The first P.A. elections in 17 years raise fundamental questions

Is the Biden administration or the European Union going to accept the participation of designated terror organizations in the Palestinian electoral process?

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas enters a U.N. Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question, Feb. 2020. Credit: U.N. Photo/Evan Schneider.
Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas enters a U.N. Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question, Feb. 2020. Credit: U.N. Photo/Evan Schneider.
Lt. Col. (res.) Maurice Hirsch
Lt. Col. (res.) Maurice Hirsch is the director of the Initiative for Palestinian Authority Accountability and Reform in the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs; a senior legal analyst for Human Rights Voices; and a member of the Israel Defense and Security Forum.

Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas published a ‎presidential decree on Jan. 15, setting the dates for Palestinian elections. According to the decree, ‎elections for the Palestinian Parliament (the Palestinian Legislative Council) will take ‎place on May 22. These elections will be followed by elections for the P.A. ‎‎“president”/chairman on July 31, 2021.‎

According to P.A. Elections Law No. 9 of 2005, as amended in ‎‎2007, presidential elections must be held every four years (section 3(2)). ‎The incumbent can remain in the position for a maximum of two terms (section 3(2)). ‎According to the same law, elections for the Palestinian Parliament are also meant to be ‎held every four years (section 4(2)). ‎

Despite the law, presidential elections were last held in January 2005. ‎On Jan. 12, 2005, the P.A. Central Elections Committee confirmed that Mahmoud Abbas ‎had been elected. Since no subsequent elections were ever held, on Jan. 12, 2021, Abbas began ‎the seventeenth year of his first four-year term as “president” of the P.A. ‎

The situation regarding elections for the Palestinian Parliament is not much different. The ‎last general elections for the Palestinian Parliament were held in January 2006. As PMW has reported, in those ‎elections, Hamas—an internationally designated terror organization—won the popular vote in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and a majority of the seats in the parliament, ‎where Hamas won 74 out of the 132 seats. Following the electoral success, Hamas ‎leader Ismail Haniyeh formed the new P.A. government. ‎

The Hamas win posed a significant challenge to Abbas, the P.A.’s international donors and ‎supporters, and Israel. Abbas had been elected P.A. president just a year prior ‎following the death of Yasser Arafat. His Fatah party had controlled the P.A. since its creation in ‎‎1994. Abbas and Fatah were unwilling to relinquish the control they had enjoyed for over a ‎decade. The international donors, predominantly the United States and the European ‎Union, were suddenly faced with the problem that any aid they gave to the P.A. would be ‎controlled by Hamas, which is designated as a terror organization by both the United States and the ‎European Union.

From Israel’s point of view, Hamas’s election was also very problematic, to say the least. ‎Emboldened by the electoral win, Hamas substantially ‎increased its terror attacks on Israel. These attacks reached their peak on June 25, 2006, ‎when Hamas terrorists infiltrated Israel from Gaza, killed two Israeli soldiers and kidnapped ‎another, Gilad Shalit. ‎

In response to the rise in terror attacks and immediately following the kidnapping ‎of Shalit, Israel arrested most of the Hamas members of government. ‎Abbas seized the opportunity, deposed the remainder of the government and replaced it ‎with a so-called “technocrat” government, which was dominated by Fatah and would ‎continue to be so. ‎

Hamas, angry at Abbas’s actions, seized control of the Gaza Strip in the summer of ‎‎2007. ‎

Since that time, the lawfully elected Palestinian parliament has de facto ceased functioning. ‎Hamas has maintained its control of the Gaza Strip ever since, while Abbas and Fatah ‎control the P.A. areas in the West Bank/Judea and Samaria.  ‎

In December 2018, Abbas dissolved the parliament, promising new elections within six ‎months. He never delivered.  ‎

Against the backdrop of this abysmal “democratic tradition,” the Palestinian leadership has now ‎decided to hold both presidential and parliamentary elections. In anticipation ‎of the elections, the Dec. 2020 survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey ‎Research provides important insight to understanding what is to be expected. ‎

The first major finding is that in a presidential race between Fatah’s ‎Abbas and Hamas’s Haniyeh, most Palestinians would vote for Haniyeh (50 percent vs. only 43 percent for Abbas). This result is not necessarily a ‎reflection of widespread Palestinian support for terror, but more likely of the ‎demand of most Palestinians (66 percent according to the poll) that Abbas resign. It is also ‎probably the result of the belief of the majority of the Palestinian public (52 percent) that Abbas is ‎the wrong candidate and that Fatah has better options.‎

According to the poll, the most dominant of the alternative Fatah candidates is Marwan ‎Barghouti. This is an astonishing fact given that Barghouti has been convicted for ‎his involvement in the murder of five Israelis and is currently serving five consecutive life ‎sentences plus an additional 40 years in an Israeli prison. If Barghouti were to face Hamas’s ‎Haniyeh in presidential elections, he would receive 61 percent of the vote as opposed to ‎‎just 37 percent for the Hamas leader. ‎

