Palestinian elections announced
Jan 29, 2021 | AIJAC staff
Update from AIJAC
On Jan. 15, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas published a formal decree calling for Palestinian legislative elections on May 22, followed by a presidential vote on July 31. If they take place, these would be the first elections the Palestinian Authority has held since 2006. This Update discusses the background and complexity of such a vote – as well as the scepticism being expressed by many about whether the elections will actually go ahead.
We begin with Gaith al-Omari, Palestinian affairs expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He says the election announcement was not based in any reconciliation between Fatah, which rules the West Bank, and Hamas, which rules Gaza, but in mutual posturing to embarrass the other, leaving Abbas with no choice but to call a poll. He argues the long-standing barriers to an election remain in place, so it likely will not occur, and even if it does, both sides will attempt to shape, spin or annul the result, and thus only deepen the Palestinian legitimacy crisis. For al-Omari’s highly knowledgeable analysis, CLICK HERE.
Next up is America columnist Benny Avni, who argues that the election announcement is also intended to influence the policies of the new Biden Administration in Washington, but that it’s essentially a trick. He also suggests that no elections may actually take place, and even if they do, they are not likely to have any genuine democratic legitimacy. Avni also parses the themes of Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki’s announcement concerning the election – including trying to contrast the Palestinian elections with Israel’s failure to find stable government over four polls in two years. For Avni’s point of view in full, CLICK HERE. Also suggesting the election announcement may be intended to influence the Biden Administration positively was Israeli academic Eyal Zisser.
Finally, veteran Palestinian Affairs journalist Khaled Abu Toameh reacts to the election announcement by calling attention to the terrible plight of Palestinians in Syria, and the failure of the Palestinian leadership to even try to address their needs. He paints a picture of a Palestinian community where 40% of households have been displaced, 91% live in poverty, where many have been killed or tortured, and where fleeing to neighbouring countries often leads to arrest or extortion. He concludes, “The Palestinians do not need new elections. They need new leaders who will guide them out from their longstanding morass into a future of promise and peace.” For the rest of his impassioned reporting and plea, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in…
- Gidon Ben-Zvi of the advocacy group Honest Reporting documents the extent to which Mahmoud Abbas had actually blockaded and sanctioned his own people in Gaza over recent years.
- Palestinian reformer Mohamed Dajani offers some suggestions on how the Palestinian Authority should approach the Biden Administration in a genuinely productive way.
- Uri Friedman of the Atlantic magazine discusses lessons other countries can learnfrom the success of Israel’s coronavirus vaccine program.
- American Jewish Committee head David Harris offers a reality check on Israel, Palestinians, and COVID vaccines. Plus, commentator Bassem Tawil asks where the outrage is over prominent Lebanese demanding that Palestinians in Lebanon not be eligible for coronavirus vaccines.
- A report Israel is now giving some coronavirus vaccines to the Palestinian Authority for medical workers and also facilitating the entry of vaccines from Russia.
- A tribute to the late American diplomat and human rights activist Richard Schifterand call to continue his work, written by American thinktank head Robert Doar. Amb. Schifter was a longtime AIJAC colleague, associate and mentor.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Judy Maynard dissects and debunks some highly controversial accusations in a widely covered report by the Israeli NGO B’tselem last week.
- AIJAC’s statement on the extradition of accused child sex offender Malka Leifer to Australia from Israel this week, after more than a decade of efforts to see her return here to face trial.
- AIJAC’s Naomi Levin speaks to Washington expert Jonathan Schanzer about the Middle East priorities of the Biden Administration over its first 100 days.
Will the Palestinian Election Decree Produce Actual Elections?
Jan 27, 2021
On January 15, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas issued a decree calling for two sets of elections this year: legislative on May 22 and presidential on July 31. He also asked that the Palestinian National Council be reconstituted on August 31. If the elections are held, they would be the PA’s first since 2006. This is not the first time that such calls have been floated, but the new decree goes further than previous announcements.
Even so, current political dynamics raise serious doubt about whether the elections will actually be held. The PA and Hamas have offered no guarantees that the conduct of voting would be free and fair or that the outcome would be respected. Thus, instead of focusing on unlikely elections, the PA and other players should prioritize efforts to clarify Palestinian succession, undertake badly needed reforms, and reestablish Palestinian-U.S. relations.
