The recent Palestinian presidential election campaign, widely applauded for complying with democratic norms, was actually riddled with voter fraud, intimidation and unbalanced pre-election media coverage, says an Israeli observer of Palestinian political life.

Michael Widlanski, a political science and communications lecturer at Hebrew University, said Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was aided in his campaign by a compliant Palestinian press that gave short shrift to his opponents.

Widlanski, along with journalist David Bedein and and researcher Arnon Gross, presented his findings at a lecture at the Toronto Zionist Centre last week.

While the media did not ignore other candidates entirely, as they did with former PA president Yasser Arafat’s opponent in his 1995 campaign, they sandwiched their comments on interview programs with a flood of ads favouring Fatah, the organization Abbas represents, Widlanski said.

Abbas was also given fawning treatment in Al-Quds newspaper, the most moderate and independent Palestinian paper, which receives a monthly $45,000 (US) stipend from the Palestinian Authority, he said.

Abbas’ most serious opponent, Marwan Barghouti, jailed by Israel for murder, withdrew from the campaign after his family was threatened and after Abbas promised that if elected, he would push Israel to release him and other Palestinian prisoners.

On election day, even with the weight of the Palestinian political apparatus behind Abbas, it appeared voters might respond to the anti-corruption campaign of his main opponent, Mustafa Barghouti, a distant relative of the jailed killer.

Gun-toting Fatah operatives burst into election commission headquarters, fired some shots, and demanded that the polls remain open an extra two hours. In that period, “no-one checked to see if anyone voted more than once,” Widlanski said.

Despite all his advantages, and after dedicating his campaign to Arafat, Abbas still won only 62 per cent of the vote, he added.

Bedein, Gross and Widlanski are closely monitoring Palestinian media and school textbooks “to bring to people’s attention what the other side says to its own people in their own language,” Bedein said.

Bedein’s Israel Resource News Agency recently launched an “Abu Mazen Watch,” a reference to Abbas’ nickname.

“The purpose is to expose the reality of Abu Mazen’s administration,” Bedein said. It will monitor Abbas’ actions on four fronts: terrorism, incitement, freedom of speech and dissent, and Palestinian refugees.

During a visit to Canada, Bedein, Widlanski and Gross briefed officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as MP’s political aides and members of the Privy Council, on their findings. During a stop in Washington, D.C., they spoke to congressional aides and members of the media, and they are planning similar meetings with members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

Widlanski, a native New Yorker who is fluent in Arabic, said 46 members of the Palestinian election commission resigned in protest after the strong-arm tactics on election day.

Abbas, meanwhile, campaigned on a platform that praised Arafat and vilified the United States and Israel, even going so far as to claim that Israel planned to blow up the Al Aqsa mosque, Widlanski said.

As Israelis were targeted by terror attacks in the waning day of the campaign and afterward, Abbas’ “TV and radio stations ran items that took credit for the attacks,” and his own affiliated organization, the Al Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade, claimed joint responsibility for the incidents with Hamas, Widlanski noted.

Widlanski said Abbas differs from Arafat on more than style. “Abbas does not think violence is the answer right now.

“He has a dialectic view of the conflict” that owes much to his education and Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow, a KGB educational institution for Third World activists and terrorists, he said.

The Soviet strategy when Abbas attended was not to confront the United States directly, but to support wars of liberation.

“I believe this is Abbas’ philosophy,” Widlanski said, adding that Abbas is following the old Soviet line that believed the United States would fall apart if the Russians played their cards correctly.

Gross, deputy director of the Voice of Israel’s Arabic Service, said his analysis shows that peace, reconciliation and the history and rights of Jews get short shrift in Palestinian school books.

Instead, Jews are described as foreigners to Palestine with no rights there, while Israel is solely described as an occupying power and a source of harm to its neighbours, and Israeli-occupied lands, which include pre-1967 territories, are seen as targets for liberation.

This piece ran in the January 26th 2005 issue of the Canadian Jewish News