Elections in most western governments are about choosing the politicians who will be making the key decisions over the next few years as well endorsing the policies and priorities of the winning team. No such luck in Israel. Elections merely initiate the real core politics as the leaders of the different factions jockey for positions, for determining policies and priorities in the bargaining to form a coalition government.
While Israelis opt for permanent electioneering and carry the process forward beyond the elections, Palestinians carry the process backward in determining who is eligible to run, who can vote, which lists will be allowed to present themselves to voters and even whether elections will be held at all. Elections are not a condition of having a democratic form of governance. Rather, a non-democratic form of governance determines the possibility of a democratic polity.
However, not by itself. Israel has an inordinate influence on whether Palestinian elections will be held and how they will be conducted. As I indicated in my blog on Oslo II and the Palestinian elections, Israel has a say in the Palestinian elections in the following ways:
- The election is about self-government, not sovereign government.
- The territory governed by the elected government was determined by mutual agreement.
- Control over security in different respective areas was also determined by mutual agreement.
- The division of the territory into the five following areas was determined by mutual agreement:
West Bank Area A
West Bank Area B
West Bank Area C
- The Palestinian Authority had independent responsibility for providing the framework for democratic elections, conducting elections and setting the conditions for running for office within the terms of Oslo II.
- Israel is obligated to facilitate voting in East Jerusalem.
On 15 January 2021, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority announced three elections:
- Parliamentary elections on 22 May for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) consisting of 132 members from 16 electoral districts;
- Presidential elections on 31 July;
- On 31 August, elections from the Palestinians throughout Palestine and the diaspora for the PNC, the Palestinian National Council (PNC) for the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).
The first two would be held not only in the West Bank and Gaza, but in East Jerusalem as well.
The catalyst for elections has not only come from the residents of Palestine discontented with the lack of democracy and alleged corruption and incompetence by the existing government and from Israel, but by external Arab actors as well. The diplomatic normalization accords signed between the UAR, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan provided a catalyst. Qatar, an important financier of Gaza, has been pressuring Hamas and Fatah to come together to form a united government in dealing with Israel. Egypt, though with its own qualms, has also pushed for such an election. On the other hand, high-level Jordanian officials have expressed even more unease than the Israelis about the forthcoming Palestinian elections fearing increased strength by Hamas and an aftermath of increased instability in the West Bank.
Finally, the announcement was a message to the new Biden administration that took office only five days after the announcement that the PA was prepared to reengage in peace negotiations and by this move reinvited the US to reestablish its support for Palestinians and UNRWA.
Polls in December 2020 conducted by the reliable Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) headed by the highly respected pollster, Khalil Shikaki, indicated 38% support for Fatah and 34% for Hamas. Given Israeli and American fears of a further increase in power for Hamas, many predicted that no election would actually take place. As the election days approach, those prognostications have been seriously undermined so that now there is a general belief that the PA will pull off the elections. This has been helped when Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, indicated that he would not stand, nor would Hamas nominate a candidate for president. This was particularly important since in polls, 50% of Palestinians supported him in contrast to 43% for Abbas. Abbas has yet to indicate whether he will stand for reelection and is unlikely to make an announcement until after the parliamentary elections on 22 May.
There are 36 different lists, each having to meet a minimum threshold of 1.5% of the total votes cast. Each list has deposited $20,000 ($10,000 refundable) to run in the elections. Seven are what we would recognize as national party lists. The rest are lists of local communal or tribal groups running for office in one of the sixteen electoral districts where, in some cases, local sentiments and support may outweigh national exposure. Hamas will be fielding a single list but Fatah as a movement has split in three:
- The traditional leadership with the top four on the list being Deputy head of Fatah, Mahmoud Alloul, Suad Zalloum, the wife of a Palestinian martyr from Hebron and one of three women in the top ten, Ahmad Hilles, Fatah’s leader in the Gaza Strip, and Jibril Rajoub, Fatah’s secretary and the architect of the elections as a result of the understanding with Hamas’ Saleh al-Arouri; Muni al-Masri’s business-oriented group merged with the official Fatah list;
- A rival list under a united banner, Freedom, organized by Yasser Arafat’s nephew and veteran diplomat, Nasser al-Qudwa, head of the National Democratic Assembly (NDA), a leader in the lawfare war against Israel who was expelled from Fatah in March and ousted as head of the Yasser Arafat Foundation; his second-in-command is Marwan Barghouti’s wife, Fadwa, since Marwan is serving five consecutive life terms in an Israeli prison, and is the real populist nominee leader of the list (note that Abdel Fatah Hamiel, leader of the first intifada is third on the list);
- A list under the banner of “Future” under the real leadership of former Fatah leader and security chief in Gaza, Mohammed Dahlan, currently living in exile in Abu Dhabi but with the following two names heading the list, former Gazan Fatah leader Samir Masharawi and former President of Al-Quds University, Sari Nusseibeh;
- A technocratic list, Together We Can, under former ex-World Bank official popular in the West for his financial reforms, Salam Fayyad, finance minister from June 2002 to November 2005 and March 2007 to May 2012; though not confirmed by the Palestinian Legislative Council, he was also Prime Minister between June 2007 and June 2013. He formerly ran in 2005 as founder and leader of the Third Wave Party for the legislative elections of 2006.
