News Analysis: Arafats easy victory signals sticky times ahead for peace

It is impossible to say how the elections for the Palestinian Council and its president would have turned out if the militant opposition Hamas and Islamic Jihad had participated.

But the stunning victory for Yasser Arafat — who won just over 88 percent — and his Fatah faction, which took 65 of 88 council seats, means Israelis and Palestinians face a new era together.

Perhaps most important and most widely commented upon, the 75 percent turnout of 1 million eligible voters shows the Palestinians of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem not only rejected calls by the Islamic opposition to boycott the elections, but it registered a whopping vote of confidence in the agreements Arafat has signed with Israel.

Even if that vote of confidence cannot be drawn from the high turnout alone, it is clearly implied by Arafat's huge margin of victory over 72-year-old Samiha Khalil, who made the inadequacies of the Oslo Accords her major platform.

From Israel's standpoint, it's difficult to deny that the Labor Party's strategy of secretly negotiating with, openly recognizing and finally signing a series of agreements with Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization — rather than continuing to plug away at the arid talks with locally based Palestinians who were really a thin front for the Tunis-based PLO anyway — has been vindicated.

Clearly, Israel got a far better deal from Arafat than it would have from the PLO "insiders," who were holding out for a promise of Palestinian statehood. Had the head of the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid Conference and subsequent negotiations in Washington, D.C., Haidar Abdel-Shafi, signed the first Oslo Accords, he would have been branded a Quisling, and the peace process would have stalled indefinitely.

But by closely embracing Arafat, Israel not only conceded far less than the "insiders" demanded (indeed, little more than Menachem Begin already promised at Camp David), but the deal of an interim period of autonomy, with no promises about the final status, has now received a stamp of approval by the majority of the Palestinians.

The Palestinians have proved themselves to be a far more pragmatic and sophisticated electorate than their detractors had predicted.

It's true that more people than expected voted along the lines of traditional clan loyalties, and Fatah candidates or supporters did win a lopsided 75 percent of the council's seats. But considering that the Islamic and leftist factions did not even officially run in the elections, they still won 10 seats.

As political scientists have been quick to point out, the results in the first Israeli elections, held in 1949, were pretty similar — heavily weighted toward David Ben-Gurion's Mapai, even with opposition parties running.

The Palestinian elections also echoed the famous campaign slogan of President Bill Clinton in 1992: It's the economy, stupid.

Many Palestinians voted on the basis of economic and social rather than purely political considerations, with polls showing a majority calling unemployment their chief concern.

Palestinians also proved politically savvy.

They knew how to pay back old debts, handing Abdel-Shafi and Hanan Ashrawi (the heroes of the original Palestinian negotiating team) resounding victories.

And they proved fairly feminist too, giving an impressive seven council seats to women.

The much-touted electoral battle between Fatah candidates (the intifada activist "insiders" and PLO "outsiders" from Tunis) fared almost evenly.

Despite earlier fears, there is little reason to believe the Palestinian Council will become Arafat's rubber stamp. Though only a minority are outright Arafat foes, other more hard-liners should give the Palestinian's first president a hard run for his money.

They include Abdel-Shafi, who has long been an outspoken critic of Arafat's Palestinian Authority's policies, and former Civil Rights Commissioner Ashrawi — who has already said post-elections that there will be no peace without a Palestinian capital of Jerusalem.

And unlike Israel's Knesset, which is composed of members of party lists, all the Palestinian Council members will have to answer to the constituents in their home districts and face them at the next election.

Such politicals of accountability mean trickier relations between council members and Arafat — and thus between Arafat and Israel as the Jewish state plans its negotiating strategy for the Palestinians' final status, which is set to start this May.

The impact on Israel's having to deal with a democratically elected administration is already clear: Israel will allow the Palestinian National Council, which claims to represent all Palestinians, to convene in the auto-nomous areas to vote on rescinding clauses of the Palestinian Covenant calling for Israel's de-struction. Arafat is still hedging on whether he supports the change.

(Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres has said that if Arafat does not see that the clause is erased, the peace process will stop.)

The early assessments are that the PNC's Rejectionist Front delegates — including "arch-terrorists" Naif Hawatmeh of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Pales-tine and George Habash of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — will boycott the session, lest their attendance legitimize Arafat's administration and the historic compromise it reflects.

But for Israel, whether they come is irrelevant. Though the PNC is not a democratically elected body, since last Saturday respect for the Palestinians' right to express their will through democratic means has become the etiquette in the Palestinian-Israeli dynamic.

Arafat has also asked that the PNC delegates be allowed into the territories well before the March vote, so they can assess the local mood before making their decision. That leaves many Israelis feeling uneasy. But by the new rules of the game, Israel can no more expect the PNC to blindly approve Arafat's decisions than it should expect the Palestinian Council to do so.

And with the stakes so high, Israel cannot afford to be seen as placing obstacles in Arafat's path while demanding that he deliver on his commitments.

Thus the elections, marred only by a few skirmishes between Israeli police and Palestinians — have ushered in a new phase in Israeli-Palestinian relations. It is a period many Israelis may have trouble adjusting to: Some 10,000 Israeli rightists rallied after the elections in Jerusalem vowing to return to the West Bank and Gaza, and a top Palestinian called for Palestinian statehood.

Still, after the Oslo Accords, the Gaza-Jericho First Agree-ment, and the redeployment pact of Oslo II — not to mention Yitzhak Rabin's assassination by a Jewish opponent of the accords — Israelis have had lots of practice getting used to things only recently considered unthinkable.