More Posturing Than Breakthrough
After Abbas won the last Palestinian presidential vote in 2005, elections were held for the Palestinian Legislative Council a year later. Hamas prevailed in that contest, and its victory triggered a series of events that culminated in the terrorist organization violently taking over the Gaza Strip in 2007 and fracturing the Palestinian political system. A number of failed reconciliation agreements between Hamas and the Abbas-chaired Fatah movement have promised elections since then but never delivered.
As a result, no Palestinian national institution can claim electoral legitimacy today. Rather, Hamas and Fatah have steadily consolidated control over their domains in Gaza and the West Bank, respectively. Both of their security services have energetically cracked down on supporters of the other movement, and each has populated its bureaucracy and judiciary with loyalists. More than a decade later, the Palestinian split is no longer simply a political rift, but a deeply entrenched institutional fact.
Ending the split has consistently been a high priority for the Palestinian people, who blame both parties for its perpetuation in roughly equal measures. The two sides have signed numerous reconciliation deals in response to public pressure, yet all of them failed to resolve deep ideological disagreements and fundamental questions such as the fate of Hamas’s armed militia, the fate of the thousands of civil servants it has appointed since 2007, and its future role in the overarching Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
The current call for elections did not stem from a breakthrough in any of these longstanding disputes, but rather from a familiar pattern of mutual posturing. In late December, Hamas announced that it would abandon its past demand that elections for the legislative council, presidency, and PLO be held simultaneously, instead accepting Abbas’s demand that they be held consecutively. This highly publicized move painted Abbas into a corner, so he issued his January 15 decree to avoid being cast as the one impeding elections. Yet all of the aforementioned obstacles to holding them remain. And if elections do take place despite the long odds, both sides are already taking practical steps to shape the conduct of the vote and, possibly, annul the outcome.
There have been numerous Fatah-Hamas agreements calling for reconciliation and elections, such as this one signed in Cairo in 2017. But the truth is that both Fatah and Hamas have little to gain and much to lose from elections.
Why the Decree May Fizzle Out
Hamas and Fatah publicly welcomed each other’s announcements, but both have little to gain and much to lose by holding elections. They firmly control their respective territories, and neither has indicated any willingness to loosen its grip. Although Hamas has previously offered to give up some of its civilian control in Gaza, it remains inflexible about giving up security control under any circumstances, and has responded harshly to any elements that challenge its authority, from Fatah to civil society and Salafist groups. As for public opinion, Hamas still leads Gaza polls owing largely to PA sanctions imposed on that territory in recent years, but it is far from assured of an overwhelming electoral majority given longer-term dissatisfaction with its rule. Accordingly, significant voices inside Hamas—including senior official Mahmoud al-Zahar—have expressed misgivings about elections.
Likewise, Abbas has shown no willingness to give up power in the West Bank. Even if Fatah were to win the parliamentary election, it is unlikely to achieve the wide majority Abbas would need to renew his legitimacy, since polls consistently show the two sides running neck and neck in any vote. According to a December poll conducted in both territories by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 34 percent of respondents would vote for Hamas and 38 percent for Fatah. A close race would also endanger longstanding Abbas policies such as security cooperation with Israel and targeting Hamas terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank.
Elections could have implications for internal Fatah politics as well, with new factions forming among aspirants to succeed Abbas. Jibril Rajoub played a central role in reaching this month’s understandings and is pushing for elections, but some of his competitors are opposed. Elections might also allow exiled Abbas rival Mohammad Dahlan to make a comeback. Although he is barred from running, the former Gaza security chief still commands significant support among Fatah activists in Gaza, partly because Hamas has allowed his backers more freedom of action than it has given to Abbas’s faction. If jailed Fatah figure Marwan Barghouti decides to run—especially with Dahlan’s support and in cooperation with an emerging faction led by Nasser al-Qudwa—a significant split within the party may ensue.
Perhaps most important, an election that brings Hamas back inside or atop the PA system could jeopardize Abbas’s primary foreign policy objective: reestablishing relations with the United States. The Biden administration is currently expected to reverse some aspects of Trump policy toward the PA by attempting to reestablish contact and, eventually, reinstate some economic assistance. Most of Abbas’s actions since the U.S. election results became known have been geared toward quickly reengaging Washington when the time comes. Holding Palestinian elections would raise legal and political issues that vastly—perhaps prohibitively—complicate this process. It would also raise tensions with Jordan and Egypt, who regard Hamas with great suspicion and have expressed their misgivings about elections directly to Abbas.
