Middle East in Focus
Sixteen years after they last went to the voting booth, Palestinians will have another chance to choose their legislative and executive leaders. With a new US administration in the White House, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas believes the elections may give the government the needed legitimacy to engage in negotiations with Israel. It remains to be seen, however, whether the elections will deliver a clear mandate and lead to greater internal cohesion among the various Palestinian factions, or whether they may produce greater discord, as happened following the 2004 elections.
The Palestinian government organ, Al Wafa, reported on President Mahmoud Abbas’s announcement shortly after the long-serving Palestinian leader detailed the timeline and logistical details of the upcoming national vote, including “legislative elections [which] will be held on May 22, 2021, presidential elections on July 31, 2021, and the Palestinian National Council elections on August 31, 2021. The decree-law considers the legislative elections -- which will be held in the areas administered by the Palestinian Authority -- as the first phase for the subsequent formation of the Palestinian National Council, the PLO legislature which represents the Palestinian people at home, abroad and in the diaspora. The decree-law states that the elections of the Palestinian National Council will be held wherever possible.”
The announcement was quickly followed by speculation regarding the likely political coalitions that will contest the upcoming elections. According to a recent Asharq Alawsat report, there are some suggestions that Fatah and Hamas may even consider participating in a joint list, a development that has caught many by surprise: “The Fatah Movement has discussed with Palestine Liberation Organization factions the formation of a joint list for the upcoming elections, said Fatah Central Committee (FCC) member Azzam al-Ahmad. He noted, however, that no decision has yet been taken, pending a meeting in Cairo with the rest of the factions in February…. [T]he idea of a joint coalition that would bring together Fatah and Hamas in one list has sparked controversy in Palestine.... [The} Hamas politburo chief Ismail Haniyeh has stressed the significant role of the United Nations and the international community in the upcoming elections, especially in ensuring the integrity of procedures, arrangements and freedom of voting.”
Many are quick to point out, however, that holding proper, legitimate, and representative elections depends on a lot more than merely announcing them. One of the issues that continues to come up, including in this recent analysis by Bassem Aly for the Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram, is the level of cooperation the Palestinians are likely to receive from the Israeli government: “Palestinian-Israeli relations have been improving, and the two sides began to meet again recently after a cut in ties that was economically costly for the Palestinians. Israel decided in early December to begin transferring money again to the PA. ‘The Israeli government transfers all financial dues to the account of the Palestinian Authority’… Civil Affairs Minister Hussein Al-Sheikh wrote on Twitter, referring to taxes, including customs, that Israel collects on behalf of the PA. But the scale of disagreements is still large. Israel has been close to annexing new areas of the West Bank, a project that only normalization agreements with some Arab states has halted.”
Others have been careful to temper expectations about what the upcoming elections are likely to deliver. For example, Osama Al Sharif, a journalist and political commentator based in Amman and a regular contributor to Jordan Times, argues that, although both Fatah and Hamas need the added legitimacy that comes with new elections, “Abbas has to understand that the geopolitical stage has changed dramatically since 2016 and that for the Palestinians to restore a semblance of regional and international support they must achieve genuine reconciliation and unity. The elections provide a test and a challenge that could deliver both, but it could also deepen existing divisions.... If the elections are held, they must be free with international observers overseeing the process. The fact that Abbas will run uncontested may prove problematic, while the failure to achieve reconciliation before the elections could deliver a situation where the current stalemate drags on for more years to come.”
In a recent Arab News op-ed, Ray Hanania urges the Palestinians to seize this opportunity to overcome internal divisions and present a united front, even though there is a lot of uncertainty about the direction that Hamas may go, should its grip on Gaza be loosened: “Palestinians should not see the elections as a final answer to their problems, but rather as an opportunity to regroup, open a new door and more effectively confront Israel’s anti-peace policies. The question is whether the rival Palestinian factions can unify. The only way to do that is through an election mandate.... The choice for Palestinians is simple. Do they want to accept their fate and live under Israeli apartheid, oppressed by military violence?... The remaining question is whether or not Hamas would abide by the election results if Abbas manages to win. In that case, would Hamas continue to act as an independent, second government from Gaza, dividing Palestinians, weakening their voice and making them, once again, easy to ignore?”
Ramona Wadi, writing for Palestine Chronicle, expresses more concern, on the other hand, regarding the real reasons that lie behind Mr. Abbas’s decision to call new elections and whether the current Palestinian Authority leadership is capable of delivering on longstanding Palestinian demands. In particular, Ms. Wadi notes that “Israeli media reports have detailed Abbas’s ‘eagerness’ to resume negotiations, a process which Israel definitely does not envisage having to go through with leaders other than Abbas. The PA has a track record of accommodating colonialism, about which the other Palestinian factions have repeatedly spoken out. In the face of such divergence of principles – if they still exist – the card played by Abbas is a ploy to buy further time for the ‘status quo,’ to emerge once again when Biden takes office, even though Israel’s colonial expansion has ensured that there is no status quo other than its own gains. Abbas is exploiting Palestinian reconciliation and unity for his own political objectives, not the best interests of the Palestinian people. Is anyone surprised?”
With a new administration in the White House, Israeli commentators, including Yedioth Ahronoth’s Shimrit Meir, anticipating a frostier relationship with the United States, have urged their government to adopt a more cautious approach with regard to the Palestinian question so as to avoid antagonizing the Biden administration: “Could an Israeli-Arab coalition be forged that will present mutually agreed positions and red lines to the Americans? It is doubtful. Israel, despite being delighted with the newly signed agreements in the region, is not keen on supplying its new friends with gratis lobbying services in Washington. They can look after themselves, and there can be no advantage to Jerusalem being painted with the same brush as controversial regimes.... Although both Netanyahu and his defense minister and coalition partner Benny Gantz had months to advance any plans to build in East Jerusalem and the settlements, they opted to light a fire and create a crisis just as the new president moved into the White House. And now we are back in the new-old world of condemnations of Israel.”
Reflecting on the lack of any meaningful internal political debate or viable solutions related to the Palestinian issue, Alex Nachumson observes in his Jerusalem Post op-ed that Israel must have a clear strategy for dealing with the Palestinian Authority, which may feel emboldened by Mr. Biden’s election: “Over the last couple of weeks, the Palestinian issue has emerged from its seemingly moribund status just in time for the new American administration. It is certainly no coincidence that in the days leading up to US President Joe Biden’s inauguration, the Palestinian Authority did everything possible to bring attention to its issue. After four years of appropriate and relentless pressure by US president Donald Trump’s administration, the PA sees new opportunities with a new president and some old faces in the American government.... It should be clear to Israeli leaders and citizens alike that the Palestinian conflict is returning, and we should be aware of this. Our leaders, especially during an election campaign, should be providing solutions.