The decision to postpone to an unknown date the Palestinian general election, announced Thursday by President Mahmoud Abbas, proves that he and his handful of Fatah cronies – whose advice he listens to – are more loyal to Israel’s interests to preserve the status quo and prevent any shocks or changes.
In postponing the May 22 election for the Palestinian Legislative Council, they’re showing that Israel’s objection to holding the vote – the Palestinians’ first since 2006 – outweighs the views of 93 percent of the electorate, who registered to vote and thus clearly expressed their yearning for the democratic process.
The status quo, ironically, isn’t that: It constantly changes to the detriment of the Palestinians, as a people and as individuals, and in favor of the Israeli takeover of their lands and homes.
But this fake status quo lets a fossilized Fatah movement hold on to positions of economic, administrative and political power in the West Bank’s Palestinian Authority-controlled enclaves. It allows unelected officials – who rely on their past glory as fighters against the occupation in exile or in the Palestinian territories Israel captured in 1967, or who won an election long expired – to keep developing and maintaining a stratum of senior civil servants and key security lords. It allows them as well to continue controlling many initiatives in the private sector while promoting and giving preference to associates and confidants.
The PA and Fatah leadership’s strict adherence to the Oslo Accords, and especially to the security cooperation with Israel, preserves some stability in the region. This adherence is in turn translated into donations and funding from the international community, which – even if reduced in recent years – is still important to the authority’s functioning.
This stability, more accurately known as Israel’s security at the expense of the security and rights of the Palestinians, is important to the many donor countries, led by EU members and the United States, which under President Joe Biden has resumed financial support for the Palestinians. The European Union may have expressed support for a democratic election and promised it was striving for the vote to take place, but it’s hard to see it using its leverage against the PA – halting its financial support – because an election isn’t held. It’s the very stick the EU used against the Palestinians before, after Hamas’ rise to power in 2006.
A Palestinian election is bad for Israel and bad for the unelected Palestinian ruling stratum for the following reasons: It had the potential to impact some changes, above all when it comes to the split in rule between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank’s enclaves. After all, this split has been a linchpin of Israeli politics since 1991. An election campaign means exchanging views, voicing criticism, and constant debates and arguments that skirt the boundaries of the internal Palestinian censorship that Abbas is orchestrating.
In such an election campaign, Israel too would be under an international magnifying glass – to see how far it would go to sabotage the election via arrests and a ban on voicing opinions (opposed to the official Fatah position). An election with 36 parties running guarantees surprises, unplanned changes, new coalitions. There are 1,400 candidates, 405 of them women, and 39 percent of them are age 40 and under, vying for 132 seats. This would have ensured a younger parliament whose legislators have to listen to their voters.
The issues bothering the Palestinian public pertain to corruption and nepotism, Oslo, security coordination as Israel constantly expands the settlements, the lack of transparency and accountability of the people in charge, the helplessness against settler violence, and the issue of establishing a state, in contrast to the political weakness. All these questions had a chance to be raised in such a parliament.
It’s not at all certain that Hamas would have been the main beneficiary in this election. Its slate may well have become the largest in parliament, but not with a majority that let it form a coalition.
Two Fatah tickets, in addition to the official slate, could have received the votes of Fatah supporters sick of Abbas’ rule and who voted in 2006 for Hamas as a protest vote. The three parties, along with others that object to political Islam, could have been a dominant force in the new parliament and formed a coalition, but without Abbas’ absolute hold there’s an absolute hole – which is also convenient for Israel.
The postponement of the election to the Palestinian Legislative Council will also delay the attempt to reinstate the Palestinian National Council, which is supposed to represent the entire Palestinian people, both here and in exile. The third stage of the election, after the election of the president, was supposed to be the election for the National Council, the parliament of the Palestine Liberation Organization, while the members of the legislative council were supposed to be automatically included in it.
