Independent Palestinian news-portal www.masarat.ps
Expectations have been rife that an election would be held, but preparations for them have suddenly been halted, although all the factions had agreed to an election, according to a message by the president that was conveyed by Hanna Nasser [Elections' Commissioner]. The officially announced reason for the open-ended postponement, pending the issuing of a presidential decree to hold elections, is the need for obtaining Israeli approval, despite the high probability that Benjamin Netanyahu’s government will not allow elections to be held in Jerusalem, particularly given that Israel is in the throes of an electoral competition between its religious right and its secular right.
So what happened? Did the president back down on holding elections, or had he not intended to hold them in the first place and had been banking on the rejection of Hamas and Israel? Or does the need to hold elections in Jerusalem trump the need to hold elections because sovereignty over Jerusalem is more important?
To get to the bottom of this issue, it is useful to consider how previous elections were held in Jerusalem. Palestinian-Israeli agreement on how to hold the elections was badly organised, allowing a limited number of Jerusalemites (six thousand) to vote at Israeli post offices. The pretext for such a limitation was that those post offices could not accommodate larger numbers. In other words, Jerusalemites were treated like resident foreigners, rather than native citizens, since their votes were placed in envelopes that were put in Israeli postal boxes and subsequently delivered to the Palestinian Authority (PA).
This, and other factors further limited participation by Jerusalemites in previous elections. Those factors included the repressive security atmosphere created by Israeli occupation forces on election day, the PLO’s practical abandonment of Jerusalem by postponing negotiations over the city to final status negotiations, depriving Jerusalem of the attention and budgets it needed, competition amongst various Palestinian key political forces and the haphazard nature of political appointments. The highest number for participation never exceeded three thousand, as was the case in the previous legislative elections of 2006.
Israel’s rejection of elections in Jerusalem, which takes the shape of not responding to the Palestinian request, is a golden opportunity to change the way in which Jerusalemites vote. This can be done by turning that rejection into a battle with the Israeli occupation. This could be achieved by locating ballot boxes in al-Aqsa Mosque, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and schools. If Israeli occupation forces prevent people from casting their votes, this will expose Israel in its true light before the rest of the world as an enemy of democracy. It will also emphasise the Palestinian character of Jerusalem, and undermine Israeli sovereignty over it far more effectively than before.
In such a context, issuing a Palestinian presidential decree to hold elections would turn into a pressure tactic against Israeli occupation. But continuing to make holding such elections subject to Israeli approval to allow them in Jerusalem amounts to giving Israel a veto, and postponing elections indefinitely.
To answer the question posed by this opinion piece, reference must be made to the timing of the president’s call for elections. It followed Hamas’s acceptance of the Eight-Faction Initiative, making Fatah seem isolated and giving rise to the need for a call to hold elections. However, the same reason motivating the president to call for elections also applied to postponing them, namely that the call was issued following the second round of Israeli elections and amidst expectations by the Palestinian president and his circle that Netanyahu’s political end had come and that Benjamin Gantz would form a new government. This did not occur, nor is it guaranteed to occur. The PA is wagering that it would be a government with a different policy towards the PA, and that hence, it would agree to elections in Jerusalem, open a political process, take a more hard-line approach to Hamas and help the PA to regain control of Gaza.
Moreover, the chances of holding an election have weakened for other reasons. Firstly, the intractable consequences of the political rift between Fatah and Hamas cannot be ignored. Secondly, there is a widening gap between the PA and the people. According to a survey conducted in the first half of December 2019 by the Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Strategic Studies, 61% of respondents said they wanted the president to resign, and 59% said they were not satisfied with his performance. According to the survey, Hamas would win 32% of the vote, compared to 40pc by Fatah, with 5% of Fatah voters opting for Dahlan [Fatah dissident], thus reducing Fatah’s share of the vote to 35%. In other words, Fatah’s share would be quite close to that of Hamas.
Other reasons include a lack of preparedness on the part of Fatah, which first became apparent through initial attempts within the movement to form several lists. This would be exacerbated by a failure to put together a centralised list according to objective principles that would open up the potential for change and widespread participation. Moreover, there have been statements indicating a list supported by Dahlan, hints that another list is supported by Marwan Bargouthi [jailed leader], a third by the members of the Consultative Council, a Fourth by the Shabiba [Fatah youth] movement and a fifth formed and supported by angry members of the Central Committee. Another reason is the outbreak of a dispute over the succession to the presidency, as became publicly apparent in the disagreement amongst Fatah’s Central Committee members over the movement’s choice of candidate for presidential election. Some considered Abbas as Fatah’s candidate, while others considered him as an elder statesman who would not participate in the election.
Does the above mean that the president is absolutely opposed to holding elections under any circumstances? Of course not. He is simply hesitating about whether to hold them or not.
Had the president been opposed to elections, he would have insisted that candidates must accept all existing agreements and commitments. Alternatively, he would have accepted the contention of some Fatah leaders that the reservations in Hamas’s message constitute a minefield that could sabotage elections at any time. Those contentions hold that although Hamas is not keen for elections to go ahead, it does not want to be held responsible for preventing them, and will countenance them if they must be held, particularly since they will not materially affect Hamas’s control of Gaza. They also bolster their argument by citing Hamas’s measures to consolidate its hold over Gaza through achieving progress towards clinching understanding with Israel, particularly after the project to establish an American hospital has begun.
There are actually some indications that Fatah is preparing for the possibility of elections, as can be detected from meetings and conferences. The president has met with Marwan’s Bargouthi’s wife, Fadwa, and it has been reported that he confirmed to her that Marwan would succeed him as president. There have also been requests to Europe and the world to pressure Israel to allow elections to be held in Jerusalem, requests to European countries to allow their consulates to be used as voting centres, and government attempts to deal with intractable problems in Gaza, such as the issue of 13 thousand persons [pre-Hamas Gaza takeover] who were full-time employees in 2005, compulsory retirement for several thousand people, and the regulation of Fatah’s Gaza Strip leadership following the confidence that was generated by the participation of huge masses in marking the anniversary of the launch of the resistance movement.
Will elections be held this year?
They will most likely not be held until the direction in which Israel is heading becomes clear, what the shape of the next Israeli government will be and whether a new government will be formed, or whether the current vicious circle will persist, leading to fourth election. From the Palestinian perspective, it may be preferable to await the results of the US presidential election to see if President Trump or a Democrat candidate is elected.
In the event that both Netanyahu and Trump succeed, we will not be faced with the prospect of Palestinian elections. Rather, we will be facing a wide-scale confrontation amidst accelerating efforts to implement the Trump plan to liquidate the Palestine Cause through stepped up racist, colonialist settlement activity, annexation, eviction, liquidation of the issue of refugees, exploiting the Palestinian political rift and strengthening the PA as a self-rule authority that has no political role, and is tasked with managing the population and its daily life and providing security for the occupation. However, if Gantz wins and Trump loses, the odds of holding Palestinian elections will strengthen.
Elections held under occupation, in a situation dominated by the Palestinian political rift that entails mutual measures and an atmosphere of mistrust in the absence of an agreed programme of common denominators will not be free and fair, and their results will not be respected. The most they can achieve will be to strengthen and legitimise the political rift. Ending the rift according to a comprehensive vision and a new strategy is the key to holding elections, rather than the other way around. Elections must be an instrument to confront the occupation. In other words, elections must be held within the context of the Palestinian people’s struggle to achieve its rights, objectives, interests and aspirations, rather than to consecrate the current catastrophic situation.