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Elections as a prelude to reforming Palestinian politics

Palestinians carry pictures of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a protest in Gaza on 20 August 2020 [Ashraf Amra/ApaImages]
A Palestinian man holds a picture of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a protest in Gaza on 20 August 2020 [Ashraf Amra/ApaImages]

There is some satisfaction in Palestinian circles with the developments in the dialogue between Fatah and Hamas that seems to have come a long way. An agreement was reached to hold elections in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip within six months on the basis of full proportional representation, and that President Mahmoud Abbas will issue a decree to that effect. According to the Secretary General of Fatah's Central Committee, Jibril Rajoub, the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) election will be held first, followed by the presidential election, and finally the Palestinian National Council (PNC) election. There is also consensus to continue intra-Palestinian dialogue to promote national unity, which the rest of the factions will join to put the Palestinian political house in order and face the challenges ahead.

The positive aspects of this consensus are manifested in the push to overcome the division in Palestinian politics and society and the catastrophic losses it has caused. There is a widespread popular desire to mend this split and achieve national unity.

The consensus helps to unite the efforts of the Palestinian people against the great dangers facing their cause and future, particularly the Trump deal and the Israeli plan to annex major parts of the West Bank. Dialogue and consensus are also part of the search for all that is mutually beneficial and confidence-building. This lies at the core of the reformation of Palestinian politics; coexistence under one official roof; the removal of fear and suspicion; fair and transparent mechanisms in Palestinian decision-making; and defining the supreme interests of the Palestinian people and the priorities that govern this stage and their political programme going forward.

Such positivity provides an opportunity to implement measures in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that would grant political and media freedoms, activate student and trade union action as well as municipal developments, and stop the pursuit and detention of political opponents. Both sides have chosen elections to break the impasse.

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At first glance, elections seem to be the best possible mechanism for ascertaining the popular support for the Palestinian factions. However, if they are not controlled and protected by a number of guarantees and limitations, they may become a trap that carries the risk of failure. Without guarantees, it will be easy for Israel to obstruct the Palestinian legislative and presidential elections, if it allows them at all.

There are some important questions to be considered. Will Israel allow Palestinian democracy to run its course? Will it allow the Palestinians to regain national unity and express their support for whichever faction they prefer? Will Israel allow Palestinian Jerusalemites to participate in the elections? Will it allow Hamas and the resistance forces to reorganise in the occupied West Bank and let them campaign and mobilise their supporters?

A demonstration in support of Hamas in Gaza

A demonstration in support of Hamas in Gaza, 15 April 2016

The circumstances now are very different to those in 2006 when the previous elections were held and Hamas, unexpectedly, won. Israel imposed measures to block, disrupt and thwart any positive action by the winning party. Within months of a major military escalation, dozens of Hamas members and democratically-elected representatives were arrested in the West Bank. The movement's ability to govern was stripped away.

The simple fact is that Israel remains the "absent present factor" to be considered in any arrangements for the Palestinian elections. Hence, it is conceivable that elections held while under Israeli occupation could be a prelude to reform of the Palestinian political house in order to confront the occupation itself. That is a major risk to take as it makes all potential reforms subject to the mood swings of the occupying power.

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Some may say that the Palestinian Authority could use electronic voting, but it is a procedure which needs to be studied and the success and integrity of which must be guaranteed. In any case, the post-election period is always going to be subject to Israeli interference, to which appropriate responses must be found.

Furthermore, the PA itself is no longer the institution that was established in 1994, nor the one that wanted to absorb the resistance and pass the "road map" after the 2005 Al-Aqsa Intifada. Rather, it is in a crumbling mess, politically and economically, after becoming a tool serving Israel and its occupation to be taken advantage of and then disowned.

What's more, there is no longer a state project, a two-state solution or a political horizon for the PA. If there is currently talk about elections to form a government according to the standards and visions that reflect the Palestinian will, then this talk is far from reality. In such a situation, a new function of the authority must be defined, in light of the national reform programme to put the Palestinian political house in order, where it can focus on serving the Palestinians; leave the political aspects to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO); distance itself from security cooperation with Israel; provide the appropriate cover for the resistance in the Gaza Strip; and refuse to subjugate the latter to the Israeli tools and standards which have been imposed in the West Bank.

Elections should be a prelude to reforming Palestinian politics, and not just to reshuffling a PA that is dependent on Israel. That's why the previous consensus, according to the Reconciliation Agreement of May 2011, stipulates holding simultaneous presidential, legislative and PNC elections in order to ensure the success and seriousness of the electoral process, and take a major step towards reforming the PLO. However, the discourse these days merely to hold legislative elections in the first instance bears the risk of disrupting the rest of the electoral process, as happened in 2006 when Hamas won a surprise victory in the PLC elections, and the PLO and Fatah leadership suspended the procedures agreed upon in the summer of 2005 concerning the formation of the PNC.

