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The Jerusalem Dilemma and the Palestinian Elections

The Jerusalem Dilemma and the Palestinian Elections

The PA has received assurances the city will be included in the votes, but not from Israel

PA President Mahmoud Abbas, with Hamas’ agreement, has scheduled the first Palestinian elections in 15 years, but a major question hangs over the balloting: Will Israel allow the votes to take place in Jerusalem?

Abbas on Friday handed over the decree setting legislative and presidential votes for May 22 and July 31, respectively, to Hanna Nasser, the head of the Palestinian Central Elections Commission.

It remains for the Palestinian factions to agree on how the electoral process will proceed in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, including the sensitive issue of the participation of Palestinian residents of Jerusalem.

Nasser said during a press conference in Ramallah there was no guarantee the elections would include the holy city, but he hoped pressure could be brought to bear to make that happen.

“There are alternative plans that we need to discuss with the factions, all of them regarding the elections in Jerusalem, as the people of Jerusalem should be able to participate in the elections,” he said.

The spokesperson for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu declined to comment on the matter when asked by The Media Line.

Palestinian election official Fareed Tomallah told The Media Line including Jerusalem in the votes was a political matter that would require the Palestinian government to make special arrangements with the Israeli side.

“But based on the experience of the 2005 [presidential] and 2006 [Palestinian Legislative Council, or PLC] elections, we expect it will happen through [Palestinian residents of Jerusalem voting at] post offices, as before,” Tomallah said.

He added that since this time citizens the legislative elections would be conducted on the basis of national candidates lists, Palestinian citizens of Jerusalem would be able to run for office.

“Candidates won’t run based on districts, which solves the issue of electoral representation [for Jerusalemites],” Tomallah said.

Attorney Mohammed Hadya, director-general of ACT for Alternative Dispute Resolution in East Jerusalem, told The Media Line that how the city would be included in the elections was a hot topic in the local community. “There are many discussions on about candidacies and voting, and both are extremely important.”

Hadya indicated that during the years of the Oslo agreements, Palestinian Jerusalemites’ political representation declined, due to the concentration of power in Ramallah and the absence of a democratic process. “The most recent elections were in 2005 and 2006,” he noted.

Jerusalemites today were looking to participate in their governance, he explained.

“It is true that the election law was amended to consider Palestine as a single electoral district based on full proportional representation, something that has not been tried before. But this weakens the chances of Jerusalemites [to enter the PLC], especially since they will be ‘guests’ on party or independent lists,” Hadya said.

The great fear among Jerusalemites was that their candidates would be low on the electoral lists, and thus Jerusalem would not be represented in the legislature, he said. “There are a great many consultations being held at the level of the Jerusalemite community with the Palestinian factions on preparing the lists.”

Hadya added that Palestinians in East Jerusalem had difficulties registering online ahead of previous elections. “This defect must be corrected by the Elections Commission so that Jerusalem citizens can register like the rest of the Palestinian people. This technical problem must be addressed as a matter of equality.”

Many Jerusalemites were worried about participating in the elections this time, as the political, economic and social situation in the city had changed since 2006, he said. “Their involvement in the Israeli labor market, and their fear of losing the rights they acquired in recent years, constitute personal obstacles to participating in the elections.

“But I think they must insist on their rights [to vote],” Hadya continued.

Palestinians still believe in a two-state solution and that East Jerusalem will be the capital of the future Palestinian state, based on the signed agreements and international law, he said.

“This is an opportunity for us to confirm all this, and also to choose our Legislative Council, the parliament that represents us, in order to remedy the absence of the democratic process and of the legislative authority, in addition to the executive authority’s domination of the legislative and judicial branches,” Hadya said.

The PLC has not functioned since 2007, with the president issuing laws by decree.

As for Israel’s role, he believes it will not facilitate the electoral process this year, due to the struggle for sovereignty over Jerusalem, which was noticeably manifested recently in the US government’s decision to move its embassy to the city and its recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Hadya said he believes Israel will place all possible obstacles before the inclusion of Jerusalem in the elections, including not allow voting at the post offices.

But Palestinians are counting on the next American administration, which clearly supports a free electoral process and the return of democratic life in Palestine, “in addition to the assurances of the Biden team for the return of the track of diplomacy and negotiations, which could place pressure on the Israeli government,” he said.

The PA has obtained assurances from European and Arab countries that the elections will include Jerusalem, but not from Israel. The European Union called on Israel Saturday to facilitate the holding of elections in all Palestinian territories, stressing its readiness to support the electoral process.

Gilead Sher, a fellow at both Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston and at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a former chief of staff and peace negotiator under Prime Minister Ehud Barak, told The Media Line that Israel must not allow itself to be cast as the party preventing PLC elections.

“Israel would do well to speak with PA figures through back channels to understand how it can help prevent negative fallout from the elections,” he said.

In addition, Sher said Israel would do well to condition voting in East Jerusalem on an announcement by Hamas and all factions participating in the elections that they accepted the terms set out the Oslo Accords regarding a rejection of the path of terrorism and violence.

He explained that Israel would similarly do well to set out the three preconditions the Middle East Quartet (the UN, the US, the EU and Russia) set for dialogue with Hamas after its PLC election victory in 2006 – recognition of Israel, a renunciation of terrorism, and respect for agreements signed by the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel – as a condition for the participation of any party or faction in the elections.

“Thus, it would be made clear – again – that Palestinian Authority elections are meant to be run according to the Oslo outline and this alone, and that no indirect legitimacy will be lent to movements and organizations that promote and perpetrate terrorism,” Sher said.

He concluded that it would be in Israel’s interest to observe both the terms defined by the international community for Hamas on the one hand, and the arrangements anchored in the peace accords, on the other.

Yaakov Amidror, a former Israeli national security adviser, told The Media Line the matter was simple: Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and no one but Israel can hold elections in Jerusalem.

“If someone from Jerusalem wants to vote [in the Palestinian elections], he or she will have to do it from Ramallah. We don’t stop them from going out of Jerusalem,” Amidror said.

He stressed that no one could tell the Palestinian leadership what to do in Ramallah.

Jerusalemites participated in the 2005 presidential and 2006 legislative elections, but Israel has since refused any requests to permit their participation in votes.

The results of the July 31 PLC elections will constitute the first stage in the formation of the renewed Palestinian National Council, the legislative body of the PLO. The National Council election will be completed in August, in accordance with the basic system of the PLO and the national understandings.

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