The other senior Fatah leaders who might consider themselves potential candidates to ‎replace Abbas do not enjoy substantial popular support. Only 9.7 percent of those polled named ‎Mohammed Dahlan a better option than Abbas, and only 2.2 percent named Jibril Rajoub, the ‎current Fatah secretary-general. ‎

In general, the poll reflected the widespread (86 percent) Palestinian perception of corruption in ‎the Fatah-dominated P.A. institutions, as compared to a less negative perception (63 percent) ‎regarding the institutions controlled by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.‎

Interestingly, the Palestinian dissatisfaction appears to be personally linked to Abbas in his ‎capacity as president. ‎

This understanding is reflected by the fact that when asked which party they would vote for ‎in the upcoming parliamentary elections, 37.6 percent of those polled said they ‎would vote for Fatah, while 33.6 percent would vote for the “Change and Reform” (Hamas) party. ‎The fringe terror organization Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine would win only 2.4 percent of the vote.   ‎

While 72.6 percent of those polled expressed support for holding elections, 60.5 percent are ‎skeptical they will actually take place. Most of those polled expressed ‎skepticism as to whether Fatah or Hamas would accept the other one winning, with 75.9 percent saying Fatah would not accept a Hamas win and would not allow Hamas to form ‎a single government with jurisdiction over both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, as opposed to 57.5 percent ‎who said that Hamas would not accept the result of a Fatah win.  ‎

The excuse often cited by the Fatah leadership for not holding elections in the past 15 years ‎is the Israeli objection to elections being held in Jerusalem. In truth, the Israeli objection ‎was not to the holding of elections per se, but rather to the participation in them of internationally designated terror organizations such as Hamas and the PFLP—including having the ability to campaign in Jerusalem.

While ‎Fatah had no qualms about deposing the democratically elected Hamas government in 2006, when it came to ‎elections that might have undermined its dominance, Fatah suddenly became the ‎guardian of Palestinian democracy. In the Gaza Strip, Hamas, on the other hand, saw no ‎difficulty imposing its electoral success on Fatah, including—when deemed necessary—throwing Fatah members off of buildings.      ‎

In the meantime, despite their differences, both Fatah and Hamas seem to be publicly ‎engaged and committed to holding the elections. Whether those elections will ever take ‎place, and whether the results of the elections will affect any change, remains to be ‎seen. ‎

The interim period, however, raises a number of fundamental questions, not only for the ‎Palestinians but also and predominantly for the new Biden administration, the European Union ‎and other major supporters of the P.A.‎

While the Palestinians consider Hamas and the PFLP to be legitimate “Palestinian ‎factions,” as noted above, both organizations are designated by the United States and the European Union as ‎terror organizations. As such, members of these groups would, needless to say, be ‎prohibited from running for office in any election held in the United States and European Union.

Is the Biden administration or the European Union going to accept the participation of designated terror ‎organizations in the Palestinian electoral process? Will they expect Israel to ‎allow these homicidal organizations—responsible for the murder of hundreds ‎of Israelis and other foreign nationals—to campaign in Jerusalem, the ‎scene of scores of their murderous attacks? ‎

Assuming that the Biden administration and the Europeans do allow the participation of Hamas and potentially other terror organizations in the elections, ‎what will their position be when Haniyeh is elected P.A. president? ‎Will they continue to provide the P.A. with financial aid, despite it being a clear breach of ‎their own domestic anti-terror laws? This question is further complicated when one takes ‎into account that in the United States, not only is Hamas a designated terror organization, but Haniyeh himself is also personally designated as a terrorist.  ‎

What will happen if Hamas, as was the case in 2006, wins the elections for the Palestinian ‎Parliament, and is then charged with forming the new Palestinian government? Will the ‎United States and Europe continue to grant legitimacy to a P.A. government led by a designated terror ‎organization? As noted above, in the 2006 elections, Hamas ran as the “Change and ‎Reform” party. While this cosmetic name change appeared to have been sufficient to ‎facilitate their participation in 2006, since then, that veil of deception has been lifted; there is no question today that Hamas and “Change and Reform” are identical ‎entities.  ‎

On a similar note, if Hamas wins the presidential elections, the parliamentary ‎elections or both, and Fatah, as most Palestinians expect, refuses to relinquish control, will ‎the Biden administration and the European Union continue to support the de facto Fatah dictatorship in ‎the West Bank?‎

The option of “crossing that bridge when we get to it” is clearly not a sound basis for making ‎major foreign policy decisions.

If reason and basic morality were to prevail, the Biden administration and the European Union would ‎make it clear that they do not accept, in any shape or form, the participation of designated terror organizations in the Palestinian elections, and are unwilling to ‎facilitate—in any manner—such a decision. Moreover, they would do well to clarify that any ‎member of Hamas holding any position in the P.A. would automatically result in the ‎immediate cessation of any aid to the P.A.

Similarly, the United States and European Union would do well to clarify ‎that they do not and will not accept Marwan Barghouti—a convicted murderer ‎currently serving consecutive life sentences in Israel—as a ‎legitimate candidate for the P.A. presidency, or any for any position in the Palestinian Parliament.

IDF Lt. Col. (res) Maurice Hirsch is director of Legal Strategies at Palestinian Media Watch.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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