After 15 years, Palestinians are once again heading towards national elections. At a time when the Palestinian political system has become fragmented, unrepresentative, and unaccountable, this is an important first step – even if it will likely stop short of the deeper political transformation that is badly needed. Nor will it directly challenge Israel’s overarching occupation, which remains the ultimate arbiter of Palestinians’ fate. Nevertheless, after pressing Palestinians to move ahead with the electoral process, European governments must now throw their full political weight behind this initiative and work with all Palestinian stakeholders to ensure the elections are successful.
Europeans have the chance to avoid repeating their disastrous response to the last legislative election, held in 2006. Although the vote was deemed free and fair by international observers, the European Union (and the United States) refused to recognise Hamas’s surprise victory and quickly worked to sanction and undermine the group – in effect, punishing it for having participated in the democratic process. This helped ignite latent disputes between Hamas and Fatah, precipitating a short but violent Palestinian civil war in summer 2007. The conflict left Hamas in control of Gaza and President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party in control of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the West Bank.
Since then, these political fractures have deepened, to the detriment of Palestinians’ aspirations and the prospects of peace with Israel. Meanwhile, the EU’s decision to impose a no-contact policy with Hamas has only bolstered hardliners within the group who argue against political compromise and in favour of armed confrontation with Israel. In doing so, Europeans have lost the ability to influence the group’s behaviour in a positive manner.
Last Friday, after months of talks, Abbas issued a long-anticipated presidential decree that formally launched the electoral process. This will start with elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), the PA’s parliament, on 22 May; followed by those for the PA presidency on 31 July; and finishing with the formation of a new Palestinian National Council (PNC), the PLO’s parliament, by 31 August.
This significant milestone results from the profound challenges that Fatah and Hamas currently face. Rather than continuing their zero-sum struggle against each other, they seem to be coming to accept the preservation of their duopoly on power as the best means of protecting their short-term interests – despite the acrimony between them.
Hamas sees elections and its potential participation in a future government as an escape route from the political and financial pressure it has endured in Gaza due to Israeli and PA sanctions. Moderates within Hamas also hope that this could open avenues for international engagement and legitimisation. The biggest prize, though, may be its entry into the PNC, as a backdoor into the PLO. This would allow Hamas to acquire greater influence within the Palestinian national movement, albeit while likely requiring it to further moderate its political platform.
Fatah is also in bad shape. Since 1993, its standing has been intrinsically linked to the Oslo peace process. The disappearance of any viable path to Palestinian independence, widespread public perceptions that Fatah has profited from managing the occupation on Israel’s behalf, and the ageing of the party’s leadership have severely undermined its national status and vitality. Elections may provide Fatah with a means to re-legitimise its claims to national leadership. The timing of the election decree, one week before Joe Biden’s inauguration as US president, suggests that Abbas aims to secure early backing from his incoming administration – which is likely to be more focused on democracy than its predecessor – ahead of future negotiations with Israel.
Either way, Hamas and Fatah seem intent on mending rather than transforming the faltering political system. As a result, they have put elections before national reconciliation – reversing the traditional order, in which a reconciliation agreement and the formation of a transitional national unity government are preconditions for elections.
This is a risky gamble, as it creates ample opportunities for spoilers and disagreements to derail the elections. The move has created some momentum and mutual confidence, given that each side has had to make concessions on the conduct of the elections. But the deeper political disagreements between Fatah and Hamas remain unresolved. These revolve around how to reunify Palestinian ministries, which are currently divided between Gaza and the West Bank; the fate of Hamas’s armed wing, which has positioned itself as a competitor to the PA’s security forces; and their common agenda for national liberation.
To minimise these challenges, the sides may attempt to reach pre- and post-election political agreements that can preserve their core interests and positions regardless of who wins the votes. They will likely discuss such issues during upcoming talks in Cairo. Two options are to field a joint list of candidates for the PLC elections and to back a consensus figure for president. Fatah and Hamas are also discussing the latter’s quota of seats within the PNC, which are currently allocated among PLO factions (rather than through direct elections among the Palestinian diaspora, as demanded by many activists and reformers). This would avoid a more competitive process and sustain the current balance of power. It could also mean that the immediate post-election reality for average Palestinians feels little different to that of today. Nevertheless, some sort of power-sharing arrangement would be important in avoiding an uptick in violence following the vote, and would lay the foundation for further efforts to restore Palestinian unity and representation based on regular, four-year electoral cycles.
Even if Hamas and Fatah can reach some form of modus vivendi, they still face risks. Hamas remains cautious about fully committing to the vote, given past international responses. The group is also keen to avoid any concession that could undermine its security in Gaza. All of this is happening against the backdrop of its internal leadership contest.
For its part, Fatah is wary of another electoral trouncing that would jeopardise its hold over the PA and the PLO – both of which are important sources of political patronage and power. The party must also factor in its internal disputes, which could erupt during the elections, potentially producing rival electoral lists and competing presidential candidates.
Several known unknowns will shape the course of events in Palestine in the coming months. The first of these is Abbas’s decision on whether to seek re-election. He is 85 years old, rumoured to be in ill health, and has occasionally signalled his desire to retire even as he continues to tighten his hold on power and edge out potential challengers. While running could help him secure his position, it would be risky given that two-thirds of Palestinians want him to resign. Or he could use this opportunity to slowly disengage from front-line politics. Although he could step down as president while remaining chairman of both Fatah and the PLO for the time being, this would trigger a fractious scramble to succeed him within his party.
The second unknown is the public reaction. Many Palestinians feel alienated from the traditional political parties, which they see as corrupt and out of touch. This will also be the first chance that those under the age of 33 will have had to take part in national elections. Voter enthusiasm will depend in large part on whether the upcoming electoral exercise proves to be anything more than an attempt to legitimise the existing political order. A key factor in this regard will be the extent to which Fatah and Hamas allow alternative and critical voices to campaign and challenge them freely.
The last major unknown is the reaction of external actors. Israel has yet to officially comment on the presidential decree. In the past, the country allowed Palestinian elections in East Jerusalem, which it occupies. More recently, Israel has arrested PLC members, predominantly those affiliated with Hamas, and cracked down on Palestinian political activities in the city. Should Israel obstruct the Palestinian elections in East Jerusalem, this would put Palestinian factions in a difficult position, given their insistence on the inclusion of the area and its Palestinian residents.
Just as crucial will be the actions of the Biden administration and Europe. The EU has publicly affirmed its support for the Palestinian votes and called on Israel to do likewise. The bloc will likely deploy an election observation mission in Palestine. And the incoming Biden administration will no doubt take a similar stance. This is a good start.
But they must go further, by committing themselves to respecting the results of free and fair elections, and to engaging with any government that emerges from them – albeit while conditioning their level of engagement on its political platform and actions. The EU and the US should discuss this with Hamas and Fatah in advance. In addition, the EU and the US need to push Israel to allow elections in East Jerusalem while demanding that the Palestinian authorities hold an open and transparent electoral contest.
Foreign policy rarely provides second chances. This electoral cycle may fall short of expectations. Yet – so long as it is free, fair, and inclusive – it will give the EU an opportunity to escape the legacy of past mistakes. In doing so, it can also reinforce the moderate trend within Hamas and support the emergence of a unified, representative, and accountable Palestinian leadership – all of which will be important factors in future negotiations with Israel. The EU must not squander this opportunity.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.