- Hamas led by Ismail Haniyeh from 2007 until 2014 and again from 2016; in the short-lived Palestinian national unity government of 2006, Ismail Haniyeh was nominated as Prime Minister.
- A leftist list led by the charismatic Fadwa Khader activist from Jerusalem uniting the Palestinian People’s Party (PPP) and the Palestinian Democratic Union Party (FIDA);
- A more radical leftist list made up of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) led by Ahmad Saadat, who is serving life imprisonment, and Khalida Jarrar, a former Palestinian parliamentarian in administrative detention, head of the Pulse of the People. (Polls suggest it will pass the threshold as well.)
An overwhelming majority of Palestinians favour holding the elections whether or not Israel creates obstacles to voting in East Jerusalem and even if there is a prospect of Hamas winning. As an indication of those poll results, 93% or 2.6 of the 2.8 million eligible voters have registered to vote, an outstanding proportion in any polity. Further, many of the lists registered may lose their deposits in addition to the $10,000 non-refundable portion, since, even with a very low threshold of 1.5%, if everyone registered votes, then a list would need 35,000 votes to pass the threshold.
Over the next two weeks, expect some lists to drop out after being offered incentives and percs by Fatah. At the same time, popular local candidates can be expected to make some inroads into Fatah support. Do not expect the elections to be canceled because of the results. Hamas does not have enough support in the West Bank to win a majority and the parties have agreed to seek a two-state solution by non-violent means.
Electioneering starts on 1 May and takes place over the following three weeks, ceasing 24 hours before the votes can be cast. Other than the far left parties, there are, in fact, few policy differences among the lists except between Hamas and the rest. Hamas has not formally recognized Israel nor yet agreed to set aside military means of achieving their political ends except in the short term. But Hamas has sent signals that it may compromise on these two issues. If it does not, Israel and the US may object to Hamas elected candidates taking up their positions. I suspect there will be a verbal compromise on these two issues, especially since Hamas was hurt so badly by three wars with Israel and has governed Gaza very poorly, with a very high unemployment rate and wide discontent.
With the military coup in Egypt, Hamas no longer has the support of the Muslim Brotherhood there. Further, since there are other options for Palestinian Jerusalemites to cast their ballots – electronic voting and voting booths set up in adjacent territory – it is unlikely that the election would be cancelled even if Hamas had once insisted the election would be cancelled if Israel goes ahead and prevents Palestinians in East Jerusalem from voting even at post offices as provided under Oslo II. 65% of Palestinians support going ahead with elections even if Israel puts up obstacles to Palestinians casting ballots in post offices in East Jerusalem with only 27% demanding cancellation compared to an earlier figure in polling of 39%.
The policy of seeking a two-state solution by non-violent means will be necessary if there is not only a coalition government but a government of national unity over which there has already been a great deal of discussion. In fact, without those discussions, it seems unlikely that an election would have taken place at all. For it is precisely out of such conversations that agreements were made on timing of the election, though the Trump unilateral moves on Jerusalem and on cutting aid were major instigators of the attempt to form a united front.
Personal relations were critical to the October 2020 agreement between Hamas and Fatah in Turkey as the two negotiators once shared a cell in an Israeli prison. Jibril Rajoub, Fatah’s secretary, was the architect of the elections as a result of the understanding arrived at with Hamas’ Saleh al-Arouri during meetings held in Turkey.
Next: what can we expect from the elections?