A test for democracy
The Palestinian public in the territories and East Jerusalem will decide in another two days what the new Palestinian leadership will look like. From the point of view of both Israel's citizens and those of other Middle Eastern countries, these are important tidings: The Palestinian public, which began its democratic path in the 1990s, continues to have a monopoly on granting legitimacy to its leadership, and therefore continues to uphold the fundamental condition for the existence of democracy.
Another important innovation in these elections is that they are not about the manipulations of a sole leader, such as Yasser Arafat, who could dictate their results; rather, they are about the construction of a broad national leadership that no longer relies on the charisma of a single individual, but instead relates to the various political currents that have developed in recent years, and especially during the intifada.
The formation of an agreed national leadership is a complex, fragile and difficult process, as Israel has also learned from experience. But it is clear to all concerned that the success of this process will depend on the scope of the compromises and concessions that each faction is willing to make to the others for the sake of the common goal. The formation of a Palestinian political common denominator therefore provides an opportunity for defanging the extremist fringes.
Against this background, it is possible to derive encouragement from the fact that this time, Hamas and some of the radical Palestinian organizations have agreed to operate within the same political framework as the leadership of the Palestinian Authority - an institution established on the basis of the Oslo Accords. This creates a chance for implementing the principle that Mahmoud Abbas has advocated, and that Israel supports: one government, one law, one gun.
Such a development, it should be stressed, would not mean that Hamas would suddenly be willing to negotiate with Israel, or that the newly elected Palestinian leadership would agree to concede the well-known principles that underlie Palestinian demands: the right of return, Jerusalem, the 1967 borders and the evacuation of settlements. These elections also do not signify the complete abandonment of the armed struggle as practiced during the intifada.
Israel can join several states in both the Middle East and the rest of the world that are fearful and suspicious of the possibility that the next Palestinian Authority will include elements that are defined as terrorist organizations and that do not recognize Israel's right to exist. But it cannot ignore the fact that any such new Palestinian leadership would be the direct result of long years of occupation, armed struggle and a freeze in the diplomatic process. Diplomatic common sense will force Israel to accept the results of the PA elections as a political reality with which it will have to cope, and all the possible scenarios will have to be derived from this reality.
Whether the new Palestinian leadership constitutes a "partner" will depend first and foremost on its willingness to talk with Israel. As for the substance and quality of this leadership, this will depend to a great extent on the individuals who head it. But it will also depend on Israel's leaders and the strategy they adopt.