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Will the Palestinian elections ever be held?

Hundreds of Palestinians hold Palestinian flags, Fatah Movement flags and banners as they gather during a demonstration after the call of Fatah Movement, during a demonstration in support of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, on 25 February 2019 in Nablus, West Bank. [Nedal Eshtayah - Anadolu Agency]
Hundreds of Palestinians hold Palestinian flags, Fatah Movement flags and banners in support of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, on 25 February 2019 in Nablus, West Bank [Nedal Eshtayah/Anadolu Agency]

It doesn’t seem that the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) will be held in May or any time soon thereafter, as called for by the Constitutional Court of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah. This is the case even though they were approved and welcomed by Fatah, the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the PA.

It looks as if Fatah will be pragmatic in dealing with that part of the court’s decision that it favours, which is to dissolve the PLC. As far as elections within the next six months are concerned, though, it seems that Fatah isn’t all that keen on pushing the issue, despite the objections of the other Palestinian factions to the Constitutional Court itself, its powers and its decisions.

The fact that the call for elections was made in the context of the conflict between Fatah and the PA on the one hand, and Fatah and Hamas on the other, in an environment that exacerbates Palestine’s domestic issues, suggests that the people will not be going to the polls any time soon. The call for them to be held was, in effect, not to solve problems, but simply to provide a smokescreen for the conflict of wills and attempts to delegitimise Hamas and limit its capabilities. Essentially, the Constitutional Court decision was meant to add insult to injury rather than offer a way out of the crisis.

How can Fatah talk about an “election celebration” while ignoring its 2011 Reconciliation Agreement with the other factions and imposing a new pathway that will shatter the domestic scenario? If it is serious about holding elections, it must first establish a suitably healthy environment in which they can be held, rather than increase tension and destroy the kind of confidence-building measures that are essential for a transparent, democratic election process. Fatah has continued with its crisis-instigating rhetoric against Hamas rather than finding common ground, possibly deliberately, because if Hamas boycotts the elections it would lose a great deal of its credibility but Fatah could win. Furthermore, the electoral participation of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip is basically dependent on Hamas’s approval and cooperation.

Hamas: Abbas’ new government ‘reinforces division’

In January, Fatah official Hussein Al-Shaikh said on TV that there will only be a unity government with Hamas before an end to the schism “over our dead bodies”. Fatah, he added, would not allow the rule of the “obscurants”. Last month, he threatened to take measures that would affect Hamas and its future. Hamas, meanwhile, escalated its criticism of Fatah and the PA; its deputies voted to end Abbas’s mandate and launched a campaign to delegitimise him and his position.

It is also obvious that Fatah needs national leverage to hold elections, at least at the major faction level. That way, it will eventually be able to besiege Hamas, forcing the Islamic Resistance Movement either to acquiesce to the conditions set down by Fatah for the political process or leave the political game altogether. However, what the Fatah leadership has done has increased Palestinian opposition, whereby all of the major factions have rejected the Constitutional Court’s decision to dissolve the PLC, and have refused to take the election issue seriously. In fact, they blame the Fatah and PA leadership for escalating the crisis. Furthermore, they have refused to participate in the suggested government, which includes PLO factions, to manage the PA and the elections. Consequently, Fatah is more isolated in the Palestinian arena, while the policies of the political factions and Hamas have converged further. This means that Fatah and the PA leadership have failed to find the minimum required to legitimise the elections or to isolate Hamas.

It appears that neither the Fatah leadership nor the PA were really interested in including the other main Palestinian factions which are part of the PLO (Hamas is not a member), as they did not make any interesting offer to overcome the political crisis, the PA’s dilemmas or the Oslo entitlements. Instead, there has been a continuation of the arrogant political speeches, even when talking about a government that includes PLO factions, which maintained their opposition to what is happening.