For now, Hamas has insisted that its security forces will oversee any election process in Gaza, while Abbas issued decrees tightening his already considerable grip over the judiciary mere hours before the election decree. Such measures will likely be points of contention when Palestinian factions meet in Cairo early next month to discuss the conduct of the vote.
Another potential obstacle is securing cooperation from the Israelis, who would need to approve holding elections in East Jerusalem and refrain from operations against Hamas activists. Although the East Jerusalem issue was raised and resolved in previous elections, both matters remain highly contentious—even more so than usual now that Israel is gearing up for its own election in March.
The new decree has generated excitement in a society where at least three-quarters of the people reportedly desire elections, according to the Palestinian poll mentioned above. Yet similar initiatives failed in the past due to factors that remain unchanged today. As the parties move beyond general declarations and start grappling with modalities and conditions, their fundamental disagreements are likely to derail the process once again.
Even if elections do proceed, Hamas and Fatah’s apparent unwillingness to cede meaningful power in their territories would likely deepen the ongoing Palestinian legitimacy crisis rather than resolve it. As the 2006 vote showed, elections held in a politically charged environment without clear terms of reference or strong institutions can do more harm than good.
Rather than focusing on elections, the United States should engage the PA and its regional allies on stabilizing the West Bank political scene while ensuring that Gaza’s humanitarian situation does not deteriorate further. Clarifying Palestinian succession is a priority given Abbas’s advanced age and the instability his sudden departure may trigger. Moreover, poor governance and nearly universal perceptions of corruption have dramatically undermined the PA’s domestic legitimacy. Washington should therefore look into leveraging aid—alone and in coordination with international donors—in a manner that fosters PA institutional reform. Finally, U.S. officials should encourage Israel and the PA to advance concrete measures on the ground that help maintain stability, rehabilitate the idea of cooperation, and begin rebuilding trust between the two sides.
Palestinians Greet Our New President With an Old Trick
By BENNY AVNI
New York Sun, January 26, 2021
Then-US Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, shake hands for the press at the presidential compound in Ramallah on March 9, 2016. Is Abbas’ current election announcement for Mr. Biden’s benefit?
Eying the new administration in Washington, Ramallah is promising full democracy in Palestine. The Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, has declared parliamentary and presidential election in June and July respectively.
It’s an old trick. Not that it went unwelcomed by the marks at the United Nations. Secretary General Guterres was to make that clear. He was followed by a number of Western governments, hoping the 85 year old Mr. Abbas, who was elected for a four year stint back in 2005, will finally face voters and democracy will return.
Ramallah is eager to present its promised election round as superior to that of Israel, which will go to the polls in March for the fourth time in less than two years. Here is how Mr. Abbas’s foreign minister, Riad Malki, put it in a speech to the Security Council today:
“In this period of electoral campaigns, there are those who, in trying to secure votes, remain committed to international law, the two-State solution and peaceful means, and those who instead announce settlements, advance annexation and persist in their provocations.”
It’s almost impossible to parse all fallacies here. Feature “this period of electoral campaigns.” True, Israel’s politics have gone bonkers. The country is overly segmented, with every third-rate politician believing he or she is a potential national leader, forming new political parties almost daily. The prime minister, Benjamin Netanayhu, prefers election campaigns to dealing with trials against him on various criminal charges.
So Israel’s democracy might be in crisis, but a democracy it is, including a tradition of competitive elections, a vigorous adversarial press, independent courts, and a free economy. None of that is evident in the Palestinian territories.
Yes, 16 years after being elected to his four-year presidential stint Mr. Abbas has declared a new election round. But is that a sign of democracy promotion? Is it even a piece of news?
“We continue our genuine efforts to achieve Palestinian reconciliation with the formation of a national unity government” and “with the holding of presidential and parliamentary elections,” Mr Abbas told the United Nations — back in 2016. He has hinted at, clearly stated, and promised such elections pretty much every year in over a decade.
So don’t hold your breath. Who, after all, is eligible to run? Take Mohammed Dahlan, a former Fatah leader in Gaza who has a large following despite living in the United Arab Emirates as top adviser to its leader, Mohammed bin Zaid. Even before finalizing the details, the Palestinian Authority announced Mr. Dahlan will be barred from running for the presidency, reasoning that, as Mr. Dahlan was convicted in absentia by a Ramallah court, he won’t be eligible.
