The rest of the Middle East is churning, with dictators being toppled and protesters still in the streets a year into the Arab Awakening. Since the demand for free and fair elections has become a symbol of credibility in the uprisings, the pressure on both Fatah and Hamas to hold elections this year is likely to become irresistible. For the past few years, Abbas has said that he would not be a candidate in new elections, but now he is saying he would like those elections to take place in May and plans to depart the political scene afterward. Even if it will not be simple to reach an agreement with Hamas on the terms of elections, Abbas will feel the need to hold them sometime in 2012.
These elections are likely to shape the Palestinians’ identity and whether they continue to accept nonviolence, peaceful coexistence with Israelis and a two-state solution. If there are clear signs that the occupation is diminishing, the positions of Palestinians such as Abbas, Fayyad and their followers who believe in nonviolence will be validated before the elections. This is essential because the alternative is Hamas, which rejects nonviolence and peace with Israel.
In the recent deal with the Israeli government to free kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, which gained the release of more than 1,000 prisoners, Hamas was seen as delivering political gain through an act of violence. By comparison, Abbas and Fayyad are not seen as delivering on the issues that matter to the Palestinian public, such as prisoner releases, Israeli withdrawal or a reduction of Israeli control.
For Palestinians, at least, this validation would also shrink the psychological gap between them and the Israelis, inspiring hope that negotiations could actually lead somewhere. It might, thus, also offer the best way to unstick the negotiating track. Even more important, with the changes sweeping the region and a political transition looming for the Palestinians, such a validation may be the only way to preserve support among the Palestinian and Arab publics for a two-state solution.
Dennis Ross, counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, served as a special assistant to President Obama and a senior director on the National Security Council staff from July 2009 to December 2011.
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