Abbas signing the decree for the dates of the elections. Photo Credit: Thaier Ganaim, APA Image
On January 15, President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Mahmoud Abbas announced presidential and parliamentary elections would be held this summer in the West Bank and Gaza, the first in fifteen years. The announcement was met with widespread cynicism, as critics pointed to the institutional failures of the Palestinian political structure. While there are many valid concerns regarding the election and the future of Palestinian political representation, the elections offer an opportunity for both Palestinians and foreign powers to consider the trajectory of the territories and the diaspora. With the elections, and a more sympathetic American administration in office, a push for reform and revitalization may be met with increased global support.
Elections for the PA Legislative Council (PLC) are scheduled for May 22, with a presidential election to follow on July 31 and the Palestinian National Council (PNC) elections in August. The PLC is the lawmaking body for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, while the PNC is the internationally recognized representative organization for the Palestinian people, and includes members from the diaspora.[i] President Mahmoud Abbas had announced plans to hold elections in the past, but differences between the Fatah-controlled West Bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza have sidelined these efforts, entrenching the power of the current PA elite. Abbas, who succeeded Yasser Arafat in 2005, was originally expected to serve a four year term. In his sixteenth year of power, Abbas is considered widely unpopular and holds disapproval ratings of approximately 65%.[ii] However, despite past election failures, 93% of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are registered to vote.[iii] With many poised to make their voices heard, the elections could create a reformative shift in Palestinian politics and heal the divides between the West Bank and Gaza by forming a unity government. Several challengers to Abbas have already announced their intentions to run as part of new political alliances outside the Fatah/Hamas divide.[iv] However, the question remains whether the elections will be truly democratic.
Responses to the announcement vary, but criticism overshadows cautious optimism. Yara Hawari, a Policy Fellow at al-Shabaka, a think tank, questioned the sincerity of the elections, especially as they coincided with a new administration in the White House.[v] It is possible that Abbas announced the elections in an attempt to placate Washington after four difficult years with the Trump Administration. Hawari further suggests that elections are a ploy to quell the concerns of foreign donors who can no longer entertain the optics of an overdue election. A lack of faith in a democratic process, as expressed by some Palestinian activists and academics, is a merited response. The last elections in 2006 were dismissed by the U.S. and Israel when Hamas, designated by the two states as a terrorist group, defeated Abbas’ Fatah party. The results were voided, and each party consolidated control over its own territory, creating a deep political schism between the Palestinian populations in the West Bank and Gaza.[vi]
Other analysts expressed skepticism over the election’s logistics, noting that approximately five million people live under occupation. Moreover, the Palestinian National Council elections in August require input from the 13 million Palestinians in the global diaspora.[vii] There is also the issue of Israeli intervention in the process, especially in Jerusalem, a city claimed by both sides. The PA will have to consider whether to validate the election results if Palestinians in Jerusalem are prevented from voting. Furthermore, Israel previously refused to work with Fatah if it joins with Hamas, which is a possible outcome in the elections.[viii] Entrenching this position, the director of the Shin Bet Nadav Argaman held a meeting with Abbas in March where he warned the president not to run on a unity ticket with Hamas.[ix] To secure a free and fair election, the PA will have to address the role of the diaspora, Jerusalem, and Israeli threats against a Fatah-Hamas ticket.
Despite these hurdles, there are reasons to support the elections. Omar Rahman of Brookings notes that elections are the “most accessible” way to break the authoritarian and obstructionist nature of Palestinian institutions and advocate for new leadership.[x] Even if a genuine democratic process is not Abbas’ intention, the publicity of the event places a spotlight on past failures and opens a debate on the future of the West Bank and Gaza. As Rahman notes, this is especially important for a younger generation of Palestinians who never participated in the political process or had the opportunity to advocate for representative governance.
Palestinian elections are not a solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict or a fix-all for Palestinian factionalism, but it is a positive step. The status quo could remain with a peace process off the table and a disjointed Palestinian leadership failing to fairly represent the Palestinian people to the international community. Alternatively, new political voices could enter the discourse, and global interest in securing additional rights for Palestinians may revive. The timing is important as other states in the region normalize relations with Israel and pressure for a peace process diminishes.
The Biden Administration has offered mixed signals on Palestine so far, both opposing annexation and continuing to protect Israel from international condemnation. On March 3, the State Department denounced Palestinian efforts to challenge Israel in the International Criminal Court.[xi] Concurrently, lawmakers from the House and Senate expressed their disappointment in the Israeli handling of the Coronavirus pandemic in the occupied territories, bringing renewed attention to the issue of settler colonialism.[xii] With this pressure in the foreground, the Biden administration announced a $15 million aid package to Gaza and the West Bank on March 25 in an attempt to repair relations after four years of strain under the Trump administration.[xiii] It is not immediately clear that elections will guarantee increased American support for a peace process or broader Palestinian rights, but there are few remaining options for viable change. Time will tell if the Palestinian elections can generate intra-Palestinian reform. In the meantime, the U.S. should engage the perspectives of young, Palestinian political leaders as they enter the emerging discourse.
[i] Nathan J. Brown and Zaha Hassan, “Slightly Dialing Back the Cynicism About Palestine’s Upcoming Elections,” Carnegie Endowment, Mar. 4, 2021. https://carnegieendowment.org/2021/03/04/slightly-dialing-back-cynicism-about-palestine-s-upcoming-elections-pub-83976
[iv] Patrick Kingsley and Adam Rasgon, “The Palestinians and Israelis both vote soon. The differences are stark,” NYTimes, Mar. 21, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/21/world/middleeast/israel-palestinians-elections.html
[v] Yara Hawari, “Palestinian Elections: Democracy for No One,” Al Jazeera, Jan. 27, 2021. https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2021/1/27/palestinian-elections-democracy-for-no-one
[vi] Dalia Hatuqa, “The New Palestinian Elections are All Talk and No Action,” Foreign Policy, Feb. 2 , 2021. https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/02/02/new-palestinian-elections-mahmoud-abbas-fatah-hamas-plo-palestinian-authority-israel-reform/
Population statistics see: Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, “Number of Registered Palestinian Refugees by Country, January 2017,” http://www.pcbs.gov.ps/Portals/_Rainbow/Documents/Registered-Refugees-by-Country-Diaspora-E-2017.html and Nathan J. Brown and Zaha Hassan, “Slightly Dialing Back the Cynicism About Palestine’s Upcoming Elections,” Carnegie Endowment, Mar. 4, 2021. https://carnegieendowment.org/2021/03/04/slightly-dialing-back-cynicism-about-palestine-s-upcoming-elections-pub-83976
[ix] Barak Ravid, “Israel Warns Palestinian President Abbas Against election ticket with Hamas,” Axios, Mar. 24, 2021. https://www.axios.com/palestinian-election-israel-warn-abbas-hamas-deal-1540da15-c869-4562-880b-0cc4351b8bb8.html
[x] Omar Rahman, “Elections in Palestine: Prelude or Ploy?” Brookings Institution, Feb. 24, 2021.
[xi] Anthony Blinken, “The United States Opposes the ICC Investigation into the Palestinian Situation,” Press Release, the State Department, Mar. 3, 2021.
[xii] Ali Harb, “Winds are Shifting: US lawmakers criticize Israel in two rare letters,” Middle East Eye, Mar. 12, 2021. https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/winds-are-shifting-us-lawmakers-criticise-israel-two-rare-letters
[xiii] Elizabeth Hagedorn, “Intel: US announces $15 million in aid to West Bank and Gaza.” Al-Monitor, Mar. 25, 2021.