Palestinian legislative elections are scheduled for May 22. Whether or not the vote takes place, finally scheduling elections was nothing short of remarkable. Palestinian politics has been in gridlock, with elections suspended since the terrorist group Hamas won a parliamentary majority in 2006. The stalemate gave way to civil war in 2007, during which Hamas conquered the Gaza Strip and the Palestine Liberation Organization clung to power in the West Bank. Since then, a bitter division between the two Palestinian territories has ensued.
Palestinians deserve to shape their own political destiny, but elections could come at a price. Polls suggest that Hamas could emerge as the strongest party once again. More gridlock, dysfunction, and strife could follow.
The Palestinians have had ample time to address this problem. It has been almost a decade and a half since the last vote. But the political system is dominated in the West Bank by one man, Mahmoud Abbas, and one party, Fatah, whereas in Gaza, it is dominated by one party, Hamas. Having failed to retool their system, the Palestinians are now careening toward another political crisis.
Inexplicably, international stakeholders are watching the sudden return of Palestinian politics from the sidelines.
The saga began in September 2020 in the wake of the Abraham Accords—normalization agreements between Israel, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. The peace deal was a wake-up call to Palestinians that they were losing traction among Arab states that historically championed their cause. Hamas and Fatah met in Istanbul, Turkey, for a dialogue that few, if any, believed would yield a political breakthrough. After all, the two sides had met and failed to agree many times before. The Egyptians, Saudis, Turks, Russians, and others had all tried brokering agreements and had all failed.
Remarkably, on Sept. 24, 2020, the two sides emerged aligned. "We have agreed to first hold legislative elections, then presidential elections of the Palestinian Authority, and finally the central council of the Palestine Liberation Organization," said Jibril Rajoub, a senior Fatah official.
Using the past as a guide, the likelihood the two sides would follow through on their agreement was decidedly low. But once again, the Palestinians surprised. On Jan. 15, Abbas announced that Palestinian Authority legislative elections would take place on May 22 and presidential elections on July 31.
Abbas' announcement was nothing short of remarkable. The aging politician has an iron grip on power after winning a four-year term in 2005 and extending his term 12 additional years. He ostensibly did so to prevent the rise of Hamas. It was no surprise that Hamas welcomed his announcement. The group called for fair elections for Palestinians to "express their will without restrictions or pressures."
As election plans took shape, Abbas issued a direct challenge to Israel: He insisted elections could not happen without the Arab residents of East Jerusalem, which Israel considers a part of its capital, taking part. "We are very interested in having elections but not at any price," Abbas said. The Palestinian Authority followed up with a formal request to Israel.
The issue of Jerusalem appeared to set the stage for a showdown. While the Israelis indicated that "no decision has been taken" on the issue, the Palestinian Authority engaged in an aggressive messaging campaign during which Mutasem Tayem, director-general of the Palestinian Authority's Jerusalem Unit, said Arab residents with Israeli-issued identification cards must be able to vote "despite all Israeli measures aiming to prevent them from participating."
Israeli officials say the Netanyahu government decided it would not be drawn into the Palestinian election debate. For one, both sides have found workarounds in the past. More to the point, officials in Jerusalem viewed Abbas as daring Israel to bar polling stations in East Jerusalem. Were that to happen, the Palestinians would cancel elections citing Israeli intransigence. The Israelis, who were gearing up for their own March election, did not like the optics. In particular, Netanyahu did not want the Palestinians or their elections to be an Israeli election issue, not least because he was campaigning for support among Israel's Arab parties. To Netanyahu's benefit, the peace process has been a minor issue in all four Israeli election campaigns over the last two years.
Israel thus opted for a policy of silence. Israelis would table their own concerns until after their March 23 elections. As one senior Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said, "the Palestinians would have to continue waiting for a savior to blame." The official seemed to suggest the Palestinian leadership did not actually want the vote to take place.
And for good reason. September 2020 opinion polls indicated that Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh would beat Abbas 52 percent to 39 percent in a head-to-head contest. If convicted terrorist Marwan Barghouti ran, he was slated to win 55 percent of the vote. In parliamentary elections, Fatah would receive 38 percent of the vote and Hamas 34 percent—a very tight race.
The polling picture in December 2020 didn't improve for Fatah. The parliamentary split between Fatah and Hamas was identical. But Abbas was losing ground to Barghouti and was still projected to lose to Haniyeh. Even worse for Abbas was that 66 percent of respondents demanded the ailing octogenarian's resignation.
The international response was uneasy silence. Rather than addressing the looming challenge of terrorist participation in the Palestinian election, the Biden administration prioritized allocating additional funds to the Palestinian Authority. In March and April, Washington announced plans to provide $15 million in COVID-19 support, $10 million in "peace-building" programs, and $75 million in other indirect assistance. A leaked four-page memo expresses a desire to reestablish ties with the Palestinian Authority (after former U.S. President Donald Trump curtailed them) while only articulating "concern" that Hamas could beat Fatah in the forthcoming elections.
News reports swirled. One Israeli news outlet reported that U.S. President Joe Biden had pushed the Palestinian Authority to proceed with elections "to renew the legitimacy in the Palestinian Authority." The London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat wrote the Biden administration asked Abbas for "clarifications on the partnership with Hamas in the upcoming elections." Indeed, reports suggest the Hamas slate of candidates include current inmates in Israeli jails as well as a terrorist commander.
One Palestinian outlet claimed the United States asked Abbas to postpone or cancel the elections, which Abbas allegedly rejected. However, Israeli and Palestinian officials both candidly say the White House has given a green light. U.S. officials say they will not interfere, and they have little right to make demands after some of the United States' own recent political woes. This is somewhat awkward in light of the fact that Biden, while serving as a U.S. senator, spearheaded the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006, which prohibits U.S. assistance if the Palestinian Authority is "effectively controlled by Hamas."
