Representatives and the general public increasingly anticipate and expect the Palestinian elections to be held due to an conflict of interest between.
The Palestinians have come here since 2006, after ten years and a half years of repeated failures in efforts to reconcile Fatah and Hamas, at the closest point to elections. In an unprecedented move, election dates were set last month: in May for the Palestinian Legislative Council, and later this year for the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the PLO National Council. Voter registration to the electoral roll was also carried out with a declared 93 percent effective return. As a result, members of the political class and the general public increasingly anticipate and expect these elections to be actually held.
An unusual convergence of interests between PA president Mahmud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Hamas led these steps towards the elections. On the one hand, Abu Mazen is interested in developing his position in the new administration in Washington and strengthening his legitimacy in the country. Hamas, on the other hand, sees an opportunity to improve civil conditions in Gaza while strengthening its position in Palestinian politics, before Abu Mazen’s potential departure day.
Despite being stated otherwise, Abu Mazen apparently isn’t really interested in bringing up election day to the agenda. Instead, he still believes he can halt the process at any time. However, the election story is gaining momentum, increasing the likelihood that it will happen, and as time goes on, step by step, both domestic and international pressures to move forward make it difficult to stop the process.
Moreover, some of the problems that had doomed previous election attempts have been removed, and Hamas is showing a new willingness to comply with Abu Mazen’s conditions to run the election in a fully proportional, staged system. Still, obstacles remain that could derail this process, and elections are not an inevitable outcome. Three fundamental problems threaten the prospect of choice in particular:
- The claim of both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority that their mutual commitments to free political prisoners in the West Bank were not fulfilled.
- Tensions arising from the Palestinian Authority’s criticism of Hamas for its attempt to join the Palestinian Authority-Egypt agreement to develop a gas field (“Gaza Seaman”) off the coast of Gaza.
- After realizing that Israel would not allow such an election in its capital, the issue of holding a Palestinian election in Jerusalem has so far been the main excuse for both sides to withdraw from holding the Palestinian elections.
Despite all these problems, both Hamas and Fatah’s preparations for elections are gaining momentum. In this context, the signs point to the repetition of the trends that characterized the 2006 election. Most notably, there was an intensification of internal tension and factionalism, damaging Fatah’s electoral potential and the already far from brilliant public image. These splits were the main source of Fatah’s failure in the 2006 election competition.
A few such sigh bones stand out. First, Fatah’s leading leader, Marwan Barghouti, who has been imprisoned by Israel for terrorism, has an attempt to run for Palestinian Authority presidency, which the upper echelons of the Palestinian Authority are trying to block. Second, Abu Mazen’s rival, Mohamed Dahlan, who now resides in the United Arab Emirates, has insisted on objecting to the election as an independent candidate list. Third, Jibril Rajoub has intense efforts to carry out the election only as a way of replacing Abu Mazen, a campaign that has escalated tensions with other top Fatah leaders who have moved away from him and the entire electoral process.
In sharp contrast, Hamas displayed a united and confident front as it approached potential elections. For the time being, the movement allows a somewhat relaxed attitude towards electoral participation, making it clear that the Muslim Brotherhood can be represented by “independent” figures identified with Hamas, as they once did in Tunisia and Jordan. At the same time, Hamas makes it clear that this election is not directly linked to the Oslo peace process. Hamas claimed that an election did not commit to recognizing any existing political agreement with Israel or making any concessions in the military field.
Hamas fears that Israel will arrest dozens of its leaders, for example, fearing that it will try to limit its activism in the West Bank. Up to this point, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, recently warned that if Israel tries to overturn an election in Palestinian territory, Hamas will act to disrupt the upcoming Israeli election.
At this stage, there are several main scenarios that can occur:
- Domestic Political “Explosion” —This scenario will mean the failure of election efforts following tensions between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. It likely emerges as reciprocal accusations for not fulfilling their commitments. If this scenario happens sooner, the effects will be more limited, although expectations about the election are still somewhat mild. In addition, such a development could really make it easier for Abu Mazen to undertake any possible effort to restart the peace process with Israel. But at the same time, it would shake Hamas’ expectations of a harsher approach to Fatah in Gaza and deeper concerns about the continuation of civilian troubles there.