The crisis with the Palestinian factions was why the inter-factional talks in Moscow last month failed even to issue a final statement. This led Fatah to launch a media campaign against Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and decide to boycott the latter, taking Palestinian politics another step backwards.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (foreground-C) meets with Fatah member Azzam al-Ahmed (Backround 3-R) Mussa Abu Marzuk of Hamas (Background 3-L) , and Maher al-Taher (Background 2-L) of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and other members of the Plestinian delegation during their meeting in Moscow on 23 May 2011. [ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images]

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (foreground-C) meets with Fatah member Azzam al-Ahmed (Background 3-R) Mussa Abu Marzuk of Hamas (Background 3-L) , and Maher al-Taher (Background 2-L) of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and other members of the Plestinian delegation during their meeting in Moscow on 23 May 2011. [ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images]

Moreover, Fatah and the PA planned the elections so that they would only be held only for the PLC, with the intention solely to end the parliamentary majority of Hamas and marginalise the movement; the plan is within the context of political rivalry rather than it being a means to reform the Palestinian political system. The 2011 Reconciliation Agreement, however, called for a commitment to hold simultaneous elections for the PLC, the Palestinian National Council (PNC) and the Palestinian Presidency. All of the factions agreed to this. Hence, with Fatah trying to implement only what suits it, this should be perceived as a “repositioning” of its leadership, while the political system remains in a miserable state, something to be rejected by both the factions and the general public.

Indeed, opinion polls do not encourage Fatah and the PA to hold genuine elections in which Hamas also participates. According to the latest poll conducted by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research (an independent centre in Ramallah), the popularity of both Fatah and Hamas are almost the same, although Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh would most likely win a presidential race, with a predicted 7 per cent lead over Mahmoud Abbas. The poll’s main findings included the following: 64 per cent want Abbas to resign; 66 per cent are dissatisfied with the performance of his government; 80 per cent believe that the PA institutions are corrupt; 77 per cent demand the removal of the PA sanctions imposed on the Gaza Strip; 61 per cent oppose Abbas’s insistence that Hamas must hand over control over the Gaza Strip fully to the reconciliation government, including the ministries, the security sector, and arms; and twice as many people blame Abbas and the PA for the worsening conditions in Gaza as those who blame Hamas.

Unless Fatah and the PA can guarantee their own victory in the Palestinian elections, therefore, there is no incentive for them to hold them. Logically, if Fatah doesn’t mind dealing with a Hamas-led PLC, why does it continue to disrupt the institution and its current Hamas majority, which it has done for the past 12 years? And why did it dissolve it instead of implementing the term of the reconciliation agreement governing the activation of the Council?

Israel, of course, has the capability to disrupt the Palestinian elections, especially in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem. It has an extreme right-wing agenda to continue building illegal settlements and impose its Judaisation programme, and it has no intention whatsoever of allowing the Palestinian political house to be put in order. Continuing its longstanding policy of thwarting Hamas, pursuing its members and destroying its infrastructure, Israel holds what is in effect a veto over any Hamas victory and renewal of its electoral legitimacy. It even seeks to subdue Fatah and other non-resistance factions and ensure that the PA stays a functional entity that lacks any possibility of becoming an independent sovereign state. What’s more, there is no pressure on Israel to allow the Palestinians to build national institutions that express their will, which is another indication that it will be difficult to hold Palestinian elections in the near future.

Hamas calls for government to prepare for elections

Similarly, Washington’s policies align with Israel’s. The US wants the Palestinians to toe the line with the “deal of the century”, and give Jerusalem to the Israelis, waive the refugees’ right of return and establish a non-sovereign state on fragmented parts of the 1967-occupied territories. Hence, any arrangement that would re-energise the Palestinian national project, or would include armed resistance factions and Islamic movements in the PLO and the PA, are always going to be rejected and disrupted by the US.

Finally, the Arab milieu is weak and in tatters, and many states have policies which are aligned with the US vision, including normalisation of relations with Israel. Arab states are either hostile or opposed to resistance to the Israeli occupation, and “political Islam” is off the regimes’ agenda. This all constitutes another obstacle in the way of putting the Palestinian political house in order in such a way that would include all factions and constituencies according to their real political weight. Arab “legitimacy” continues to be bestowed on the moribund peace process, but it does not allow the resistance movements to reorganise the PLO or the PA on a new axis that leaves the Oslo Accords behind.

Based on the above, I think it is fair to say that we can rule out the holding of Palestinian elections at least for the rest of this year. Nevertheless, we can be sure that there is a genuine willingness out there to deal with the elections as an effective tool to put Palestinian politics on solid foundations, and not use them as a cover to exclude and marginalise any or all of the factions, nor as a tool to prolong the worn-out Palestinian political system.

This article was originally published in TRT Arabic on 27 February 2019.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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