Will Elections Solve Palestinian Division?
Intensive talks are due to take place over a three-day period starting Monday in Cairo with the aim of working out details of the upcoming Palestinian elections. The publicly stated goals of these Egyptian-sponsored talks are to try and begin unraveling a 14-year-old problem, namely the unlawful control by Hamas of life in the Gaza Strip. Hamas, which had won a decisive parliamentary victory in the January 2006 elections and formed a government thereafter, was unable to deal with the existence of Palestinian security forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas. Armed militias belonging to Hamas physically took over control and, as a result, Hamas became the de facto power in Gaza. Israel responded with a crippling blockade.
Palestinians for some time have been trying to resolve the division that occurred in June 2016 through talks. Various agreements sponsored at times by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar have all failed to resolve the problem. The latest breakthrough happened without any direct role for any Arab host. While the current breakthrough took place in Turkey’s Istanbul, Palestinians have insisted that the agreement was reached at the Palestinian embassy and that the Turks were not involved.
That agreement reached last summer between Fatah strongman Jibril Rajoub and Hamas’ Saleh al-Arouri, both of whom were friends in Israeli prisons, appears to have been an effective breakthrough. The agreement, which calls for power-sharing leadership between the two major Palestinian factions, paved the way for the issuance of a presidential decree calling for legislative elections on May 22, presidential elections on July 31, and the formation and meeting of a reformed Palestine National Council (the parliament for all Palestinians local and abroad) to take place on August 31.
It appears that the breakthrough came after Hamas blinked first. President Abbas and his Fatah movement had repeatedly insisted that presidential elections should take place after the legislative elections while Hamas had refused. But it appears that the support for reconciliation by Hamas’ patrons had convinced the Islamist movement not to run a candidate for president and therefore it made little difference when the elections would take place.
While there has been no official confirmation, it appears also that Fatah and Hamas had agreed provisionally to field a joint list, with Fatah having 10 more seats than Hamas. Thus, Fatah will have a chance to name the next speaker under the rule of 85-year-old Abbas. This could make things chaotic. Palestinian basic law stipulates that the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council would take over for 60 days as acting president until elections take place if the president is no longer able to carry out his functions.
The Cairo talks scheduled for February 8 are supposed to work out the logistics of the upcoming elections that will take place while two different governments, courts, and security forces run Gaza and the West Bank. Of special importance will be agreements on issues such as the election’s court, ways to protect the elections, and how the post-elections transition will take place.
While a joint Fatah/Hamas list could make the transition easier, it is difficult to imagine what the reaction would be from the Biden Administration or from Israel to such a list or even to a coalition government that will include Hamas supporters.
Israel could derail the process if it wants to. One area of possible contention will be the participation of east Jerusalem Palestinians in the elections. In two previous elections, Israel, as per its commitment to the Oslo Accords, allowed Palestinians to vote absentee using post office locations in east Jerusalem. The head of the Palestinian Central Elections Commission, Hanna Nasir, has said publicly that the commission has alternative plans if the Israelis try to prevent Palestinians from participating.
Pundits are divided on whether elections will actually take place and whether they would lead to an end to the division among Palestinians. The personal trust that has been established between Rajoub and Arouri is expected to be tested in the coming months as will be the seriousness of support for elections and the end of the division by regional powers such as Egypt, Jordan, Qatar and Turkey.
The road to May 22 and the government that will be formed thereafter is full of land mines. The fact that elections will occur on the basis of proportional representation will ensure that no single list will be able to dominate as had happened in 2006. Had elections been proportional back then Hamas would not have been able to form a government by itself.
Palestinians are hoping that elections will indeed take place, a coalition government be formed, and the unity of Gaza and the West Bank under a single government, a single set of laws, and a single security force will result. That is a tall order.