It looks unlikely that Abbas’ rivals, such as the UAE-based Mohammed Dahlan, will be permitted to participate in the poll, if and when it occurs.
Another formidable challenger to Mr. Abbas, Marwan Barghouti, is serving a multiple life times sentence in an Israeli jail on terrorism conviction. He too may not be eligible. Other candidates will likely be blocked in the future.
Then again, too, who is eligible to vote? In the past Palestinian Authority officials announced they will only conduct an election if residents of East Jerusalem will vote. It’s unclear if they will. If Israel says they can’t, Mr. Abbas is likely to find an easy out to cancel the election.
Above all, a question mark hovers over the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Despite a Fatah-Hamas agreement in respect of the elections, reached recently with the help of Egypt and other Arab states, the reconciliation among Palestinian factions remains fragile. Rivers of bad blood do not easily disappear.
Will Ismail Hannyieh, Hamas’s top leader who decamped Gaza in 2019 and now lives luxuriously at Doha, Qatar, come back? Would he be eligible to run?
More crucially, will the participation of Hamas, listed by America and others as a terrorist organization, add to the facade of democracy Ramallah tries to project to the world, or lead to global condemnation?
In 2006, after winning a parliamentary election, Hamas eliminated all Fatah rivals in Gaza in most undemocratic methods. Those included kneecapping and publicly tossing living individuals from high-rise rooftops to the streets below.
After that Hamas victory, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice regretted her campaign to promote the election, telling the New York Times she failed to predict the Hamas victory, or its consequences. “It does say something about us not having a good enough pulse,” she told the Gray Lady.
President Biden’s approach to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking is yet to be fleshed out. In a Tuesday speech to the Security Council, a first since the January 20 inauguration, the acting American representative, Richard Mills, signaled a return to full-fledged diplomacy. The PA embassy at Washington will be reopened and donations to various of Ramallah’s causes will resume. Mr. Mills also vowed to “maintain [America’s] steadfast support for Israel” at the UN and elsewhere.
Unlike most other Security Council envoys, Mr. Mills refrained from mentioning, let alone praising, Mr. Abbas’s declaration that elections are coming to the Palestinian territories. That was savvy. It’s way too early to say that Palestianian democracy is dawning. Elections, if they take place, could be a start. Then again, they could also usher in, as they did the last time they were tried, an era of one-man rule, government corruption, and terrorism.
Palestinians: Victims of an Arab Country
by Khaled Abu Toameh
Gatestone Institute, January 21, 2021
- Like most Arab countries, Syria denies citizenship to Palestinians. Children born in Syria to fathers who are Palestinian nationals are considered Palestinians, not Syrian nationals.
- Palestinian leaders see no evil or wrong-doing when their people are being killed, injured, displaced, arrested and tortured in an Arab country. The attention of these leaders is solely focused on Israel, which they denounce day and night not only for what it does, but also for what it does not do.
- On January 9, Abbas entered the 17th year of his four-year term. He is again talking about his desire to hold new elections. This charade is played at least once or twice a year so that people will believe that he really wants elections.
- The Palestinians do not need new elections. They need new leaders who will guide them out from their longstanding morass into a future of promise and peace.
Fighting between the Syrian army and opposition groups in the Yarmouk refugee camp (once home to approximately 160,000 Palestinians) ended two years ago, but only 435 families have been permitted to return to their homes. Pictured: Yarmouk refugee camp, near Damascus, on May 22, 2018, days after Syrian government forces regained control. (Photo by Louai Beshara/AFP via Getty Images)
As Palestinian leaders condemn Israel almost on a daily basis, they continue to ignore the ongoing suffering of Palestinians living in a number of Arab countries, especially Syria.
Since the beginning of the civil war in Syria in 2011, 4,048 Palestinians have died – but Palestinian leaders hardly seem to notice. Another 333 Palestinians have gone missing, while 1,797 are being held in prisons controlled by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Like most Arab countries, Syria denies citizenship to Palestinians. Children born in Syria to fathers who are Palestinian nationals are considered Palestinians, not Syrian nationals.
Palestinian leaders who meet on a regular basis in the West Bank city of Ramallah seldom discuss the tragedy that has befallen their people in Syria.
Similarly, the leaders of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, who relish giving interviews to the media, seem oblivious to the existence of Palestinians in Syria.
