The Palestinian Elections

Part I (of III): Oslo II and the Palestinian Election Provisions

The Oslo Accords frame, direct and legitimate the Palestinian elections. The formal title of the Oslo Accords signed between by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for the Israeli government and Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) for the PLO on 13 September 1993 (Oslo I) is “Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-government.” The document is about self-government, not (yet anyway) about sovereignty for the Palestinians. It is deliberately referred to as an “interim” agreement. And the document set down general principles governing the development of that self-government.

Like a great deal of diplomacy, the same agreement may mean different things to the different warring sides that sign the agreement. Thus, for the Israelis, although an independent sovereign state could emerge sometime as a consequence of the agreement and events that follow, the agreement is only about a degree of autonomy and not an agreement on sovereignty either at the time it was signed or in the future. For the Palestinians, the stage of self-government was clearly and unequivocally interpreted as a step moving towards sovereignty for the Palestinian people.

Thus, “interim” meant an intervening step from full occupation to an independent Palestinian state. For Israelis, however, “interim” simply meant a test period when they could assess whether Palestinians were genuinely committed to a peaceful resolution of the conflict and, also, whether the Palestinians really and finally recognized the legitimacy of the State of Israel. Depending on the results of this stage, the Israelis would be in a better position to determine whether greater self-government should be recognized for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Further, the principles as set down were interpreted by each side as reinforcing its interpretation of the Oslo Accords. It was, in fact, primarily a recognition agreement, Israel recognizing the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people and the PLO recognizing Israel’s right to exist in peace, and, hence, the renunciation of violence by the Palestinians.

However, the agreement was not just about principles, but about how democratic practices would be introduced and developed for and by the Palestinians. It was agreed that the Palestinian Authority as a separate entity from the PLO would be instituted to assume “some” governing responsibilities in the West Bank and Gaza for a “trial” or “tentative” (for the Israelis) period versus an “interim” or intermediate five-year period (for the Palestinians) after which both sides would engage in negotiations over final borders, refugees, the status of Jerusalem and the allocation of a scarce resource like fresh water. The U.S. would serve as not only the guarantor and financer of the accord, but also the mediator and conciliator, though America had not played any significant role in negotiating the accord.

Oslo II was signed two years later in September of 1995 based on the May 1994 Cairo Agreement by which Israeli troops would be scheduled to withdraw from “most” of Gaza and Jericho. In the West Bank, there were three separate areas, A, B and C. From Gaza and Area A in the West Bank, Israel would withdraw its defence forces as well as institutions of governance. In Area B, only Israel’s governing but not its security functions would cease. In Area C comprising two-thirds of the West Bank, Israel would retain its responsibilities for both governance and security.

Two agreements following Oslo increased the territory assigned and governed by the PA. In January 1997, following intensive U.S. mediation, Israel and the PA signed the Hebron Protocol transferring most of Hebron to Palestinian control. In October 1998, the Wye River Accords signed by Arafat and Netanyahu called for further Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank. Netanyahu appeared to be stalling in their limitation and, even though his government fell in the subsequent Israeli elections, the failure to reach a deal when Prime Minister Barak offered widespread concessions meant the effective abandonment of any track towards diplomacy, increased settlement activities and the breakout of violence in the Second Intifada.

Oslo II also set down the conditions for elections, but with neither Oslo I nor II was any provision made for monitoring and holding both sides responsible for its end of the bargain. Annex II set down the following parameters for Palestinian elections:

  1. Direct, free and general elections would be held for the Palestinian Council and, at the same time, the Ra’ees, President or Chairman of the Palestinian Executive Authority.
  2. Both of the above elections were to be held in accord with regulations to be set down and codified in the Election Law by the Palestinian Authority and would apply to all candidates for election.
  3. The Palestinian Authority (PA) would create an independent Central Election Commission (CEC) responsible for the publication of the list of electors or the candidates, the mode of conduct of the elections, the counting of ballots, appeal procedures and the determination and publication of the results.
  4. Every Palestinian 18 years or older on the date of the election, and meeting the qualifications for the right to vote, would be registered to vote, a vote which was promised to be universal regardless of sex, race, religion, opinion, social origin, education or property status. Voters would be registered in only one voting district. No Israeli citizen can be registered on the voter list.
  5. To be registered to vote, a person must be:
  6. At least 17-years-old;
  7. Be a Palestinian;
  8. Live in the polling district where registered;
  9. Not be deprived of the right to vote because of incapacity as determined in a court of law, or a judicial sentence while the sentence is in force, or if detained in a psychiatric facility at the time of the election.
  10. Eligible registrants include Palestinians a) 40 or over who can provide evidence that they lived more or less continuously for at least three years in the West Bank and Gaza; and b) under 40-years-old who have lived in the West Bank and Gaza more or less continuously for four years.
  11. Eligibility for registration would be determined by a joint Israeli-Palestinian body.

