The odds that the elections to the Palestinian Authority’s Legislative Council (PLC) may take place are looking better. However, the elections are unlikely to lead to the national reconciliation that most Palestinians have been demanding since Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud ‘Abbas dissolved the Hamas-led PA government by decree after Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007.
Part of the reason lies in the fact that the leadership of the Fatah-led PA government in the West Bank and the Hamas-led authority in Gaza are loath to give up their power or their weapons. Certain quasi-constitutional decrees promulgated by ‘Abbas over the years have enabled him to thwart progress toward elections, or their outcome, in order to guarantee that Fatah remains in power.
These impediments to free and fair elections aside, Palestinian political factions must consider a larger, more monumental issue first: What will be the nature of the relationship between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the PA moving forward now that the Oslo peace process is over? Failure to address this as a preliminary matter risks perpetuating the Fatah-Hamas rivalry and will permanently prevent the Palestinian national movement from responding to the enormous challenges it is facing.
At the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in September, ‘Abbas announced that upon his return to Ramallah he would begin preparing for PLC elections in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. The stakes are much higher for Palestinians since ‘Abbas called for elections in 2014, following the collapse of U.S.-sponsored Palestinian-Israeli peace talks.
Over the last two and a half years, the United States appears to have prepared the way for the normalization of Israel’s extension of sovereignty over the occupied West Bank. The latest evidence of this was U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent announcement that Washington no longer considered Israeli settlements illegal. A release of the promised Trump peace plan has become superfluous. One more U.S. plan would mean little amid the seismic changes that have taken place under the Trump administration to decades of U.S. policy and practice, as Israel continues to consolidate its control over the greater part of the West Bank.
More than ever, the Palestinian factions must put their disagreements aside and unify around a political platform and strategy that can mobilize people and preserve the international consensus behind the legal parameters for a resolution of the conflict. The Palestinian public has been restless for both legislative and presidential elections. ‘Abbas is deeply unpopular in the occupied territories, with 60 percent of people wanting his resignation according to a March 2019 poll. Economic prospects are dim, particularly among the youth, who are facing an unemployment rate estimated at 40 percent.
The PLO Central Council, the policymaking body of the organization, and the Palestinian National Council, its legislative arm, have repeatedly passed resolutions calling for national unity and elections, which haven’t been heeded. Meanwhile, the European Union and other major donors to the PA are reassessing the value of their continued support when there is no clear path to Palestinian sovereignty and Gaza and the West Bank remain politically divided.
The mounting pressure from all sides has motivated the PA to call for legislative elections and has forced it into negotiations with other political factions over how to conduct them. Hamas has accepted most of the PA’s demands, including the holding of consecutive, rather than simultaneous, elections for the PLC, the presidency, and the PLO parliament. However, ‘Abbas has also insisted that Hamas agree in writing to comply with a 2007 election law he promulgated by decree after dissolving the Hamas-elected government.
That law, which amends the PA constitution, requires any candidate for the Palestinian Legislative Council or presidency to first submit to the authority of the PLO. He or she must adhere to the terms of the Palestinian Declaration of Independence and the provisions of the Palestinian Authority Basic Law in order to be eligible for office. Thus, before a single ballot has been cast, Hamas would have to accept the PLO’s authority over the PA, the territorial compromise accepted by the PLO memorialized in the 1988 Declaration of Independence, and the PA president’s authority over all security forces. It would also have to accept the president’s ability to dismiss the government under emergency powers and to appoint members to the Central Elections Commission and the elections appeals court. Any litigation concerning interpretation of the 2007 election law itself would have to be adjudicated by the Constitutional Court, a body that ‘Abbas reconstituted in 2016 with Fatah loyalists, who have largely decided cases in his favor.
Naturally, Hamas is not keen to accept those terms. Instead, it is calling for a national dialogue with all the Palestinian political factions so that matters pertaining to the conduct of elections may be agreed. The president is unlikely to agree to do so, however, because this would require repealing the decrees he promulgated as a result of the Hamas victory in the previous legislative elections.
Furthermore, the changes Hamas is seeking for new elections necessitate a restructuring of the PLO’s relationship with the PA so that the PA is no longer a subordinate body of the PLO and subject to its diktats. The PA, however is only a service provider to the residents of the occupied territories (and since 2007, only to those living in the West Bank). The PLO is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and the only authority internationally recognized to conclude a peace agreement with Israel. Preserving the primacy of the PLO over its agent, the PA, ensures that the political interests of the West Bank and Gaza don’t come at the expense of the national aspirations of the Palestinian people as a whole. The PLO will not countenance the empowerment of the PA at its expense.
The PLO leadership has always been aware of the danger of the PA, the address for the hundreds of millions of dollars in international donor assistance, overpowering the PLO. Having the chairman of the PLO’s Executive Committee also sitting as president of the PA has helped prevent a hostile takeover by the PA. If Hamas were to win the PA presidential election before the PA comes under the umbrella of the PLO, this protection against political fragmentation of the Palestinian national movement would be removed.
So while Fatah might stomach legislative elections in which Hamas prevailed because of the safety values the president created through decrees since 2007, a Hamas win in the presidential election would threaten the house of cards that has kept the PLO-PA relationship functional. Therefore, rather than calling for PLC elections first, as Fatah has insisted, Palestinian factions should convene a national dialogue about PLO parliamentary elections. This would strengthen the representative character of the national body to ensure that any future PA elections in Gaza and the West Bank serve the cause of national reconciliation rather than permanently thwart it.