Analysis |

Promising Change or Clinging to Power? Behind the Palestinian Leaders' Vow to Hold Elections

Building up expectations for an imminent election, 16 years after the last one, is a way to preserve the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority’s political elite and civil service

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/ REUTERS
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

The promise to hold a general election “soon” was bandied about frequently in Palestinian media outlets last month. Despite the willingness to believe that the promise will be fulfilled this time around, it’s impossible to ignore the pattern of the past 11 years: Senior Palestinian Authority and Fatah officials stir up a buzz, raising expectations and drumming up support for the sacred democratic goal and then, at the last moment or just before it, a reason or pretext is found that’s sufficient to halt the process.

It’s difficult not to reach the conclusion that now, as in the past, the verbal promise that’s been reported on all the news programs is a substitute for the act itself. Building up expectations for an imminent election is a way to preserve the legitimacy of the Palestinian nomenklatura – the political elite and the higher ranks of the civil service, which reserve jobs for their own relatives. Substituting lofty rhetoric for action is the nomenklatura’s way to guarantee its status and to protect against internal political shocks that are potentially great enough to threaten it.

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Without consciously wanting to, the nomenklatura of both Fatah and Hamas preserve the status quo; they perpetuate the reality of the Palestinian enclaves because they are incapable of preventing Israel from advancing its project of land grabs and colonization, with giant strides.

The second and most recent PA presidential election was nearly 16 years ago. Nearly 15 years ago, elections were held for the Palestinian Legislative Council, whose work was suspended soon afterward because Israel arrested many of its lawmakers and because Fatah refused to accept the results of the vote, which gave Hamas a majority. (Hamas lawmakers in the Gaza Strip continue to convene, to debate and to pass quasi-legislation.)

As has nearly always been the case over the past 11 years, the promise of impending elections is accompanied by well-publicized steps toward a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation. This time, however, the reconciliation efforts follow the political and diplomatic blows the Palestinians have had to absorb. Each of the movements are suspicious of the other’s intentions. But now, at least, there is no pretense: The rival Palestinian sides are united in their opposition to the U.S. “deal of the century” and to the recent normalization of relations between a few Arab states and Israel.

But nevertheless, it all sounds like a rerun: As in September 2019, when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas promised to hold an election “within six months,” in September 2020 too the promise was to send voters to the polls within half a year, on three separate occasions: first for the PA Legislative Council, then for president and after that for the Palestine National Council (the parliament of the PLO, which should also engage and represent the Palestinian diaspora). And all this during a pandemic, with a penniless PA treasury and embassies abroad that are barely functioning.

The moves toward a rapprochement between Hamas and Fatah seemed particularly dramatic and rapid in September. As before, they were headed by Jibril Rajoub, secretary of the Fatah Central Committee and head of the Palestinian Football Association. After a few phone calls between Abbas and senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, and a festive online meeting of the heads of the Palestinian organizations – Rajoub set off in the last week of September for a round of shuttle diplomacy, during which he met with Hamas officials: Salah al-Arouri in Istanbul, and Khaled Meshal and Moussa Abu Marzouk in Qatar. Turkey and Qatar not only play host; they are also urging the sides to reconcile. Together with Iran, they comprise the axis of opposition to Israeli-Arab rapprochement.

Rajoub subsequently went on to meetings in Jordan and Egypt, two neighbor states with which cordial relations must be maintained even though they did not object to the normalization process Israel is advancing with other Arab states.

According to reports, the meetings were about Palestinian elections and the establishment, thereafter, of a national unity government. The Hamas representatives proposed holding pan-Palestinian elections for the Palestine National Council first ­– an idea that representatives of the smaller Palestinian organizations and social-political activists operating outside of the hidebound official frameworks have been suggesting since 2011 (in the days of the Arab Spring). But Fatah’s position won out.

Meanwhile, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine voiced some criticism of the idea. It is of course in favor of holding elections, especially for the PNC, but fears that the agreements reached separately between Fatah and Hamas would leave it and the other organizations out in the cold. It would be better if a unity government could be formed by all factions first, and for it to lead the election process afterward.

A second online meeting, of the secretaries of the various organizations, had been promised for October 3 (Saturday), to discuss understandings and to prepare for elections. Three days earlier, Fatah spokespeople withdrew from the pledge to hold that online meeting as scheduled. On Thursday, the Fatah Central Committee was convened. Elections were discussed, but according to Rajoub, a resolution was also approved “to establish a united leadership that would take responsibility for developing and operating the popular resistance and the national activities in the homeland and in the diaspora.” This vague and cryptic formulation, and the postponement of the online confab, suggest disagreements.

No doubt, the People wants reconciliation. But in the hands of the PA, talk of reconciliation is also a cardboard sword that it waves in the face of Israel from time to time. Today, especially, it is difficult to impress Israel and Israelis with these stagnant “developments” in the Palestinian arena.

Nevertheless, one sign of interest has come from the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service: On Friday they again arrested Hassan Yousef, a Hamas leader in the West Bank. Whenever any reconciliation process begins, Israel makes a point of arresting the Hamas people who are involved in it.

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