Shortly before midnight last Thursday, in front of a cheering crowd, 31-year-old Hussein al-Deik was picked as the president of Palestine.
It wasn’t a real election; just the grand finale of a TV reality series, shot in front of a live audience. Suheir Rasul, co-director of the Jerusalem office of Search for Common Ground, the organization that put on the show, said the goal is to get young people excited about the democratic process.
“The word is to reenergize and reignite the people, to remind them that we can be democratic, we believe in democracy, and the youth have a voice,” Rasul explains.
But Palestinians have held only two presidential elections since the Palestinian Authority was established almost 20 years ago. The current president, Mahmood Abbas, has stayed on several years past the end of his term.
Palestinian political analyst Daoud Kuttab says a lack of elections leads to a lack of legitimacy.
“In most political events, you need a kind of election cycle to create leaders,” Kuttab says.
The lack of elections also makes restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations difficult. Secretary of State John Kerry has been in the region for the past three days, trying to convince leaders on both sides to come together for talks.
Palestinian political leaders have long had their roots in militias who fought against Israel, but Kuttab says people are beginning to look for leadership elsewhere.
“We don’t need any more political military heroes,” he said. “We need people who people can look up to and feel like this is somebody I really like, his words are honest, he has something to offer that’s different and he’s not a politician or a military person. We’ve had too many of those and they’ve been a big failure.”
In the last debate of the TV show to pick a pretend president, there were no direct questions about peace talks. One question — would you hire a relative? – reflected concern over corruption. Another — would you let Palestinians work in Israeli settlements? – hinted at the bitter reality that Palestinians’ political enemy provides thousands of jobs.
Palestinian pollster Ghassan Khatib says Abbas cannot be seen as compromising with Israel unless he wins real change in return.
“President Abbas is connected in the perception of the Palestinian public with the peace process and with the negotiations approach with Israel,” Khatib says. “And Palestinians feel that this approach is not working.”
Political Splits Limit Peace Prospects
Although Kerry says that Israelis and Palestinians are getting closer to peace negotiations, Khatib says no real deal could happen until the divide ends between Hamas, which runs Gaza, and Fatah, Abbas’ party, which administers Palestinian cities in the West Bank.
“You cannot make achievements, neither militarily nor politically and diplomatically, when you are split, when you are fighting with each other,” he says. “We’re split politically, and we’re split physically, and we’re split ideologically.”
Last week, one young Palestinian seemed to rise above those splits. Mohammad Assaf, a singer from Gaza, won the international pop competition Arab Idol. Thousands of people came to see him return home, at one point pressing in so close that police beat people back with batons.
Despite this ugly moment, Wea’am el-Deihry says Assaf made her proud.
“He united all Palestinians together, all Palestinians citizens and factions,” el-Deihry says. “No political leader could unite people with their speeches. He did it with his art, with his song.”
Assaf has touched on political issues, choosing songs in the competition that promote Palestinian independence, and calling for unity between Hamas and Fatah. But so far, that doesn’t look likely. Yesterday, Hamas called on Fatah to reject U.S. pressure to talk with Israel, saying such negotiations were futile.