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Palestinian elections may not deliver reconciliation

Jan 19,2021 - Last updated at Jan 19,2021

Sixteen years after the Palestinians held their presidential and legislative elections; President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Mahmoud Abbas issued a decree on Friday calling for fresh elections to be held later this year. His four-year-term as president ended in 2009, but the rift between the PA and Hamas, when the latter took over the Gaza Strip in 2007, had prevented the holding of new elections.

In the 2006 elections, Hamas won a majority in the legislature and Abbas was forced to name Ismail Haniyyeh as prime minister. That government was short lived and its collapse led to a bloody coup in Gaza by Hamas. Since then multiple initiatives aimed at ending the intra-Palestinian rift were unsuccessful. With a crippled legislature Abbas emerged as an authoritarian ruler and was able to sidestep Palestinian democratic institutions.

A majority of Palestinians are skeptical of the upcoming elections. A poll conducted in December found that 52 per cent of those polled believed that the elections will neither be free nor fair, while 76 per cent said that Fateh, the largest of Palestinian factions, will never accept the outcome if Hamas emerged as a winner. A number of Palestinian factions said that elections should not be held until reconciliation between Fattah and Hamas is concluded.

Hamas has welcomed Abbas’ decree with reservations. The legislative elections will be held in May while the presidential poll will take place at the end of July followed by elections of the Palestinian National Council (PNC) in August.

Meanwhile, inter-factional dialogue continues under Egyptian and Turkish auspices with little progress. Hamas and Fateh have reached multiple understandings in the past but failed to implement them. The rift has weakened the Palestinian position both regionally and internationally. Hamas has become an ally of Iran and Qatar, both of which appear to be against reconciliation at this point. Hamas runs the beleaguered Gaza Strip uncontested and has refused to allow the PA to return.

At 85, Abbas remains the only candidate for president despite calls to allow younger faces to take over. Analysts believe the upcoming elections, if they are held on time, are meant to renew Abbas’ legitimacy in time with a new US administration taking over. Hamas too is under pressure, especially as Israel’s embargo of Gaza is taking its toll on the strip’s population. The coronavirus pandemic has added to the strip’s woes.

While the UN and the EU have welcomed Abbas’ announcement and called on Israel to facilitate the holding of the elections, it is doubtful that the occupation authority will allow polls to take place in East Jerusalem. In 2006 Palestinians in East Jerusalem were allowed to vote. Another challenge lies in dealing with a government or a legislature that includes Hamas members. The United States, Israel and most EU members have designated Hamas as a terrorist organisation. Regardless of the outcome of the elections, Hamas is unlikely to give up its control of Gaza.

Still the elections come at a crucial moment for the region. Under President Donald Trump the Palestinians suffered major political and economic losses beginning with the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and ending with the latest spate of normalisation agreements between Israel and a number of Arab countries. The expansion of illegal settlement activities in East Jerusalem and the West Bank during the last four years has been astronomical.

While President-elect Joe Biden has committed himself to reviving the two-state solution, he is unlikely to launch a new initiative in the first few months of his term. His administration will restore political and economic ties with the Palestinians while calling on Israel to resume peace negotiations. Realistically, the implementation of the classical two-state solution will prove improbable and there will be a revisit to Trump’s peace plan as a starting point.

Abbas has to understand that the geopolitical stage has changed dramatically since 2016 and that for the Palestinians to restore a semblance of regional and international support they must achieve genuine reconciliation and unity. The elections provide a test and a challenge that could deliver both but it could also deepen existing divisions.

Two countries that have a vested interest in uniting the Palestinians are Jordan and Egypt. On Sunday, Abbas was visited by the heads of intelligence agencies of both countries apparently to urge him to take serious moves towards Palestinian reconciliation ahead of the elections. But Abbas must also commit to initiating wholesale reforms that are needed to restore confidence in the Palestinian Authority especially among the Palestinians themselves.

If the elections are held, they must be free with international observers overseeing the process. The fact that Abbas will run uncontested may prove problematic while the failure to achieve reconciliation before the elections could deliver a situation where the current stalemate drags on for more years to come.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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