Pretend Leaders Excite Palestinians' Democratic Spirit Palestinians picked a new president this week — on a reality show, that is. Meanwhile, the real political leadership in the West Bank is in disarray, even as Secretary of State John Kerry works to restart peace negotiations.
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Pretend Leaders Excite Palestinians' Democratic Spirit

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Pretend Leaders Excite Palestinians' Democratic Spirit

Pretend Leaders Excite Palestinians' Democratic Spirit

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Elsewhere in the Middle East, Secretary of State John Kerry is wrapping up his diplomacy mission in Israel after four days of shuttling between meetings with Israeli leaders and Palestinian leaders. Kerry is going home without an agreement to restart peace talks but with hope that the agreement is within reach. Last week, NPR's Emily Harris reported on splits in Israel's coalition government over peace talks with the Palestinians. Today, she looks at the challenge facing Palestinian leadership that make it difficult to restart those talks.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Shortly before midnight last Thursday, 31-year-old Hussein al-Deik was picked as the president of Palestine.

HUSSEIN AL-DEIK: (Foreign language spoken)


HARRIS: 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-directs the Jerusalem office of Search for Common Ground, the organization that put on the show.

SUHEIR RASUL: 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.

HARRIS: Palestinians have held only two presidential elections since the Palestinian Authority was established almost 20 years ago. The current president, Mahmoud 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.

DAOUD KUTTAB: In most political events, you need a kind of election cycle to create leaders.

HARRIS: Palestinian political leaders have long had their roots in militant groups who fought against Israel but Kuttab believes people are beginning to look for leadership elsewhere.

KUTTAB: We don't need any more political military heroes. We need people who kind of people can look up to and feel like this is somebody, you know, I really like, and his words are honest, you know, he has something to offer that's different and he's not a politician or a military person. Because we've had too many of those, and they've been a big failure.


HARRIS: In the last debate of the TV show to pick a pretend president, there were no direct questions about peace talks. Would you hire a relative? Reflected concern over corruption. 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 Palestinian Authority President Abbas cannot be seen as compromising with Israel unless he wins real change in return.

GHASSAN KHATIB: President Abbas is connected in the perception of the Palestinian public with the peace process and with the negotiations approach with Israel. And Palestinians feel that this approach of him is not working.

HARRIS: Although Secretary Kerry says that Israelis and Palestinians are making progress, 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.

KHATIB: You cannot make achievements, neither militarily nor politically and diplomatically, when you are split, when you are fighting with each other. We're split politically, and we're split physically, and we're split ideologically.

HARRIS: 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 them back with batons.


HARRIS: Despite this ugly moment, Wea'am el-Deihry said Assaf made her proud.

WEA'AM EL-DEIHRY: (Through Translator) He united all Palestinians together, all Palestinians citizens and factions. No political leader could unite people with their speeches. He did it with his art, with his song.

HARRIS: 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. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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