Dispatch

Among the Unanticipated Outcomes of the U.S. Election: A Palestinian One

Abbas agrees to face voters more than a decade after his term expired.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden shake hands prior to their meeting at the presidential compound in in Ramallah, West Bank, on March 10, 2010.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden shake hands prior to their meeting at the presidential compound in in Ramallah, West Bank, on March 10, 2010. Thaer Ganaim/PPO via Getty Images

TEL AVIV, Israel—Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose term officially ran out more than a decade ago, has for years faced pressure from both allies and rivals to hold new elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

He finally agreed to do so this month, but it wasn’t the domestic nudging that prompted the decision; it was the administration change in Washington, according to analysts.

Abbas spent the past four years estranged from the White House, as former President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu worked together to sideline the Palestinians. Trump moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, promoted a peace plan that included Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, and helped normalize ties between Israel and Arab countries from the Gulf to North Africa. Abbas retaliated by boycotting Trump.

But since Joe Biden’s election victory in November, the Palestinian leader has signaled a desire to mend fences with Washington. He has resumed coordination with the Israeli army, and one of his deputies pledged to overhaul a controversial welfare policy for militants convicted of violence against Israelis.

Agreeing to hold both presidential and parliamentary elections might be the most far-reaching gesture yet. In doing so, the 85-year-old Abbas appears to be signaling that he is open to a new U.S.-led peace effort, though mediating a deal between Israel and the Palestinians isn’t viewed by the incoming administration as a likely prospect in the near future.

“It’s a nod to Joe Biden and the new administration that they are a democracy and responding to the requirements of the moment,” said Hanan Ashrawi, until recently a member of the executive committee of the PLO. “They are sending signals that they are willing to play ball.”

Palestinians elected Abbas in 2005 to a four-year term. He has refrained from holding a new vote—in part due to the political feud between his Fatah party and the Islamist Hamas group—and continued serving as president. A Palestinian legislature elected for four years in 2006 with a Hamas-allied majority no longer functions.

Ashrawi said the absence of elections has left Palestinian politics in a state of atrophy.

“The whole political system has become dysfunctional and reached a dead end. It’s not sustainable if they don’t give the people the chance to elect, to be part of a change.”

Holding elections and ending the rift between the West Bank and Gaza—which Hamas has ruled since 2007—would demonstrate to the international community that the Palestinians are putting their political house in order, a demand made by some European countries. It could also give the new president a mandate to negotiate with Israel.

“Elections could be the key to ending the internal division,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza.

“And if that were to happen, Netanyahu will no longer be able to say ‘there’s no partner on the Palestinian side,’ that the [Palestinian Authority] doesn’t have control over Gaza, that Abu Mazen is weak, and he is not a credible partner,” he said, referring to Abbas by his nickname.

After the Trump administration moved away from the U.S. commitment to a two-state solution, cut aid, and effectively downgraded the U.S. representative office to the Palestinians, there’s a list of issues on the agenda necessary to repair bilateral ties. Mounting a credible election would support that process.

But Biden is expected to prioritize other foreign-policy issues, including reengaging with Iran over its nuclear program. And it’s not totally clear if Abbas and Hamas can agree on the details of the vote.

“It’s a murky picture. This is not the first time that Abbas has rolled this possibility out. They are looking for a way to demonstrate they can be a partner to the U.S.,” said one former U.S. official. Palestinian elections are “a dilemma that I don’t think the incoming administration has reached a decision on or even looked at.”

The election decree reflects other longer-term shifts in the region, particularly the strategic aftershock suffered by Abbas from the diplomatic breakthrough between Israel and the United Arab Emirates last August. The Palestinian leadership was blindsided when the UAE—and later Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco—normalized ties with Israel, flouting a decades-old orthodoxy of shunning the country until it agrees to Palestinian independence.

“This was a huge blow. People were saying, ‘If we’ve lost the Arab world, we’ve lost the rest of the world.’ People came and said, ‘Now [is] the time for elections,’” said Diana Buttu, a former legal advisor to the Palestinian negotiations team. “For the Palestinian street, [normalization] showed just how poorly the leadership has handled the issue of Palestine. It triggered a questioning of these long-standing strategies and assumptions.”

Hamas indicated in a letter to Abbas that it supports elections and dropped its demand that the vote for president and the legislature be held on the same day. Hamas is beleaguered by a decade of an Israel-Egypt blockade on Gaza and sagging public support.

Hamas was apparently nudged into the concession by a regional patron, Qatar, which recently ended a feud with Saudi Arabia and committed to dial back its support for Islamist movements. Turkey, another ally that lobbied Hamas to compromise, is trying to improve relations with Israel to curry favor with the Biden administration.

The momentum toward a Palestinian vote “reflects broader regional dynamics. Hamas’s patrons, mostly Turkey and Qatar, are weakened internationally,” said Shira Efron, a fellow at the Israel Policy Forum. “Hamas has to find a way to gain international recognition. Both sides of the Palestinian leadership are in a situation in which there are possible benefits.”

Representatives of the rival Palestinian factions are supposed to meet in Egypt on Feb. 5 to work on details of election. Previous attempts at reconciliation between the two groups have faltered over Hamas’s refusal to accept the PLO’s peace accords with Israel, its refusal to disband its military wing, and questions over how to integrate the Islamists into the political structure of PLO.

Fatah has a 4 percentage point advantage over Hamas, according to a December poll by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. But Abbas’s own party is divided. Fatah rebels like former security chief Mohammad Dahlan—backed by the UAE—or the jailed militant Marwan Barghouti could declare an independent list and weaken Abbas’s election effort.

Moreover, Abbas remains deeply unpopular: The same December poll found him trailing Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh by 7 percentage points and two-thirds of Palestinians wanting Abbas to resign. Despite that advantage, Hamas is not expected to field a candidate from within the movement in the presidential election.

The reconciliation effort focuses on elections as a means to resolving those bigger questions. Under this approach, a successful vote for the Palestinian legislature could encourage progress on tackling the outstanding issues in the framework of a Fatah-Hamas unity government.

But critics say holding elections before reaching a broader agreement on a single Palestinian political and governmental entity puts the horse before the cart and would not produce a viable partner for peace talks. One former U.S. diplomat warned against an election that would leave the Palestinian with two separate governments, territorial units, security services, and political visions.

“The idea that Hamas would continue its armed struggle and sit in a government is going to affect everything: aid to the Palestinians, negotiations with Israelis—it’s a mess,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator. “You really need a fundamental melding and a reassertion of Palestinian national unity. And I just don’t see it.”

Joshua Mitnick is a journalist based in Tel Aviv. Twitter: @joshmitnick

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