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Hence, if simultaneous elections aren't held, Fatah will have a "safety net" if it loses again, whereby it could suspend the presidential and PNC elections, either willingly or under regional and international pressure. Moreover, Fatah's victory may encourage it to be satisfied with "delegitimising" Hamas as the representative of the Palestinian majority in the PLC, thus completing the path it started years ago. Then, it would demand that Hamas should respect the peace process adopted by Fatah, making the latter bolder when speaking on behalf of the Palestinians in any negotiations or peace deals. It would also demand Hamas to respect the democratic process and hand over the Gaza Strip to the PA. At the same time, the PLO and the PA leadership — as has happened on previous occasions — will find a thousand excuses to avoid completing the presidential and PNC elections, and any reform of Palestinian politics. In such a scenario, the elections would simply have been a trap for Hamas and the resistance forces. None of this takes into account the fact that elections based on proportional representation will automatically see Hamas — whether it wins or loses in terms of votes cast — lose more than half of its previous majority in the PLC.

As such, the new consensus needs a safety net which ensures that a transparent electoral process and the reform of the Palestinian political house is carried through to its completion.

Proceeding with elections without agreeing on a national programme is too risky, as those who follow the different paths — the peace process and resistance —have very different visions, priorities and programmes. Hamas and the resistance forces are not expected to yield to the peace process if they lose the elections, and it is very unlikely that Fatah will turn to the resistance path because it still sticks to the discredited peace process. Reforming the Palestinian political house, therefore, depends mainly on a national programme that is more concerned with protecting the fundamentals and facing up to the occupation than with holding elections. Moreover, before the elections are held, the factions must agree on the outlines of this programme, otherwise the conflict between different movements could explode more seriously than before.

Experience over the past fourteen years raises concerns about the reconciliation process; talk about elections has been heard frequently, and a number of agreements and understandings have been put together, such as the National Conciliation Document of the Prisoners 2006, the Makkah Agreement 2007, the 2011 Cairo Reconciliation Agreement, the 2012 Doha Declaration, Al-Shati' Agreement 2014, the Cairo Agreement 2017, and so on. These agreements highlighted the tactical aspect of managing relations, discussed selectively chosen issues, and underwent subjective interpretation. With them, it was easy to return to exchanges of accusations, attempts to impose a fait accompli and the achievement of gradual gains, so they became a way to manage the conflict rather than solve it. Hence, the two parties are required now to work hard to establish a real and effective system for "confidence building", even if it is gradual, so as to see some success and not another failure that adds to the frustration accumulated across the Palestinian scene.

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The election environment and accompanying competition, friction and mutual exposure may fan the flames of hostility rather than unite the ranks. This is where consensus matters, not only on the ethics and manners of the electoral process, but also on the outlines of the national programme. In this way, the competition would be over the details of the framework covering the best interests of the Palestinian people, where no party would feel that the other side will lead the people to disaster and thus justify the ending of their agreements.

There are concerns among pro-resistance parties that the PA is behaving tactically in order to strengthen its position against Israeli and US pressure, as well as confront normalisation in the Arab world, which has weakened the political position of the PA and the PLO. It wants to appear as the leader of all the Palestinian forces who seem to be under its wing. There are also concerns that the PA and the PLO leadership would link the ceiling of the Palestinian resistance to its own low "peaceful" ceiling and caution, providing Israel with an opportunity to impose a fait accompli, proceed with its plans without much effort and overcome any real resistance on the ground. These concerns increase with the feeling that the PA leadership is seeking to get through the current phase and wait until after the US presidential election in November in the hope that Joe Biden will win, the deal of the century and the Israeli annexation projects will fall by the wayside, and the peace process will be revived. At that point, the PA would return to its old habits.

These concerns are legitimate. Those holding them do not intend to disrupt reconciliation, but seek to find sufficient guarantees for its success.

There are a number of factors that are needed to deliver genuine reconciliation, and put the Palestinian political house in order. For a start, there needs to be political and media freedom in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as student and trade union activism, the release of prisoners of conscience and an end to security coordination with Israel.

As a gesture of good faith, the PA leadership should recall the existing PLC to resume its duties, pending new elections, and then lift the sanctions that the authority itself has imposed on the Palestinians in Gaza.

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Efforts must be made to develop a pre-election national programme that would be an acceptable basis for all of Palestinian political forces at this stage. This would require a programme for trust to be developed between Fatah, Hamas and all the other factions.

The PLO and all of its institutions need to be activated abroad, open to all of the Palestinian people. Workshops can then be held to discuss its reformation, enabling Palestinian communities in the diaspora to become more active.

Importantly, there has to be a commitment to hold all of the elections simultaneously. This commitment has to be combined with pledges to respect the results and see the process through to the end. This is also why agreement is needed on a strictly transparent electoral process at all stages and levels.

Finally, the Palestine issue is going through a crucial, potentially historic, phase in which there is no room for time-wasting political manoeuvres. Rather, it needs serious and constructive efforts without wasting even a second to rebuild the Palestinian political house, regain its momentum and restore its strengths.

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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