News Analysis: For Palestinians, big question is how Arafat will lead them

JERUSALEM — Hanan Ashrawi, the former spokeswoman for the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks, was furious.

For Ashrawi, now a candidate for the Palestinian Council, it was an outrage that Israeli border police would bar her election motorcade from entering Jerusalem.

But in the aftermath of the confrontation, Ashrawi could be laughing all the way to the polls in the historic first-ever elections for Palestinian self-government.

A dispute Sunday with Israeli police at a checkpoint on the northern border of Jerusalem won Ashrawi precious airtime on radio and television less than a week before the Saturday voting for the 88-seat Palestinian Council.

Indeed, for Ashrawi, the confrontation at the entrance to Jerusalem was a "m'tseea," Hebrew for a "bargain."

The Israelis were justified in stopping her motorcade. Palestinian motorcades decorated with posters for the Jan. 20 elections are not allowed in the capital of Israel, according to the agreement with the Palestinians.

A second candidate — Samir Krish — reportedly was prevented from entering Jerusalem at another checkpoint for similar reasons.

Although the Palestinians do not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the eastern part of Jerusalem, Ashrawi probably knew that the Israelis could stop her motorcade.

But in the heat of the Palestinian election campaign, that fact seemed to pale when one could watch on television the respectable Ashrawi practically wrestling with an Israeli police officer.

With a limited election campaign period — only two weeks — every gimmick was necessary and every exposure was an asset.

Although the faces of the 700 candidates for the council filled the West Bank Palestinian newspapers for weeks, the official election campaign began only at the beginning of the month.

Only in the last two weeks of the campaign did the Voice of Palestine radio station give each candidate two to three minutes of airtime to make a presentation.

An impressive team of international observers, including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and former Jordanian Prime Minister Abdul Salam al-Majali, was set to be on hand to supervise the elections.

Nevertheless, in advance of election day, complaints were mounting of illegal and unfair interference by the Palestinian leadership.

Candidates complained that they came under pressure from the leadership not to run in the elections.

Palestine Liberation Organization head Yasser Arafat was criticized for manipulating lists of candidates in an effort to secure the election of supporters. The criticism included charges that Arafat personally removed from the list of candidates recommended by his Al Fatah Party some of those who had won placement on the list through primaries.

A Palestinian journalist and a Palestinian human rights activist were arrested by Palestinian police after they allegedly criticized the fairness of the election process. The journalist, an editor, was criticized for not giving a story about Arafat front-page play. They were later released.

Surprisingly, the Jan. 5 killing of Hamas terrorist Yehiya Ayash had no immediate affect on the election campaign.

And despite calls by Islamic fundamentalists to boycott the elections, the assumption in Israel was that Muslim radicals would eventually take part in the elections, though very few of them presented their candidacy to the council.

However, groups on the left opposed to the peace process remained determined to boycott the elections.

Meanwhile, the Israeli army said it would remain in Arab areas of Hebron during the elections, but will try to stay away from polling stations, despite a reported earlier agreement to withdraw troops from Palestinian areas.

This is only one of the possible points of friction between Israel and the Palestinians, as election day approaches amid fears on both sides of possible attacks.

Brig. Gen. David Shahaf, the Israeli liaison officer to the elections, said the elections would be tested by two criteria — the rate of participation and the number of independent candidates elected.

Two other questions remain open.

By what percentage would Arafat be elected as president of the Palestinian Council?

How would the 88 seats in the council be divided between activists in the intifada — the 1987-1993 uprising against Israeli rule in the territories — and the PLO activists who came only recently from Tunis, the former PLO headquarters?

The answers may reveal much about the future course of Palestinian governance in the self-rule areas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.