[On 15 January 2021, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas issued a decree mandating elections for the Palestinian Authority (PA) presidency and parliament, as well as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Palestine National Council, all to be held later this year. With numerous similar yet unconsummated announcements during the past decade, Palestinians are nevertheless preparing for elections in 2021 more seriously than in recent years. Mouin Rabbani, editor of Quick Thoughts and Jadaliyya Co-Editor, interviewed Palestinian analyst and General Director of Filastiniyat Wafa Abdel-Rahman to get a better understanding of recent developments and their impact on the Palestinian political landscape]
Mouin Rabbani (MR): After more than a decade of postponement, why have Palestinian legislative and presidential elections been called this year?
Wafa Abdel-Rahman (WA): The two main Palestinian political movements, Fatah and Hamas, have claimed that elections can serve as a useful entry point to end their schism after more than a decade of negotiations and dialogue failed to produce results. The Palestinian public isn’t buying this explanation, and most analysts believe the elections were called for different reasons.
The first is the election of US President Joe Biden, and the assumption by the Palestinian leadership that it needs to prepare for renewed relations with Washington and a resumption of fruitless negotiations with Israel similar to those sponsored by previous US administrations. According to this thinking, Biden will not accept an “outdated, divided” Palestinian leadership, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu already claims cannot legitimately represent all Palestinians because of the Fatah-Hamas schism.
Second, the Europeans have been promoting new elections in the hope that these will result in Hamas being co-opted within the Palestinian Authority (PA) and accepting the rules of the game established by Oslo. The Europeans also seem to believe that a divided Palestinian polity gives Israel a pretext to reject any meaningful initiatives, whether negotiations or a suspension of their expansionist and annexationist policies.
Third is the crisis of legitimacy confronting the two Palestinian movements. Both their projects, namely political Islam and Gaza governance for Hamas, and negotiations and political survival in the case of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, are failing, and their legitimacy is eroding. At the same time, both have successfully weakened other political movements as well as civil society, including unions and the youth and women’s movements. They seem to have arrived at the conclusion that elections can renew their legitimacy, extend their rule, and increase their room for manoeuvre.
Fourth, Trump’s catastrophic policies, including the Arab-Israeli normalization agreements, have produced growing hostility towards the Palestinians and their leadership. As a result, Palestinians are losing a main source of diplomatic, financial, and to an extent also popular support they have relied upon for years. This has encouraged Fatah and Hamas to forge a united front, or at least find a mechanism to manage the division.
MR: What is the nature of the agreements reached between Fatah and Hamas, and what differences remain between them?
WA: In previous agreements reached between Fatah and Hamas, emphasis was placed on the Palestinian national project, and Palestinian aspirations for ending the occupation and self-determination. They tried to address the consequences of the schism and focused on issues like reforming national institutions such as the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), unifying a divided civil service, governance, political prisoners, freedoms, and community reconciliation.
In the recent meeting convened in Cairo in early February, the agreements were limited to conducting Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), PA presidential, and Palestinian National Council (PNC) elections. The discussions focused on technicalities concerning the PLC elections – nomination criteria, amendments to the electoral law to raise the minimum quota of women’s representation from 25 to 30 per cent and reduce the minimum age of candidates below 28, and similar issues. The core political issues and their resolution weren’t dealt with. But elections aren’t just technical exercises, and therefore differences and disagreement are likely to emerge every step of the way.
For example, both parties agreed to permit free campaigning and to release political prisoners. Yet PA Prime Minister Muhammad Shtayyeh declared that there are no political prisoner in the West Bank, but Hamas is holding more than 80 in the Gaza Strip. Predictably, the Hamas spokesperson refuted this account, claiming that West Bank security forces are holding more than 15 such prisoners, while insisting there are none in his own movement’s prisons.
Another example concerns the Palestinian police, which according to the agreement reached in Cairo will be responsible for safeguarding the elections. Yet each party has a different definition of “police”. To Hamas it means those who currently serve in the force, meaning those officers it appointed in the Gaza Strip after it seized power in the territory in 2007. Yet when the PA talks about “police” it is referring to those who served prior to 2007 and remain on Ramallah’s payroll even though they have been ordered to stay home as a condition for receiving their salaries.
