Palestinians vote Tomorrow's election: A limited but historic exercise in democracy.

January 19, 1996

NO AUTHORITY ever asked Palestinians to choose their governors before. The election tomorrow for 88 seats and the president of a council to govern autonomous Palestine will be a historic milestone, and vindication of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat's peace with Israel.

About one million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are expected to vote after a lively campaign. Even Jerusalem residents will elect five members of the council, which will not have jurisdiction over their municipality. And Mr. Arafat will win.

One reason is that he earned it by negotiating the accord that led both to this interim regime and to future talks on the status of Palestine. Another reason is that the only credible opposition -- the militant, terrorist and Islamist organization called Hamas -- boycotted the election while observing a cease-fire that makes it possible. It poses little threat to Mr. Arafat's favored Fatah faction as a proto-political party.

Another reason Mr. Arafat will win is that, in the absence of a democratic model anywhere in the Arab world except Israel, the authorities do not quite have the hang of it. Mr. Arafat acts more like a classical Arab strong man than a democratic supplicant for support.

He waves at huge crowds but does not mingle. He dominates broadcast media. Some campaigners have alleged harassment both by Palestinian police and by Israeli police in East Jerusalem restricting campaigning to locations that Israel and the PLO jointly designated.

The outcome may not be in question but, in the interest of legitimacy, the Palestinian authorities should set the best precedent for the future they can manage. Many candidates are arguing the big issues of East Jerusalem, Jewish settlements and a Palestinian right of return, which are reserved for final status talks between Israel and the PLO. The council for which they are running will handle such matters as water, health, schools and civic order.

When this council is up and running, Palestinians will have far more confidence that Mr. Arafat is leading them to sovereignty and national dignity. Since they would freely elect him to do it if allowed, it is in his interest to allow them free choice.

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