Analysis |

Abbas Declares Palestinian Elections, but They’re Unlikely to Actually Happen

The process could revive the Palestinian political system, as long as Israel doesn’t arrest candidates indiscriminately

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas heads a leadership meeting at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 19, 2020.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas heads a leadership meeting at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 19, 2020.Credit: Alaa Badarneh/Pool Photo via AP
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

The decree by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announcing parliamentary and presidential elections for the Palestinian Authority in May and July, respectively – 14 and 15 years after the previous ones, which were both supposed to be four-year terms – was welcomed across the spectrum. And for good reason: Despite the division and segregation dictated by Israel, the Palestinian political forces and professional bodies such as the Palestinian Central Elections Commission continue to address the Palestinian population in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as a single entity with common interests that must be expressed – including at the polls.

For years Hamas and Fatah preferred not to hold a general election, each for its own reasons, while officially saying the opposite. Representatives of the donor states hid their embarrassment at the paralysis of the formal democratic process of their protege, the Palestinian Authority, but the Palestinians never reconciled with the no-elections reality. In a survey conducted in December, about 75 percent of respondents said they should be held. The position of the Palestinian public, human rights organizations and small political parties won out over the convenience of the perpetual – and divided – rule of the two governing organizations. That too must be welcomed.

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Soon, however, the congratulations will give way to doubts: Some of the reasons that attempts to hold elections have failed in the past 10 years have not been eliminated, and the coronavirus pandemic has added new obstacles.

The registration of new voters as well as each party’s slate of candidates will be done electronically, but voting itself will be in-person, at polling stations. If the infection, severe illness and fatality rates do not decline significantly before May, the pandemic could serve as another excuse to postpone the elections – especially if Fatah were to discover, on the eve of the election, that it stood to take a big hit again because the accusations of corruption and nepotism have not disappeared.

That, plus the failing grades both Fatah and Abbas receive for their performance. In that December opinion poll, which was conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, 66 percent of respondents said Abbas should resign. When asked how they would vote if the presidential election were held the day of the survey, 43 percent said Abbas and 50 percent said they would vote for Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas’ political wing. Of all the senior Fatah officials, only Marwan Barghouti, who is serving a life sentence in an Israeli prison, could beat Haniyeh at the polls.

In order to field him as its presidential candidate, however, the calcified Fatah movement must demonstrate the creativity and flexibility that it lost long ago. If the Palestinian Legislative Council election is held in May, and if Fatah is dissatisfied with the results, the movement would presumably come up with a pretext for postponing the presidential election, scheduled for July.

Fatah officials are so disconnected from voters that they cannot imagine defeat. The survey did give Fatah a slight advantage over Hamas in the parliamentary election (38 percent versus 34 percent), but given the disputes and divisions within Fatah, it’s likely that before the election at least one more slate will be formed by Fatah loyalists who have been kept out of positions of power, such as supporters of Mohammed Dahlan and of Barghouti. It would be a surprise if Fatah were to overcome, in under five months, all of the internal disagreements and rivalries among its senior figures – none of whom is popular with Palestinians – and run on a single, joint ticket. (May 1 is the deadline for submitting slates.)

On the other hand, it’s very likely that Palestinian voters will remember the lesson of 2006: When they punished Fatah at the ballot box, preferring the candidates of Hamas in an election that was fair and transparent, Israel and the world punished the voters by blocking the delivery of customs fees and donations, respectively. This fear constitutes implicit recognition of election bribery by its donors and Israel (vote for the people we want you to vote for; if not, your state coffers will dwindle.)

Another lesson from 2006, when Israel arrested most of Hamas’ elected representatives in the West Bank, will presumably affect the composition of the movement’s slates. And so, in contradiction to the forecasts of Israeli commentators, Hamas will not be able to compete and rule over the Palestinian enclaves in the West Bank, in which it is today a “present-absent” force due to the oppressive measures of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

It’s more important to Hamas to guarantee that a majority of Gazans will continue to vote for it. Given this situation, Hamas and Fatah could give a new definition to the current divided situation and call it a “national emergency government,” in which each partner retains its “customer base” and its grip on power.

The very publication of the presidential decree shows that the understandings that Hamas and Fatah sought over the past year have been reached – at least their first stage, despite the predictions that the resumption of the security coordination with Israel would disrupt the process of rapprochement conducted by Jibril Rajoub of Fatah and Saleh al-Arouri of Hamas.

The decree was issued five days after Abbas abolished a 2007 amendment to the election law requiring all candidates to recognize the PLO as the sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Last week’s change was introduced at the request of Hamas, which for its part withdrew a demand to hold the parliamentary and presidential elections simultaneously (a position that is supported by of a majority of Palestinian voters).

As specified in the 2007 law, the Palestinian Legislative Council election will be based on proportional representation, with nationwide lists only. A mixed system was used in the 2006 election, combining the nationwide party slates with candidates representing each of 16 electoral districts, who are known to their voters. Hamas prefers the latter method, because religious candidates, each representing a relatively small geographic area, inspire greater trust among traditional voters than candidates who are considered secular or “religious-lite.” The 2007 amendments also set minimum quotas for female candidates, specifying that 26 percent of the parliament’s 132 seats must be held by women.

The Central Elections Commissions, which is headed by Hanna Nasser (a former president of Birzeit University, he was expelled by Israel in 1974 on account of his public standing), has been on election alert for a decade. An important part of the understandings reached on the updated election law can be credited to the commission’s role as a mediator between Hamas and Fatah.

One of the main challenges facing the panel and the entire Palestinian political system is the participation of East Jerusalem Palestinians in the elections. In the past, Hamas and Fatah used the excuse that Israel did not promise to allow elections to be held physically in East Jerusalem in order to repeatedly put off scheduling them. According to the December survey, 56 percent of respondents are in favor of holding general elections even if they do not actually take place in Jerusalem (39 percent were against).

The greater Fatah’s desire to hold elections, the more it will find ways to get around Israel’s opposition. The reverse is also true: The more Fatah fears the results of the elections, the more it will insist on the symbolic importance of holding them in Jerusalem.

With all of the inherent flaws of holding elections under the Israeli occupation, the very process of holding them is likely to interest and bring in young Palestinians, as voters and as candidates, giving at least some new life to the aging Palestinian political system. On one condition: that Israel does not arrest candidates who speak about the tactics of the popular resistance to the occupation and does not permit only members of Fatah who have internalized their subserviance to Israel to contest the election.

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