The New Palestinian Elections Are All Talk and No Action

Under Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinians have lost trust in the democratic process. Regaining it requires institutional overhaul.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas displays a map of historic Palestine and Palestinian land loss since 1937 in Ramallah, West Bank, on Sept. 3, 2020.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas displays a map of historic Palestine and Palestinian land loss since 1937 in Ramallah, West Bank, on Sept. 3, 2020. Alaa BADARNEH / POOL / AFP

Sixteen years ago, I stood in line outside an elementary school in Ramallah, in the West Bank, to confirm my name on a registration list and vote in the first Palestinian elections to take place since 1996. The 2005 presidential election was the only time I would partake in a local election, and I recall being as excited about the prospect of being part of the decision-making process in the Palestinian territories as I was about the blue ink stain on my index finger. Now, it looks like I might get a chance to vote again. But the circumstances could not be more different.

The 2005 presidential election came on the heels of the Second Intifada and breathed new hope into the Palestinian territories, which had been shattered by a full-scale Israeli invasion and the death of their iconic leader, Yasser Arafat. Arafat had tapped former Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas—who also had the backing of Fatah and the United States—to succeed him in leading the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). In those years, Hamas and a smattering of smaller leftist parties were Fatah’s only opposition.

Abbas won handily, securing a high margin of victory over his closest challenger amid strong voter turnout. He seemed to have enough of a mandate to push through his agenda: holding peace talks with Israel and ending armed resistance to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories

At the time, Abbas hailed the election as a clear indication of Palestinian aspirations for democracy. But back then, nobody—myself included—knew that the man running to replace Arafat would still be at the helm of the PA and the PLO 16 years later.

Today, Palestinians continue to live under Israeli occupation, and they’ve also seen Abbas amalgamate nearly all representative Palestinian institutions over the course of his tenure. Not only does Abbas sit at the helm of Fatah, the largest Palestinian political party and the West Bank’s governing party, but he also chairs the PA—a byproduct of the Oslo Accords intended to function as an interim governing body in the Palestinian territories—and the PLO, which, at least ostensibly, represents Palestinians both in the territories and the diaspora abroad. This sort of tripartite command has greatly constrained the outcomes of electoral politics in the Palestinian territories—so much so that, according to a recent poll, half of Palestinians think that elections held under the current circumstances would not be free and fair.

The last time parliamentary elections were held—in 2006—Hamas won a decisive victory over Fatah. But the results were not honored by Israel and Western donors, which recognize Hamas as a terrorist group. So these donors shored up support for Fatah and launched a U.S.-sponsored coup attempt in Gaza. After the dust settled, they refused to engage with Hamas’s members and instead cut aid to Palestinians, eventually leading to a schism between Gaza (ruled by Hamas) and the West Bank (governed by the Fatah-led PA) that still stands today. Democracy in the Palestinian territories was in global demand until its results did not fit the international community’s agenda.

Cynicism about the Palestinian political process and a lack of faith in the ability of either Hamas or Fatah to lead have become mainstays of Palestinian society. This isn’t the first time since 2006 that the PA has called elections, but, in the past, there always seemed to be a reason to call them off. Sometimes the issues were logistical, other times political. A recurring question is how elections (or peace negotiations, for that matter) can be held while the West Bank and Gaza are ruled by two separate groups. The Fatah-Hamas schism is a favored maxim of Israeli politicians who claim Palestinians are not yet adequate partners for peace. But it’s not as though Gaza and the West Bank have the option to seek political unity, either: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration has repeatedly indicated it would treat Abbas and the PA in Ramallah as it treats Hamas in Gaza if the two parties ever decided to band together—that is, as terrorists with whom Israel is in conflict.

If hindsight is 20/20, then, it can be assumed that the 2021 Palestinian elections will not take place. When a legislative election was last held in 2006, Israeli authorities impeded the vote in East Jerusalem, which it occupies and controls. Among other forms of voter suppression, Israel banned members of Hamas from campaigning and running, and limited the total number of voters to 5,000. Given that track record, it’s unclear whether Israel would even allow a vote to take place in East Jerusalem today.

There’s also the matter of the intra-Palestinian rift, which has made it nearly impossible to hold previously called-for elections. Now that Abbas has issued a decree, Fatah and Hamas have to agree on the security apparatus responsible for securing the vote and on which court would preside over potential legal disputes. Hamas has already rejected the authority of the newly created administrative courts, which Abbas established to adjudicate election challenges.

Overcoming some of these obstacles makes it easier to imagine a situation in which elections are actually viable and necessary. The preelection priority should be to carry out a complete reboot of the PLO, which—though once considered the sole representative of the Palestinian people—has long become a decrepit rubber stamp for Abbas to prolong his self-rule. The Fatah-Hamas dialogue should take place in this context.

This institutional reform should ensure that Hamas and other groups are able to be mainstreamed into the PLO. Hamas has long been a thorn in the PLO’s side; since its inception in 1987, Hamas has functioned as an appealing religious alternative to the umbrella organization, which gave up its arms in exchange for peace with Israel—thereby making a shift from a national liberation movement to governing body.

There are several ways Hamas could be integrated into the PLO, but the most popular version floated in diplomatic circles suggests that Hamas formally separate its political and armed factions, much as Fatah did. The Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s armed wing, would remain on various international lists of banned terrorist groups, but Hamas (or however it rebrands) would be exempt from sanctions and could take a position within the PLO, hopefully within its Executive Committee—the PLO’s executive branch, a body that has become another Abbas rubber stamp. Necessary concessions should be made on all sides—those of the PLO and Fatah opposite Hamas—to ensure that a united Palestinian front is created.

If hindsight is 20/20, it can be assumed that the 2021 Palestinian elections will not take place.

As things stand today, Hamas and Fatah may very well run a joint list of candidates for the Palestinian legislative elections, which are slated for the spring—if Hamas agrees not to put forward a candidate for the presidential election this summer. Astonishingly, Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh has already said that he would like to see Abbas, who is 85 and in poor health, run for president once again. Unfortunately, Abbas now draws comparisons to Abdelaziz Bouteflika—the notorious elderly Algerian president who was in office for 20 years, well after it was clear his abilities were impaired by advanced age.

This scenario will not get the Palestinian political scene any closer to democratic renewal. Rather, this carefully choreographed election dance is an attempt by Abbas to get in the good graces of U.S. President Joe Biden’s new administration, all while showing the PA’s Western donors and the international community that it is committed to democratic norms. The PA’s latest election bid is not about promoting good governance and democracy, but rather it is a crack at projecting some semblance of unity as Biden takes the reins in Washington. Abbas hopes gaining Biden’s approval will bring about a return to peace negotiations between Israel and the PLO—ostensibly the PA and PLO’s only reason for existing.

Ultimately, the Palestinians can’t hope for a successful election—whether presidential, parliamentary, or local—without long-overdue institutional overhaul. Israel, for its part, must also be willing to negotiate publicly with a new leadership that includes Hamas; it is common knowledge that Israel constantly negotiates with the group via Egyptian intermediaries, so this isn’t a big ask. And the United States must learn to accept the results of free and fair elections, even if it doesn’t like the results. Only then can elections actually be the exercise in national unity that Palestinians desperately need.

Dalia Hatuqa is a multimedia journalist based in the United States and the West Bank. Twitter: @daliahatuqa