- Israel’s Failure – This development may be due to a massive Israeli intervention against Hamas in the West Bank, either to a vote in East Jerusalem or to a direct refusal by Palestinian election officials to allow its passage to Gaza. At the heart of their hearts, many in Ramallah would probably prefer this outcome because it would exempt Abu Mazen from responsibility for the collapse of the election. However, this development may also cause an armed conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Moreover, this development could create political tensions between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and trigger popular protests in the West Bank that could oppose Israel, the Palestinian Authority, or both.
- Fatah Election Victory – At least now, this development seems unlikely, but Israel, much of the Arab world, and the US-led international community will welcome it. Even with international support, Hamas is unlikely to transfer its hold on Gaza to Abu Mazen, which means losing what it sees as one of its most important strategic assets.
- Hamas Election Victory – At present, it is difficult to assess the possibility of this scenario, largely due to a lack of information about Hamas’ popularity in the West Bank. Some opinion polls show a small advantage for Fatah out there, but their accuracy levels are uncertain and in any case this variable is open to rapid change. This could lead to an “Algerian scenario” in which Abu Mazen refused to accept the election results, just as the Algerian regime acted when the Islamists won the election in 1991. This may create tensions between Turkey and Hamas’ interior enough to ignite violent conflicts. The PA in the West Bank as well as popular protests that could threaten the stability of the Ramallah regime. Should Abu Mazen accept this election outcome, Hamas would likely benefit from a strengthened foothold in the West Bank and take control of the Palestinian Authority.
- Union Government – This scenario could be due to the electoral link between Fatah and Hamas, or the entry of a Hamas agreement into the government as a partner rather than a leader. This would mainly reflect Hamas’ unwillingness to take full responsibility for governance and that doing so would put him under increasing internal and external pressure to recognize political agreements with Israel, thereby limiting its armed forces and paramilitary operations. Nevertheless, in this case, Hamas could consolidate its control over the West Bank without meaningful concessions in Gaza while under the guardianship of the Palestinian Authority. The second is already trying to “explain” that this will become a matter of restricting, integrating and gradually transforming Hamas, just after the previous elections, as during the failed union government of 2006-2007. However, this claim has already been violently refuted in the past, and there is no reason to expect otherwise, at least for now.
In reality, the idea that this choice will actually be made is still unclear. And even if it happens, there is a growing sense that it will improve Hamas’ reputation rather than Fatah’s. Therefore, the prospect of an election will likely face new challenges and even threats from the Palestinian Authority, Israel, and the largely moderate Arab camp and the West.
Failing to continue with elections in the short term would return the parties to where they were about a month ago without causing major uprisings in the Palestinian arena. However, as such internal obstacles, including Israeli prevention, approach the planned first May 22nd election date, it will become increasingly difficult to cancel the election. Moreover, internal and external repercussions will be stronger and will likely be accompanied by political and security conflicts between Israel and Palestinians, between Palestinians and between both sides of the conflict with the international community.
It is therefore vital to look ahead, to establish close consultation and coordination between the following actors on this election issue: Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the main Arab actors, especially Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and the international community, the United States in particular. Without this concerted effort, we can all witness a repeat of the 2006 election; It is a process that, under Hamas’ leadership, will dramatically change the nature of Palestinian affairs by weakening the nationalist tendency and strengthening the Islamist.
The best and most urgent way to avoid repeating this tragic mistake today is to build a fast and firm international consensus to prevent its recurrence. This consensus envisaged that Hamas could only take part in the election after Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the United States and Russia had convincingly accepted the conditions previously accepted by all of the Quartet, including the EU and the UN. This means recognizing Israel, renouncing violence and accepting all previous Palestinian-Israeli political agreements. And if Hamas continues to refuse, then it must bear the obligation to cancel the first Palestinian election fifteen years later.
Hamas showed little signs that he had swallowed what he saw as a bitter pill until now, but this is partly because he was driven to believe he never needed it. This is more reason to conclude that the sooner these constructive Four terms are ratified and enforced by all players, the better for true Palestinian democracy and the prospect of a deal with Israel.