Palestinian leaders see no evil or wrong-doing when their people are being killed, injured, displaced, arrested and tortured in an Arab country. The attention of these leaders is solely focused on Israel, which they denounce day and night not only for what it does, but also for what it does not do.
The PA and Hamas are now condemning Israel for carrying out renovation work at the Western Wall Plaza below the Temple Mount, the most sacred site in the world for the Jewish people, in the Old City of Jerusalem. The Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas are making the surreal claim that Israel is trying to turn the Western Wall — all that remains of the Jews’ Second Temple, destroyed by Roman legions in 70 CE — into a Jewish site.
Recently, some Palestinian officials tried to divert attention from their failure to quickly provide vaccines against the coronavirus to their people by arguing that it was Israel’s “duty” to purchase the doses and distribute them to the Palestinians. Their argument was made even as the Palestinian leadership said it was seeking to obtain the vaccines from four companies, with the help of the international community. It is important to note that the Palestinians never approached Israel with a formal request to supply them with vaccines.
The primary victims of this obsession with Israel are the Palestinians living in Syria, whose daily appeals for help seem not to find their way to the ears of PA President Mahmoud Abbas or the Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip, Qatar and Turkey.
Palestinian human rights organizations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as “pro-Palestinian” groups around the world, also remain silent about the catastrophic human rights violations of Palestinians in Syria. The voices of these organizations and groups are raised only when they have something bad to say about Israel.
Here are some figures from Syria that Palestinian leaders, human rights organizations and “pro-Palestinian” groups in the US and Europe do not feel comfortable talking about: 40% of the Palestinians in Syria have been displaced since the beginning of the civil war, and 91% of their families live in absolute poverty.
A report on the plight of Palestinians of Syria published by the London-based Action Group For Palestinians of Syria (AGPS)
These statistics appear in a January 2020 report published by the Action Group For Palestinians of Syria (AGPS), a London-based human rights watchdog group that monitors the situation of Palestinian refugees in war-torn Syria.
Referring to the deteriorating security and economic conditions of the Palestinians there, the AGPS report, titled “Palestinian Victims of Destruction,” talks about the emergence of “female and child labor, begging, search for food in litter containers and school dropouts.”
At the same time, the report reveals, thousands of Palestinians continue to flee to Lebanon, Turkey, Libya and Egypt. Upon their arrival at these countries, many Palestinians are arrested or fall victim to extortion by smugglers and human traffickers.
“The Syrian economic crisis exacerbated the humanitarian and living conditions of the Palestinians in Syria, who are now facing a social, health, environmental and educational catastrophe, in addition to the spread of social diseases resulting from the high rate of poverty,” according to the report.
During 2020, many Palestinians were killed by the Syrian security services, especially in the Daraa Governorate in southwest Syria.
The AGPS report revealed that since 2011, in various Syrian detention centers, at least 620 Palestinians have been tortured to death.
The report further found that in addition to the killings, the Syrian authorities have also been confiscating the homes and property of many Palestinian refugees. Although fighting between the Syrian army and opposition groups in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp (near Damascus) ended two years ago, only 435 families have been permitted to return to their homes.
According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), Yarmouk was home to approximately 160,000 Palestinian refugees before the eruption of the civil war in Syria 10 years ago. “In December 2012, fierce clashes erupted in Yarmouk, causing numerous civilian casualties, severe damage to property and the displacement of thousands of Palestinians and Syrians,” UNRWA wrote . “Now the camp is largely destroyed and contains just a few dozen families. These are mostly elderly Palestinian refugees.”
What are Palestinian leaders doing to help the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians still living in Syria? Essentially nothing. They are so busy inciting violence against Israel that they have forgotten about their people.
On January 9, Abbas entered the 17th year of his four-year term. He is again talking about his desire to hold new elections. This charade is played at least once or twice a year so that people will believe that he really wants elections.
It is hard to see how elections would help the Palestinians of Syria (who anyway would not be participating in them). Palestinian elections may make some people in the Biden administration and the European Union happy — although Palestinians might again elect the terrorist group Hamas — but for the Palestinians nothing will change, definitely not for those who are being targeted almost daily in Syria.
The Palestinians do not need new elections. They need new leaders who will guide them out from their longstanding morass into a future of promise and peace. In the current circumstances, however, it does not appear that such leaders can be found either in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip.
Khaled Abu Toameh, an award-winning journalist based in Jerusalem, is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at Gatestone Institute.