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Why did Hamas change its position on the Palestinian elections?

January 7, 2021 at 10:53 am

Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh informs Hanna Nasser, head of the Palestinian Central Election Commission, that Hamas agrees to the plan for holding Palestinian elections [Mohammed Asad/Middle East Monitor]

Ismail Haniyeh’s message to President Mahmoud Abbas included Hamas’s agreement to hold legislative, presidential and Palestinian National Council elections, respectively, within six months of the issuance of the election decree or decrees. So why did Hamas change its position and agree to successive elections, and does this change pave the way for actually holding them?

The Hamas narrative that it changed its position because it obtained guarantees from friendly Arab and other countries that the president will hold elections within six months is unfitting, as it indicates that Palestinian affairs are in the hands of others and cannot be taken seriously. How can these countries guarantee holding PNC elections for Palestinians abroad when they do not want them? This matter is neither in the hands of the Palestinians nor in the hands of the countries in which they live in the diaspora.

For example, holding elections for the Palestinians in Jordan — who make up more than a third of all Palestinians — requires a registry of voters, the approval of the Jordanian government, and the approval of the Palestinians in Jordan themselves. It is certainly not easy for a Palestinian who holds Jordanian citizenship to participate in elections that will cause them problems in terms of accusations of dual allegiance or loyalty at a time when the Palestinian cause is far from an absolute or relatively fair solution.

If the Palestinian leadership and forces are serious, perhaps they would have discussed with Jordan the matter of Palestinians living there who do not hold Jordanian citizenship — around one million — participating in elections. This would also be difficult but deserves to be tested on the ground.

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The truth is that there is no intention to hold PNC elections involving Palestinians in the diaspora; this is a well-known fact about which people keep quiet. At best, we could expect a national consensus based on the “quota system” with regard to the representation of Palestinians living abroad.

This means that Hamas did not change its position due to any guarantees that it obtained. This was just the excuse it needed to back down.

Hamas, like Fatah and other factions, realises the significance of Donald Trump’s defeat and the success of Joe Biden, and it seeks to rehabilitate itself with the support of its allies, especially Qatar, Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood. This is in preparation for Biden taking office on 20 January.

It is similar to what Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah did when they resumed security coordination with Israel, changed the basis for dealing with prisoners, and adopted a very moderate position regarding the resumption of relations with the new US administration; a position that does not involve calling on Washington to overturn the decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem. This is in addition to agreeing to go back to negotiations without conditions, as Riyad Al-Maliki and other senior Palestinian officials told the media.

Chief of Hamas’ Political Bureau Ismail Haniyeh (L) and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas (R) [File photo]

Chief of Hamas’ Political Bureau Ismail Haniyeh (L) and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas (R) [File photo]

All of this is an example of striking while the iron is hot to persuade the new White House to pay attention to the Palestinian cause instead of placing it at the bottom of the list of priorities, as if such attention alone is sufficient without any context or achievable goals.

Hence, Hamas is also betting on the political change in the US, as evidenced by its failure to insist on cancelling all Oslo obligations as the basis for Palestinian unity. Moreover, it is preparing for Biden to take office because he may even support the integration of Hamas into the PA, as Barack Obama did when he saw the Arab Spring as a way to replace the aging pro-US Arab leaders with those who have the support of their people. This was to ensure that the Arab and Muslim nations do not continue to hate the US because it supports corrupt and despotic rulers whose terms have expired.

This alone is not sufficient to explain the change in Hamas’s position, though. The movement is also counting on its internal political opponent, Fatah, being in a difficult position due to the failure of its political project, and afraid to hold elections despite all the changes it has introduced that will reduce Hamas’s share of seats in the Palestine Legislative Council. Other issues to be considered by Hamas include the dispute with Fatah over succession and the government; the convening of the Central Committee; replacing the late Saeb Erekat; the approach of the eighth Fatah conference; and the decline of the president’s popularity, as indicated by opinion polls. They are also counting on struggles over Marwan Barghouti’s place in all of this, Muhammad Dahlan and his followers, and the younger generation demanding to take its place within the movement, the PA and the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

In addition to all of the above, Hamas’s priority is to maintain its authority in the Gaza Strip. It needs to remain under the umbrella of legitimacy that it enjoys until it participates in the PLO. If this is achieved it would be very good for the movement. And it is possible, because the current round of reconciliation efforts do not stipulate an end to the division first, nor an end to Hamas’s control of the Gaza Strip or the control of Fatah and Abbas over the PA and PLO. Instead, it is based on elections that will take place under occupation and division and within the framework of a nominally autonomous PA. If this is not achieved, Hamas will seek through the flexibility it has shown not to bear responsibility for the continuation of the division, or at least not to bear it alone.

What reinforces the reasons for Hamas changing its position is that it does not want a military confrontation with Israel at an inappropriate time, in light of the deterioration of the Arab situation after the normalisation moves and indications that the next Israeli government will be even more right-wing than it is now. Hamas is monitoring developments in its ally Turkey, which is preparing for a complete tactical shift in its relationships with Israel, Europe, Egypt and the rest of the Arab countries in preparation for Biden taking office. What’s more, the movement does not want to throw itself into the arms of Iran at a time when Tehran is also awaiting Biden and the possible renewal of the nuclear agreement which, if it happens, will make Iran a contributor to stability in the region.

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Despite all of the above, including Hamas’s changing position, the path to comprehensive elections is not completely clear. Dialogue on the basis of partnership and other issues will begin after the decrees are issued, and the possibility of agreeing is less than not agreeing.

Furthermore, Israel is looking on as a major player which must give the green light to Palestinian elections. It may do so if it is confident that they will reinforce the PA, ensure that the division continues and tame Hamas.

Whoever wants to hold free and democratic elections, the results of which are respected and constitute a step forward, must strive to agree first on the national goal; the forms of struggle, negotiations and resistance; the foundations of the national partnership; and how to deal with the autonomous authority and its obligations in order to establish or amend them.

Those who want the manifestation of a Palestinian state and to hold free and fair elections whose results are respected by the international community, especially Europe, Russia, China, Turkey and the Arab countries, must seek to remove the Palestinian organisations from any and all “terrorist” lists, or remove the veto on their participation in the next government, and respect the election results, whatever they may be. They must abandon their unilateral control over the Gaza Strip and agree that international law and international legitimacy must be part of the Palestinian government’s programme. They must also work to end the division and unify the institutions first, as a first step towards holding elections.

As for those who want to ignore the danger of holding elections which will simply maintain the status quo, and reproduce it through the Joint List if they bypass the obstacles and agree on Mahmoud Abbas as a consensual president, distribute the members of the PNC based by a consensus, and avoid forming a transitional government that precedes the elections, they must bear the responsibility for what they seek or remain silent about.

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