Middle East Eye / January 27, 2021
By holding parliamentary elections first, the Palestinian leadership aims to protect the PA and the Oslo paradigm.
A letter from Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh was enough to trigger a long-awaited presidential decree by Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas this month setting out a timetable for elections.
Following months of negotiations and meetings between the two main Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, sequential elections will be held for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) on 22 May, to be followed by a presidential election on 31 July and elections to the Palestinian National Council (PNC) on 31 August.
Hamas had, up to the point of the Haniyeh’s letter, insisted that the three elections be held simultaneously. The change of position by Hamas was explained by its spokesman, Hazem Qasem, who said that although Hamas had wanted simultaneous elections, it agreed to Abbas’s schedule “in the interests of unity”.
‘Interests of unity’
Qasem went on to say that there were many issues to resolve between now and the start of the elections. But surely, major issues should have been resolved before agreeing to elections?
The decree has been welcomed by many Palestinians who have been starved of democracy since the last PLC elections in 2006. It has also been welcomed by most Palestinian factions and internationally as an essential means of restoring the legitimacy of the three bodies. But there has been hardly any mention about the PNC elections in the occupied territories and among the PA’s funders in the international community.
One immediate issue that arises is the manner in which the decree was issued, using the logo of the State of Palestine. While the UN General Assembly recognised Palestine as a non-member observer state in 2012, neither Israel nor key members of the international community, including the US, recognise it as a full state. Sweden stands out in the EU as a country that does recognise it. But the use of this logo on the decree raises questions. Surely, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), as the internationally recognised representative of Palestinians, sits above the “state” and the PA.
The legality of the electoral decree has also been challenged by some legal experts, including Anis Fawzi Kassim. But one of my main concerns is that the process, through holding PLC elections first, is designed to bring “legitimacy” to the PA and the status quo created by the Oslo Accords, rather than to initiate a rebuilding of the PLO.
The argument that we must bring fresh legitimacy to the PA’s institutions might seem sound and necessary, as the last elections were held 15 years ago and Abbas dissolved the non-functioning PLC in 2018. But this should not trump the more important questions facing Palestinians and their cause.
Cart before the horse
Holding PLC elections first is putting the cart before the horse. The roles of the PA, PLC and presidency were designed to operate in the occupied Palestinian territories only, leaving millions of Palestinians in the 1948 areas, refugee camps and the diaspora out of the equation. It is the PNC that represents all Palestinians.
Under the decree, elections to the PNC, the highest representative body of the PLO, are set to be held last. The total number of seats has not been declared, but is thought to be 350, as opposed to the current 700-plus. Of these, 132 will be filled by PLC members elected in May.
The decree provides very little information about how this body will be rebuilt, except that it will be done in accordance with the PLO’s Basic Law, which states that “the members of the National Council shall be elected by the Palestinian people by direct ballot, in accordance with a system to be devised for this purpose by the Executive Committee”.
This triggers a series of practical questions, including how Palestinians outside the occupied territories will vote. This would require a huge amount of work, which is unlikely to be completed by 31 August. How Palestinians in Arab countries – especially Jordan – will participate is another key question.
In his decree, Abbas calls on the elections committee to prepare for the PLC and legislative elections, but not the PNC elections. Who will be in charge of that extremely difficult task, and do they have everything they require?
The flaw in the July presidential election, meanwhile, is that while it is for the “president of the State of Palestine”, the vote is only open to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. This precludes Palestinians in the diaspora from selecting the president of their state.
The decree does not mention a president of the PA. Abbas currently heads both the PA and the State of Palestine, while he also chairs the PLO and Fatah. It is therefore safe to assume that should Abbas decide to stand for election as president, he would maintain all these roles. But what if someone else wins the election?
Apart from scepticism over whether the elections will take place at all, due to the complexity of the required processes and Israel’s assumed interference at least in occupied East Jerusalem, a dangerous message is emerging. There has been very little discussion about the PNC elections inside the occupied territories, and a full focus on the PLC elections. But the PNC elections should logically come first.
The Palestinian cause is at a crossroads, exacerbated by US President Donald Trump’s imposition of many elements of the “deal of the century” and the recent slate of normalisation agreements with Israel. We need to elect a new, dynamic, representative PNC that will consider options for the liberation struggle going forward.
This will come through the election of a new leadership that will consider whether the PA is needed, or whether it requires reform in terms of its constitution and accountability. The start of a rebuilding process is decades overdue. We must avoid giving legitimacy to the status quo, a return to security cooperation with Israel and fruitless negotiations brokered by US President Joe Biden’s new administration.
Will the elections, if they take place, end the divisions that have bedevilled Palestinians for more than a decade, or exacerbate them? If Israel derails the elections, Abbas could say he did his part, but was derailed by Tel Aviv – and the status quo could continue for many more years, with all the damage this would bring to the Palestinian cause.
Kamel Hawwash is a British-Palestinian engineering professor based at the University of Birmingham; he is the Chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and a founding member of the British Palestinian Policy Council (BPPC)