The elections in the Palestinian Authority: An analysis of the challenge and policy recommendations
By Dr. Michael Milshtein | March 4, 2021
|Kremlin.ru | CC BY 4.0|
After one and a half decades of failed attempts to promote an inner Palestinian reconciliation that would enable elections, it is clear that the last few weeks have seen actual change in this area. For the first time in years, dates have been set for parliamentary, presidential, and PLO institutional elections, with interest and anticipation growing in the Palestinian system.
The backdrop for this change is a shift in Abu Mazen's position, who, until now, has impeded all possibility of elections, for the following two reasons: the first is an attempt to improve his image domestically, for he has been viewed as consistently standing in the way of renewal in the Palestinian system, and as obstacle on the path to national unity; the second, and more important, is the desire to signal to the Biden administration that it should accelerate and increase its involvement in the Palestinian system, and that indifference or stalling may have negative implications.
It seems that Abu Mazen is not genuinely interested in elections this time either, but as before, this step may be taken even if it is contrary to his plans and interests. Abu Mazen is driven by the logic that he can stop this process in its tracks at any given moment, while blaming Hamas, and suffering no significant damage.
However, as time goes by, an expedited bureaucratic and political dynamic is being formed that is expected to make it harder to cancel elections without paying a price – domestically and internationally – and the bill will be addressed to the person perceived as having set them up to fail, namely Abu Mazen.
Three key forces are driving for elections at this time:
- The international system: Some players believe that democratization will help to stabilize and heal the Palestinian system, and several international players are also promising to help manage the elections, and persuade Israel to allow them to be held in Jerusalem too.
- Hamas: is seeking to strengthen its leadership status through elections. The organization has its eyes set on "the day after" Abu Mazen, and has adopted a honey trapping strategy, whereby it is accepting most of Abu Mazen's demands that had been a dealbreaker in previous attempts to hold elections (namely the PA's requirement that elections be based on proportional representation and be held incrementally).
- Jibril Rajoub: The secretary general of Fatah`s central committee is using the elections to pave his way to presidency on "the day after" Anu Mazen. He is therefore advocating them fiercely, against some senior PA officials' better judgment, as the latter fear that the 2006 elections scenario will repeat itself, and the regime will be lost to Hamas.
At present, there are still many hurdles on the path to elections that could lead to their failure once again, namely both parties' mutual expectation that political detainees be released, and the uncertainty surrounding the elections in Jerusalem -an issue many in the Palestinian system define as crucial. Nevertheless, the weight attributed to these obstacles is diminishing, whereas public and international anticipation that the elections be held is growing.
From an Israeli perspective, having elections under the current circumstances reflects more risks than opportunities. On the one hand, the elections ostensibly embody potential for refreshing Palestinian politics, which has remained unchanged since the 2006 elections, or, to be more accurate, any changes it may have undergone were not on par with democratic principles. Moreover, if Fatah will win the elections, such a scenario would provide the opportunity to strengthen public legitimacy of the PA's leadership, weaken Hamas, and stabilize the Palestinian system – a goal that is becoming increasingly more crucial in preparation for the "day after" Abu Mazen.
However, at present, since Fatah is suffering from internal tensions, has a negative public image, and is facing a split – the same key reasons that led to its failure during the 2006 elections – whereas Hamas is closing ranks, determined, and highly organized, the threats to Israel, and to a large extent, to the Palestinian Authority, are more considerable, and could shock the Palestinian system.
The same is also true, of course, if Hamas wins the elections, and successfully entrenches itself in the West Bank, but also under the "Algerian scenario", whereby the PA will refuse to honor Hamas' victory, causing tensions between the two, and perhaps even between the public and the regime.
It is important to note that, at present, Hamas is not required by the PA or international system to recognize the peace agreements with Israel, let alone the latter's right to exist, as a condition for participating in the elections. If Hamas will win the elections, and bolster its status as the Palestinians' chosen leadership, this may cause a severe crisis between Israel and the Palestinians. The notion that the yoke of governance will lead to Hamas' ideal and practical moderation has been proven wrong before, and, at least for the moment, the establishment of a leadership or partnering role in the future Palestinian leadership is unlikely to make any profound difference in this context.
Israel cannot allow itself to observe the election process while keeping from intervening in a step that could have such strategic implications on its national security. Nevertheless, it must take action cautiously, for any intervention on its part may be heavily criticized globally, and lead to a crisis with the Palestinian Authority, that may even evolve into a violent clash with Hamas, as the latter recently announced that any Israeli attempt to sabotage the Palestinian elections will be met with a Palestinian effort to sabotage Israeli elections.
Even at this early stage, challenges are evolving on Israel's doorstep that require it to put an organized strategy in place. First, Israel must clarify that it welcomes democratic elections in the PA, and has no desire to intervene in the Palestinians' decisions; however, it must also present its basic terms on the subject, especially ensuring that Hamas meets international criteria. Israel should also underscore that the current circumstances may lead to a transformation in the Palestinian system, namely to a stronger Muslim Brotherhood, and this scenario would not be in the best interest of the moderate Arab camp or the international community.
On the practical level, Israel is advised to take the following four steps right now:
- Coordinate its policy with the central forces in the Arab world – namely Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – as well as the international community. As part of this step, ensuring that Hamas meets international criteria should be presented as a condition for discussing holding the elections in Jerusalem.
- Develop an ongoing dialogue with the senior Palestinian Authority leadership and Palestinian public – primarily through advocacy and awareness-raising – to make Israel's views very clear, and underscore the price that will be paid by all parties involved if the elections will be lost to political transformation.
- Relay overt and covert messages of deterrence to Hamas if the latter continues to threaten to sabotage Israeli elections, let alone take practical steps in this vein. Israel must also clarify in this context that, in such a case, it will go back on the understandings reached in the Gaza Strip, which provide Hamas with governmental stability.
- Thwart all possibility that Marwan Barghouti, senior leader of Fatah who has been imprisoned in Israel since 2002, will run for presidency, for his candidacy will cause a severe political and legal entanglement for both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
As preparation for elections will progress, Israel will have to decide how to address the political and public diplomacy efforts that Hamas or any political entity it appoints will promote in the West Bank. If there will be no change in current circumstances, Israel will be required to explore how to prevent such activity, inter alia by arresting senior Hamas officials in the region, limiting their movement between districts, and prohibiting any public Hamas moves.
With the exception of a scenario whereby Fatah wins the elections, the likelihood of which is currently limited, all other scenarios pose challenges or even strategic threats to Israel: from Hamas winning, through the establishment of a Palestinian unity government that will allow Hamas the freedom of action and entrenchment in the West Bank that is has been pursuing without having to meet the international criteria or bear the yoke of governance, to the annulment of the election outcome won by Hamas by either the PA or Israel.
If Israel should stall in its consolidation of an organized stance or in taking practical steps, the challenges may intensify, making it ever more difficult to grapple with them successfully.
Authored by Dr. Michael Milshtein, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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