrest?

            These are not insolvable problem. A reasonable approach could include the following elements: Israel legalizes non­violent demonstrations and grants Pales­tinians the rights of free political expres­sion and assembly, including the right to display their national symbols; Israel ends the practice of administrative detention and deportation, allows deportees to return to run for office, and frees all prisoners not specifically convicted of participation in serious acts of violence: and Israel agrees that elected officials will enjoy a protection from arrest similar to diplomatic immunity, except for crimes of violence.

            Finally, there are the issues of monitor­ing, compliance and linkage to the larger goal of peace between Israel and the Arab states. The PLO has called for an interna­tional force to replace Israeli troops at an early stage, and for international monitor­ing of elections. The Israeli proposal pro­vides for no third-party presence to over­see the elections, but it does speak of the need for progress to be made simultaneous­ly in establishing an overall Israeli-Arab peace. The United States has supported the idea of an international conference as an umbrella framework under which direct negotiations could occur. Internally the Israelis are divided on this’ point, but it seems clear that some outside involvement and linkage to a broader negotiating framework will have to be accepted before the election proposal can move forward.

            Each of these matters is difficult. Collec­tively they constitute a Herculean chal­lenge for Baker as he seeks to get Israelis and Palestinians to agree to a common procedure. His only hope is to induce each side to compromise because neither wants to pay the price of being blamed for deadlock. His plan is to get the PLO to propose reasonable alterations to the Shamir proposal, then to go back to the Israelis. The 94 U.S. senators, in their demand that he endorse the Israeli propos­al, have made it less likely that he will succeed.