The Challenge of the Palestinian Elections
A Systematic Overview
1. The declaration of Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), to hold elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council, the PA presidency, and the PLO’s Palestinian National Council has sent the Palestinians into a tailspin and may shake the status quo that has characterized the Israel-Palestinian conflict in recent years. Although at this stage, a large number of questions are left to be answered, Israel must clarify its position on a number of issues surrounding the elections, which may create tensions with the new administration in Washington. The goal of this document is to analyze and map out key issues related to the Palestinian elections and their impact on Israel.
2. The main purpose of Mahmoud Abbas’s move was to curry favor with the Biden administration. However, in doing so, Abbas has also managed to re-write the political agenda, rescuing the Palestinians from the state of political irrelevance in which they had been for their past few years.
3. At first glance, it seems that the elections pose a significant political risk to Fatah as a whole and to Abbas personally. Firstly, Fatah lost to Hamas the election in 2006 to Palestinian Legislative Council elections. Abbas is also facing challenges within his party from Mohammed Dahlan and Marwan Barghouti. These challenges come against the backdrop of ever-growing public discontent and protests against his long-standing rule.
4. However, in practice, Abbas’ risk is very ‘calculated’ and there are certain mechanisms that will likely allow Fatah to continue effectively control the West Bank, even elections are lost. First and foremost, in recent months, Abbas has spearheaded judicial ‘reforms’, which require the election results to be authorized by a new court, which he effectively controls. Simultaneously, Fatah is frantically trying to consolidate a joint list with other Palestinian factions, which would, in practice, guarantee the election results in advance. Finally, control of the PLO is Abbas’s joker card since the PA is subordinate to the PLO. Although election are due to held also for the Parliament of the PLO (Palestinian National Council), there is no reasonable possibility to hold elections these elections among the numerous Palestinians scattered across various Middle Eastern nations – Fatah will therefore continue to control the PLO.
5. However, Abbas’s announcement of elections is not a risk-free move. Abbas may decide not to run in the presidential elections if he feels that his political calculations are misguided, or because of his health condition. In such a case, the political cards will be re-shuffled for all players, including Israel.
6. For example, although Abbas seems to have intended to embarrass Hamas with his declaration of elections, at this point, it appears that Hamas seems to view them as an opportunity to improve its domestic standing, as well as its regional and international status, even if the party has not decided if to directly participate in the elections.
7. Like Abbas, it is likely that Hamas will only accept the election outcomes if they turn out to be in their favor. Hamas took over the Gaza Strip by force. Hence, it is unlikely that they will “volunteer” to dismantle their governance mechanisms and transfer them to the PA if they lose the elections.
8. The prospect of Palestinian elections is stirring considerable excitement in Doha and Ankara. Qatar has already announced that it will increase its financing to Hamas this year following the announcement of Palestinian elections. Qatar is also boosting its media presence of its support for the Gaza Strip in a way that strengthens Hamas. Turkey, which at some point considered Israel’s demand to stop allowing Hamas to operate on its territory in exchange for a normalization of ties, is now expected to embrace Hamas once again, as the party faces the possibility of winning the elections.
9. In regards to Hamas, Israel should review with concern ‘the Houthi precedent.’ The Biden administration recently decided to revoke the terrorist designation for the Houthis, Tehran’s Yemeni loyalists, so that the administration can better deal with them. Washington took the measures despite the Houthi missile attacks on city centers and oil fields in Saudi Arabia, and the fact that the slogan of the Houthi movement states “Death to America and Death to Israel”. In the current circumstances, this decision should set of warning signals for Jerusalem. One the hand, Hamas is a US-designated terrorist organization. However, the Biden administration will find it difficult to maintain this approach if Hamas emerges victorious from the democratic elections encouraged by the administration.
10. Voting issues in Jerusalem and Hamas’s participation in the elections impose difficult decisions on Israel, which may build up the tension with the Biden administration. Israel fears that its sovereignty in Jerusalem will be compromised and America’s waning recognition of the city as Israel’s capital will continue if elections are allowed in East Jerusalem. Israel is certainly concerned about a Hamas victory. At the same time, Israel will run the risk of being blamed for annulling the election if it stymies voting efforts in Jerusalem or Hamas’s participation.
11. The Palestinians’ move may have implications for the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. Abbas has stated that the elections are for the Legislative Council of the State of Palestine, not for the PA. The “self-made” upgrade of the Palestinians to a state status occurred within the context of long-standing unilateral efforts to promote Palestinian independence, which was at the heart of the ICJ’s decision to investigate Israel for war crimes.
12. Israel must attempt to coordinate its positions with the new administration in Washington. The Reut Group recommends adopting the following positions:
A distinction must be made between Israeli territorial sovereignty in Jerusalem and the civil status of the East Jerusalem population, which perceives itself as Palestinian in every sense. We propose that Israel’s stance should be to allow East Jerusalem residents to vote at polling places in Abu Dis, a town beyond the security barrier, or alternatively to “insist” on electronic voting at home.
The elected Palestinian government will be committed to the Quartet’s three demands: recognition of Israel, an end to violence, and the recognition of existing agreements. In this context, the legislative change that Abbas directed in the run-up to the elections violates the Oslo Accords, as it allows bodies that are not bound by the agreements signed by the PLO to run in the elections.
Alternatively, this may be a win-win opportunity for Israel, the US, and Saudi Arabia to implement a “trade-off” between voting in Jerusalem and normalization with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia may agree to normalize ties with Israel in exchange for a political achievement that Israel will provide to the Gulf nation, in the form of allowing Palestinians to vote in East Jerusalem. This will allow the administration to present a significant foreign policy achievement. In this case, Israel should demand Washington’s continued commitment to publicly recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
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