As for the selection of candidates, the regulations in Article III of the Appendix set out the provisions for the qualification and nomination of candidates. Electors and the Ra’ees must be registered voters, live in the area of his or her polling station where he or she stands for election. Having a valid address is defined as occupying an owned or rented residential property in the area under the jurisdiction of the CEC. Israeli citizens, including Palestinian Israelis, are not eligible to vote or be a candidate. Nominations are to be rejected if the candidate pursues political objectives by “unlawful or un-democratic means.”

The process for nominating candidates is set out in some detail and the actual system in operation seems to track the Israeli one in providing candidates for election on lists.  Campaigns last 22 days and end 24 hours before polls open. The security of the election and the campaign is ensured by both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government jointly “to prevent public disorder.’ International observers selected and administered by the EU will monitor the conduct of the elections. Freedom of the press is guaranteed in the regulations.

The election procedures with regard to campaigning and voting in Jerusalem are particularly relevant and are set down in Article VI as follows:

Election Campaigning

A subcommittee of the CAC shall be established comprising representatives of the CEC and Israel, to coordinate issues relating to election campaigning in Jerusalem. Candidates conducting campaign activities in Jerusalem shall apply for the necessary permits through the CEC. The CEC shall obtain the necessary permits from the Israeli side in the CAC subcommittee. In addition, the CEC may disqualify candidates whose election campaigning in Jerusalem fails to comply with the provisions of the Palestinian Election Law and this Agreement.

Polling Arrangements

Location: The Palestinians of Jerusalem will vote in the elections through services rendered in post offices in Jerusalem in concert with the capacity of such post offices.

The relevant post offices for the purposes of these arrangements shall be:

Salah-a-din post office;

Jaffa Gate post office;

Shuafat post office;

Beit Hanina post office; and

Mount of Olives post office.

It seems unequivocal that provision was made for Palestinians in Jerusalem to vote in the Palestinian elections, but instead of facilitating the implementation of this provision, in the run-up to the 2021 elections, Israel seems to be an obstacle for registering, selecting candidates from Jerusalem and arranging the logistics in post offices for voting. Yet Appendix I clearly spells out that Palestinians with an Israeli ID registered in Jerusalem are eligible to vote.

There have been the other more usual complaints about the fairness of the election. For example, Fadi Eiselameen, a US citizen who grew up in Hebron and is currently a non-resident fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, accused Abbas not only of corruption, but of engaging in intimidation to shut him up by sending him death threats. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade linked to Fatah was named as the source of the threats. Under the same provision, a hero for many if not most Palestinians, Marwan Barghouti, currently serving five life terms in an Israeli prison, may be considered ineligible to run in the election.

Expulsion is another technique used to shut down criticism of Fatah. For example, the PA recently expelled former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat’s nephew, Nasser Al Kidwa, from the Fatah party for promoting the fielding of a rival electoral list headed by Marwan Barghouti’s wife and probably Marwan himself for Ra’ees in the forthcoming May and July votes. These specific problems reinforce a general view of the Palestinian Authority as both corrupt and a toady of the Israeli government as it suffers from a reputation for poor governance, years of stagnation, and political bickering in addition to corruption and the obsequiousness to Israel. A March 2021 poll by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research in the West Bank and Gaza Strip found that among 1,200 adults, 84 per cent believed that the Palestinian Authority is corrupt.

Finally, there is the problem of voting in Jerusalem. Oslo II is unequivocal and clear – Palestinians in Jerusalem have the right to vote in Palestinian elections as long as they are not citizens of Israel. Hamas has insisted that there will be no elections without voting in Jerusalem. Ezzat Al-Reshq, a spokesperson, said: “We insist that the Palestinian people in Jerusalem have the right to participate in the coming elections, as candidates and as voters, exactly as in 2006. If the Israeli occupation attempts to prevent Palestinians in Jerusalem from participating in the elections, the Palestinian people will launch a national battle against the Israeli occupation.” Israel has yet to agree to cooperate in facilitating the voting.

Rumours also are flying around that Israel, behind the scenes, is encouraging the postponement and even cancellation of the already scheduled 22 May election given the divisions within Fatah, the alleged surge in support for Hamas with the high risk that it might win, and the outcome of the 2006 elections.

Israel has too many elections. The Palestinians have far too few. But both polities have lots of competition for office – Israel has 13 lists; the Palestinians have 36. The chaos in governance on each side enhances the instability of the other instead of each reinforcing the other’s stability.

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