In other words, the gap between the two parties remains large. Hamas wants to retain control of the Gaza Strip and play a role in West Bank governance, while Fatah and Abbas want to re-establish full control over the Gaza Strip while of course retaining power in the West Bank.
Ultimately, both parties came to the realization that in view of the various internal and external circumstances, managing the divide will best serve their interests. This was reflected in their decision to run a joint slate of candidates in the PLC elections, which was widely condemned.
MR: What is the nature of the conflict that has erupted within Fatah, particularly between Abbas and prominent Fatah Central Committee member Nasir Al-Qidwa?
WA: Fatah was never a unified movement, not even during the era of Yasir Arafat. When Abu Mazen (Abbas) succeeded Arafat in 2004, many in the Fatah leadership didn’t see him as a capable leader who could unify Fatah’s various power centers. They described him as weak president and assumed that because of this weakness they would be able to preserve their influence and interests.
The 2009 Fatah General Conference proved to be a turning point in this respect, and allowed Abbas to consolidate power and establish autocratic rule. He became a virtual dictator, trusting no one and prepared to exchange allies at the drop of a hat. This is for example what happened with Muhammad Dahlan, his closest associate during the Arafat era but with whom he had an irrevocable rupture about a decade ago for reasons that had very little to do with meaningful policy differences.
Elections usually reveal Fatah’s internal divisions in all their glory. Furthermore, Abu Mazen has used his presidential powers to manipulate the process and control the outcome in every way possible. He for example dissolved the PLC, thereby ensuring that its Speaker, Aziz Dweik of Hamas, cannot take office in accordance with PA laws that stipulate that in case of a president’s death the PLC speaker assumes the presidency for 60 days pending new elections. Other presidential decrees effectively gave Abbas full control over the judiciary, and more recently required that any electoral candidate employed by the PA must demonstrate not only that they have resigned from their job but also that the resignation has been accepted. Given the high number of Fatah members employed by the PA this effectively put the fate of their candidacy in Abbas’s hands.
Additionally, the Fatah Central Committee adopted a decision to expel any member who contests the elections independently of the official Fatah candidate list. This threat was particularly targeted at Al-Qidwa.
Al-Qidwa, himself a Central Committee member, has disagreed with Abu Mazen on virtually every issue, but has opposed him passively rather than through confrontation. On this occasion, and despite numerous threats, he decided it was time to take a stand and form an independent list of candidates that will contest the elections as the National Democratic Assembly. He has been negotiating with imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who shares similar frustrations about the leadership and has been considering a run for the presidency, to head the electoral list, but sources say that if Barghouti doesn’t come out in clear support of Al-Qidwa’s initiative, the latter will compose his own list, and is likely to gain the support of many disaffected Fatah members.
Marwan Barghouti has long felt abandoned and even targeted by the current leadership, which has stopped demanding his release from Israeli imprisonment. In this respect, reports have revealed that Abbas has in the past been unwilling to raise Barghouti’s freedom in meetings with European delegates, because he considers Marwan a threat to his position.
Barghouti is said to be negotiating with the leadership about his presidential candidacy. If he is accepted by Fatah as its official candidate, he will announce his backing for the official Fatah list for the PLC elections and withhold support from any other list including Al-Qidwa’s. Both Marwan and Al-Qidwa have made clear that they will not align with Dahlan.
The potential scenarios include multiple Fatah electoral lists, a delay or cancellation of elections, and open conflict within Fatah.
MR: Do you expect the elections to be conducted, and what significance will it have if they are indeed held or if they are once again postponed?
WA: I give the PLC elections a 50-60 per cent chance, but the presidential elections only 20 per cent.
If elections are held under the current arrangements Palestinians are in trouble, because the outcome would consolidate and institutionalize the status quo, meaning a continuation of the schism and a return to the delusional path of negotiations. If they don’t happen, it will result in more division and deterioration at every level, including empowering Israel to continue its expansionism and de facto annexation, further normalization between Arab governments and Israel, and less financial support to the PA. In either case, the Palestinian public will pay the price.
In the Gaza Strip people have slender hopes that elections might produce a small change to their unbearable situation, weaken Hamas and the siege, and improve the economy. This is why lots of groups are actively registering and preparing for elections. In the West Bank people are convinced that elections will not change anything, and hardly care.