Jordan and Egypt, both traditional Palestinian allies that oppose the Muslim Brotherhood (of which Hamas is a splinter faction), were also relatively quiet. Qatar-based Al Jazeera noted that "uncertainty about the readiness of the Fatah movement for the elections has raised concern in Egypt and Jordan." The network also reported that Egyptian and Jordanian intelligence chiefs Abbas Kamel and Ahmad Husni met with Abbas in Ramallah, Palestine, and "urged him to unify Fatah on the eve of the elections and to participate in a unified list to reduce the chances of Hamas winning it." Officially, however, both countries issued statements supporting elections, even if they were "still not convinced that the elections will actually take place."
One country that may be eager to see elections is the United Arab Emirates. Mohammed Dahlan, the former Gaza Strip security chief and a rival of Abbas, has lived in exile in the UAE since 2011 and apparently wants to reenter Palestinian politics. He has no plans to run in the legislative elections but is clearly eyeing the presidency. As the Times of Israel noted: "With Abu Dhabi's backing, Dahlan's movement has quietly funded aid projects in the Gaza Strip and in East Jerusalem over the past several years." In fact, Dahlan delivered 60,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines, donated by the UAE to Gaza, amid rumors he would run. Dahlan's polling numbers have not been strong, but he could still have an impact—particularly if his candidacy erodes support for Abbas.
Dahlan is, in many ways, overshadowed by Barghouti, currently serving multiple life sentences in Israel for acts of terrorism committed under his command during the Second Intifada in the early 2000s. Many Palestinians liken him to activist Nelson Mandela, who emerged from a terrorism-related prison sentence to lead a liberated South Africa. Mandela, of course, never directly engaged in violence. Nevertheless, Barghouti continues to put up strong numbers in the polls. His associates are reportedly taking steps that continue to indicate his intention of running for president on a list separate from Fatah.
Another candidate to emerge is former Fatah Central Committee member Nasser al-Qudwa, who on Twitter declared his intention "of forming an electoral slate within the framework of a broad democratic forum that includes various segments of society, not the Fatah movement alone." For this statement, Abbas expelled him from the Fatah party last month. Undeterred, Qudwa and his supporters founded a new electoral slate—the Palestinian National Democratic Forum—and even invited Barghouti to join it, potentially forming a formidable joint list. Qudwa called for Palestinians to find "a third path" between "armed struggle or negotiations with unending concessions."
The mention of a "third path" is a clear nod to former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who ran under the banner of the "Third Way" in 2006. Fayyad, who currently teaches at Princeton University, announced he also plans to run in the coming elections. He declared his bloc would be comprised of "independent personalities" that would campaign with "transparency and honor."
The field is shaping up, and Palestinians are registering to vote—93 percent of eligible voters so far. Cautiously, long-time observers of Palestinian politics who have had little to write about for many years are starting to weigh in again. The consensus is it may now be too late to cancel legislative elections. But cynicism abounds on whether Abbas will subsequently allow for presidential elections. He has, after all, reigned 12 years beyond what his four-year term allowed. He is a veritable Middle East strongman.
Now what? Lingering uncertainty, punctuated by the lack of a strong U.S. position, has yielded an eerie quiet from otherwise vociferous U.S. nongovernmental organizations promoting democracy abroad. One advisor to Palestinian reform candidates says the Europeans have filled the void. According to the Associated Press, Palestinian election officials invited the European Union to send monitors in January. But the EU says Israel has not responded to a request made in February for an exploratory delegation.
After their own March 23 elections, the Israelis finally began to voice their concerns. Nadav Argaman, head of Israel's internal security services Shin Bet, visited Maj. Gen. Majed Faraj, the head of the Palestinian Authority's security services in an effort to postpone the election. Argaman also met with Abbas and delivered the same message, only to be rebuffed by the Palestinian president (who told him "you built Hamas"). The Israel Defense Forces' outgoing military liaison to the Palestinians also issued a rare public warning, saying Israel should be prepared to halt all security coordination with the Palestinians if Hamas wins the election.
The senior Israeli official suggested the Palestinians still have one opportunity to "climb down from the tree." They could postpone the election by citing legitimate concerns about COVID-19. Polling stations without proper public health procedures could further strain West Bank hospitals, which were at 115 percent capacity in March, according to the World Health Organization. Gaza infections have been surprisingly manageable, but overall Palestinian vaccination numbers are low. For now, however, these concerns have not been compelling enough for Abbas to postpone.
With no restrictions on Hamas' participation and as Abbas' polling numbers flatline, the Palestinian Authority looks likely to be heading for a repeat of 2006. That said, a recent change in the Palestinian election law stipulating proportional representation in parliament will make outright control more difficult for one party. But a Palestinian Authority significantly influenced by Hamas is not just possible; it's probable.
Right now, the Biden administration appears content to let elections proceed without preconditions. Israeli concerns, even if more emphatically voiced, will yield little without U.S. backing. The rest of the Middle East is now watching nervously, bracing for yet another power struggle between extremists and a strongman.
But the blame belongs to Abbas. In his 16 years of absolute power, he has barred political challengers and shut down political debate. If Palestinian elections are held, they will occur in a political vacuum. The alternative was a patient process of institution-building along the lines of what Fayyad advocated as prime minister. As he knew well, democracy is a system of governance that cannot be built on voting alone. Rather, it must be built on parties, structures, and the rigorous debate of ideas.
That's not possible this time around. But Abbas could still postpone the elections or work with other parties to restrict terrorist participation. Should he reject both of these paths, a new Palestinian political crisis is slated to begin on May 22.
Jonathan Schanzer is the senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Twitter: @JSchanzer