Will a Palestinian election matter?

The prospect of the first vote in 16 years may be intended to win over Joe Biden. But the pretense of democracy won’t fix a political culture that is incompatible with peace.

A Palestinian boy holds up a poster of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank town of Tubas. Sept. 27, 2020. Photo by Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90.
A Palestinian boy holds up a poster of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank town of Tubas. Sept. 27, 2020. Photo by Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

This once would have been the sort of gesture that would have inspired hope for peace in the Middle East, as well as gestures of support and friendship from the U.S. government. But no longer. Instead of being encouraged to prioritize a reboot of the moribund peace process, the setting of dates for the first Palestinian elections in 15 years has been met with silence from the Biden administration.

That has to be something of a disappointment to the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, which has labored long and hard in negotiations with its Hamas rivals to produce an agreement for a legislative election in May and a presidential vote in July. The document that representatives of P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah Party and Hamas, say both sides will “respect and accept” the results of the vote.

The intended audience for this latest attempt at Palestinian reconciliation was President Joe Biden and his foreign-policy team. But while establishment types who believe fervently in empowering the Palestinians have retaken control of the U.S. State Department and the National Security Council, Biden’s crew is less than enthused about the value of what the Palestinians are doing.

Part of that has to do with the almost-universal skepticism that elections will actually be held. After all, Fatah and Hamas have talked about this many times before in the last decade with the effort always ending in no elections, and the two sides eyeing each other with suspicion and hate.

However, believing that it is vital that they win over Biden after enduring four years of a Trump administration that correctly regarded Abbas and Fatah as being as uninterested in peace as the Islamists of Hamas, maybe this time they mean it. Or at least, they are prepared to go through with something that will look like an election, even if the odds of it being free or fair remain slim.

The Biden team doesn’t want to be rushed into involvement in another round of pointless negotiations involving the Palestinians. Biden’s foreign-policy priority in the region is another bout of appeasement of Iran.

But there’s more to the general lack of enthusiasm for Palestinian democracy than just skepticism about whether Fatah and Hamas are dissembling. The real question is whether going through the motions of an election in a political culture that values violence more than good governance is meaningless.

Many Americans once held high hopes for the idea of spreading democracy across the Middle East. Part of the reasoning behind the decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003 was the hope that deposing the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein could lead to something better than just another military dictator or authoritarian.

That proved to be a tragic mistake. The idea that you could parachute into a country where the rule of law had not previously existed—or had any experience of representative government—and produce anything remotely resembling democracy led to a nightmare for both the United States and the Iraqi people.

Some of the same reasoning inspired the administration of former President George W. Bush to be an enthusiastic backer of Palestinian democracy. Bush had rightly cut off PLO chief Yasser Arafat as an unrepentant terrorist and foe of peace. But after his death, he bought into the absurd notion that Abbas—Arafat’s longtime aide who wore a suit rather than theatrical combat fatigues—could lead the Palestinians to peace and freedom.

This was a product of a belief that the only formula for peace between Israel and the Palestinians had to include an embrace of democracy by the latter. Regimes run by authoritarians are inherently unstable and survive only so long as the leader has the firepower to hold onto power. Democracies are, at least in theory, much better peace partners because their governments are held accountable by the people.

It’s hard not to wince when remembering the powerful influence that Natan Sharansky and Ron Dermer’s book, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror, exerted in the Bush White House. The former prisoner of Zion was the perfect inspirational advocate for the cause. Co-author Dermer went on to become a powerful player in the Netanyahu government and then serve as Israeli ambassador to Washington for seven years, was also an articulate exponent for their thesis. They believed that the triumph of Western ideals of liberty in an Arab world where they had no historic roots and little appeal was a necessary prerequisite for peace. That persuaded many that faith in democracy was practical politics as well as an expression of idealism.

But the results of the Palestinian elections in 2005 (the presidency was won by Abbas) and 2006 (in which Hamas won control of the legislative assembly), as well as the subsequent Arab Spring attempts to bring democracy to the region, debunked this seemingly attractive and logical theory.

As it turns out, the very undemocratic governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as the Gulf States that have, via the Abraham Accords, normalized relations with Israel, are, at least for the foreseeable future, very good peace partners for Israel. By contrast, the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt elected in 2011 was a nightmare both for the Egyptians and Israel. The same is true for Abbas and his Hamas rivals after they won elections.

A look at the current state of Palestinian opinion only reinforces this lesson.

The latest survey from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, whose polls are generally considered about as trustworthy as any in the Arab world, has some grim truths for those who still hold onto hope that democracy is the answer to the problem.

According to the poll, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh would beat Abbas 50 percent to 43 percent in a presidential election. The wild card in Palestinian politics is if Marwan Barghouti—a Fatah terrorist operative currently serving several life-in-prison sentences in an Israeli jail for ordering murders of Israeli civilians—decides to run. A Barghouti party running independently of Fatah would get 25 percent of the vote, and he would beat any Hamas candidate handily if he faced off against them in the presidential contest.

Given that approximately half of the Palestinian electorate still believes that the right policy for their leaders is armed conflict against Israel, the popularity of Hamas and a killer-like Barghouti, especially when lined up against the corruption of Abbas, is hardly surprising. A clear majority rejects the idea that the preferred way out of the conflict is a peace agreement.

Elections in the absence of a democratic political culture are meaningless. As in Egypt and elsewhere in the Palestinian world, there is no liberal democratic alternative to parties that reject peace. Salam Fayyad, the American-educated one-time Palestinian prime minister, was once held out as the future of his people. But he had virtually no support and has faded from view.

Biden may someday wish to circle back and take another crack at the peace process, but he knows that if Hamas wins the election, that will doom any wishful thinking he may have on the subject. The main takeaway from the idea of Palestinian elections is that as long as Palestinians remain mired in a political culture that prizes the shedding of Jewish blood over good government, democracy will actually make peace even less likely. The Palestinians need to fix that before anyone should think that elections will solve anything for them, let alone advance the cause of peace.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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