In recent years, calls to revive this pan-Palestinian institution have grown, as one of the attempts to restore the PLO to its status as the body that sets Palestinian policy. During the Oslo years, the situation was reversed and the PA – which on paper is subordinate to the PLO – became the chief political institution, leaving the PLO as an empty shell.
In the PA, Fatah is the dominant movement, and Abbas and a small circle of his associates are the sole decision-makers. It’s very convenient for Israel that Palestinian politics is run by a small group of senior officials whose privileges and financial futures – for them and their families – are held hostage by Israel.
The mantra “no election without Jerusalem” was increasingly voiced by Abbas’ associates in recent weeks as the election campaign’s opening date, Friday, April 30, approached – without Israel giving its official consent to voting in Jerusalem. On Wednesday, the head of Fatah’s party slate and Abbas’ deputy, Mahmoud Aloul, said that holding an election without Jerusalem was treason and a crime.
He and others completely ignored the other option to canceling the election, one suggested repeatedly by other parties: Find ways to hold the election in East Jerusalem without official Israeli approval. For example, set up polling stations in UN buildings, churches and mosques, including the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and go house to house with a ballot box, or put more polling places in the parts of the Jerusalem governate that haven’t been annexed to Israel.
Both Aloul and Abbas (in his speech Thursday evening) have spoken with characteristic contempt of the people who made these suggestions, as if the election in Jerusalem were merely a technical matter for them. They have totally ignored the subversive element in these suggestions – rocking the illusion of normality in Jerusalem and launching a popular resistance campaign by the very act of getting East Jerusalem Palestinians to vote in any way possible.
Abbas, Aloul and many of their loyalists didn’t explain why it was necessary to wait for Israeli approval for voting in East Jerusalem, and thus surrender to the Israeli veto over the election. Their silence here exposes characteristic hypocrisy: Senior Fatah and PA officials always raise the “popular struggle” as their standard, as a counterpoint to the slogan of the armed struggle. By not exploiting the opportunity, this proves what everybody knows: The Fatah leadership doesn’t believe in a popular struggle and isn’t interested in it, and certainly isn’t interested in leading it.
Before the expected decision on postponing the election was announced, the opponents of the delay expressed their position in several ways in addition to social media – Zoom gatherings, interviews with independent media outlets, a demonstration in Gaza by supporters of Mohammed Dahlan’s independent slate, as well as a vigil on Ramallah’s Manara Square.
On Thursday night, after the official announcement of the election’s postponement, a few hundred people came out to protest the decision in Ramallah – including a discernible group of supporters of the independent slate.
A lecturer in law at Birzeit University, Mahmoud Dudin, said last week, before the expected official announcement of the cancellation/postponement, that the executive branch’s postponing of the election breached the Palestinian constitution (Basic Laws). He spoke at a Zoom gathering initiated by Masarat – the Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Strategic Studies, one of the main independent bodies fighting the Palestinian political schism and encouraging critical discussion on how to find a way out of the status quo.
Dudin said postponing the election is solely under the jurisdiction of the Central Elections Commission, and only if it provides convincing reasons. He said the commission has announced that it’s possible to hold an election in Jerusalem even without official Israeli permission. But on Thursday night the election commission declared that it was halting the entire process.
The Palestinian public has two options, according to Dudin: One is to file petitions to the Palestinian Supreme Court against the decision to postpone/cancel the election. But the chances of such petitions succeeding are slim because the justice system and judges are appointments of the political leadership (Abbas) and are its captives, Dudin says. The second option is “revolutionary” – civil disobedience that creates “revolutionary legitimacy, the equivalent of constitutional legitimacy, and a way to rehabilitate it.”
It’s hard to imagine 35 parties ignoring the order to cancel/postpone the election and continuing to prepare for the vote as normal. But just raising the idea in public reflects the huge distance between the Palestinian public and its unelected senior officials.
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In the shadow of this decision and the general disgust for it, it’s hard to see the official Fatah slate trying to run in any general election soon.