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Calls for Palestinian elections are welcome, but under what conditions?

January 15, 2020 at 5:08 pm

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on 11 November 2019 [Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency]

The turn of the year triggers a strong feeling that for change to begin the new decade and year must begin with positive work on the provision of elections in Palestine.

Long overdue following a protracted electoral hiatus, Palestinian legislative and presidential elections are a vital component of bridging the institutional illegitimacy and accountability gap that has characterised Palestinian governance hitherto. Absent of popular support and operating on an internally elected mandate, the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority has for the last decade increasingly adopted authoritarian tactics as a means to repress dissent, while presiding over economic mismanagement that has markedly hastened donor aid dependency.

With the Palestine issue is now at a clear crossroads following the acceleration US-Israeli designs that harm the possibility of a realistic model for Palestinian self-determination, the provision of elections provides the opportunity to introduce renewed leadership based on popular support in the hope of facilitating reconciliation, unity and a restrategising of the Palestine question. The importance of allowing the Palestinian people to choose their future leaders at what is arguably one of the most difficult times in their struggle for self-determination can not be overstated in light of these circumstances.

The role of Europe in making elections happen

Key to making the Palestinian electoral process happen is Europe. An important actor in the Palestine issue, Europe has the unique ability to help facilitate the electoral process given its ability to operate as a mediator that is received as a more impartial bloc than the US; it also has enough tangible leverage against both sides to exert influence that is effective.

For Europe too, supporting elections in Palestine makes sense. Europe has long viewed itself as a key player in the Palestinian state-building process and the bloc’s post-road map policy towards the peace process has coalesced on the idea of “democracy now, peace later”. The latter has indeed influenced European state-building initiatives such as EUPOL COPPS and EUBAM Rafah. Europe also knows that supporting elections makes sense in light of the fact that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is turning 85 this year and in the advent of his passing there will likely be a power vacuum in which elections may be held without European technical assistance or support, and in a climate in which internal developments are harder to manage and control.

In this knowledge, the European Union and key actors such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and representatives from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Spain, have recently been increasing their calls for the PA to hold legislative and presidential elections in 2020. These calls come against the backdrop of the news that the European Union is now the Palestinian Authority’s largest financial backer following the US’ decision to cease PA contributions in 2018 and 2019.

READ: Why Hamas wants Palestinian elections to be held

While welcome news, for these calls to hold any weight, however, they must be accompanied by a recognition that calls for elections must not be made in vain without the unwavering sponsorship of the conditions conducive to electoral viability.

Participation of Jerusalemites

One such condition is the participation of Palestinians residing in East Jerusalem. Illegally occupied by Israel since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, pressure must be placed on Israel to allow the participation of Jerusalemites in any legislative and presidential elections. At present, Israel has the capacity, without consequence, to control whether elections in Palestine happen or not as the involvement of Jerusalemites is a non-negotiable issue across the Palestinian political spectrum. This means, in practice, that Israel can engineer the Palestinian electoral process so as to only permit elections when it believes it will see a favourable result.

Given this, Europe must stress the need for Israel to allow the participation of Jerusalemites with the threat of coercive action on the table. Any pressure on the PA to hold elections without Europe obtaining assurances vis-à-vis the participation of Jerusalem will fall on deaf ears.

The revision of Europe’s “no contact” policy with Hamas is a further condition necessitated in order to hold viable Palestinian elections. With Hamas already announcing its desire to participate in any future elections in Palestine, the EU’s continued isolation of the group not only risks a repeat of the 2006 elections but is also an abject failure to recognise the dynamics of the Palestinian political landscape. Indeed, in regard to the latter, a recent December 2019 poll conducted by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) shows that Hamas is on course – provided elections are held – to receive the second largest vote share with the heightened possibility of winning the elections if Fatah fails to consolidate its electoral list.

Palestinians come together to celebrate the 32nd anniversary of Hams in Gaza on 16 December 2019 [Mohammed Asad/Middle East Monitor]

Palestinians come together to celebrate the 32nd anniversary of Hamas in Gaza on 16 December 2019 [Mohammed Asad/Middle East Monitor]

To sponsor Palestinian elections without recognising key actors participating in them is neither conducive to the longevity of any prospective result nor does it provide the Palestinian populace with any faith that election results will actually be accepted. Without European movement on this space, Europe threatens to sponsor elections that are only symbolic in nature devoid of the capacity to change material facts on the ground.

As a final core condition, Europe must work to remedy the lack of cohesion between the West Bank and Gaza so as to ensure there is a working linkage between all areas of Palestine. The failure to establish a single territorial unit hitherto has markedly undermined Palestinian efforts at cohesion and unity as division has succeeded into fostering two distinct social and cultural identities. To ensure that any prospective winner has the capacity to project their governance across the Palestinian territories, work on unity must be given priority.

READ: Palestinian Freedom Movement say ‘Abbas is not serious about elections’

Overall, the importance of facilitating elections in Palestine as quickly as possible is becoming more and more apparent for international observers and relevant stakeholders in the Palestinian case. What enjoys less consensus, however, is that for elections in Palestine to be held properly and successfully, they must enjoy the same guarantees that elections in Europe and elsewhere do. As Zaher Birawi, British-Palestinian journalist and chairman of the NGO EuroPal Forum, notes: “While the PA do not appear serious in going for elections, the role of the European bloc is to push towards the elections regardless of the result and to encourage the Palestinians to transition towards democracy by confirming to them that the results of the elections will be respected without discrimination.”

He notes that if “the European bloc is serious about renewing the leadership of Palestine in a democratic fashion the appropriate steps must be made to ensure the viability of the electoral process – this is important insofar as the Americans are neither interested nor willing to help and Europe now finds itself in an important moment for its work on Palestine.”

In this light, Zaher is spot on – with 2020 now underway, Europe now finds itself under the spotlight for its work on the Palestine issue. This year, how Europe manages its calls for Palestinian elections will not only define how Europe is seen on an international stage but will also define the extent to which Europe is adhering to its own Palestine policy. Until Europe’s strategy becomes clearer, its calls for elections will remain under the spotlight.

READ: Israel expert says PA president regrets calling for elections 

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