The reality that Palestinians may soon be electing a new Palestinian Legislative Council, the Palestinian Authority’s legislature, is sinking in. Elections can still be delayed or canceled, and the other elections Palestinian leaders have promised—for the presidency and the Palestinian National Council (representing Palestinians everywhere)—still seem unlikely. But even for those whose attention long ago wandered away, the elections raise many questions: How much will Israel interfere? How much support will critical international actors, especially Europe and the United States, provide? How well will Hamas do? Whether the elections take place and what happens on election day are important. But what about the day after?
It makes sense to ask such a question now. In 2006, most actors, even the victors, seemed unprepared for the outcomes. In 2021, nobody should have an excuse for a similar sense of surprise. Important questions for Palestinian and international actors will have to be faced immediately when, or if, final results are declared. And if those results are as expected—a parliament with no majority party but instead strong representation from Hamas, rival Fatah blocs, and a host of smaller actors—it is fairly clear what the challenges will be.
The drama may lie in the dreary details of bylaws and procedures. For international actors, three questions of interest will arise very quickly, ones on which they will likely have to take a position.
First, will the parliament be able to meet? There will be some deputies in Israeli prisons, while others will be divided between the West Bank and Gaza. Joint meetings by videoconference between Ramallah and Gaza have been used on occasion, but those resident of the West Bank, and perhaps Jerusalem, will face possible Israeli restrictions. How to assemble a quorum, whose votes to count, whether to allow proxy voting by prisoners are all questions with which Palestinian leaders and parliamentarians will have to deal.
They are likely to call on international support to facilitate the parliament’s functioning—and diplomats might wish to have answers ready. They will have to address even mundane matters. For example, if they are invited to a reception at parliament, will they ignore or greet Hamas deputies? Will they treat them as parliamentarians and ignore their party affiliation or do the reverse?
Second, who will be speaker? The immediate answer is clear: the oldest member will serve as interim speaker until a permanent one is elected by the new members of parliament. But whoever occupies that chair will not only hold the gavel but will also be first in line for the presidency, if it is vacated. The speaker will fill in for 60 days if the current president resigns or dies, until new elections are held. If parliament is divided, deputies will be very aware that they will need to agree on a compromise candidate who will occupy a prominent, if perhaps temporary, role in any succession. On its current electoral list, Fatah decided to dole out only a few top slots to senior figures to prevent infighting. Other parliamentary lists scrambled to put forward credible local figures to maximize their electoral chances. Therefore, there may not be many obvious candidates to pick from for the position of speaker, or a potential successor.
Third, who will be in the cabinet? If parliament meets, constitutional provisions will be revived that require all ministers—including the prime minister—to obtain majority support from parliament. Again, a divided parliament will likely result in some combination of technocrats and a coalition of more political ministers being presented to the body. In such a case, how foreign representatives will interact with those ministers having clear Hamas support, or even an affiliation with the movement, will come back to the forefront.
Finally, parliamentary deputies will become, by virtue of their positions, members of the Palestinian National Council, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s legislative body. If that body emerges from mummification with some Hamas blood in its veins, will international actors treat this as a welcome step toward the revival of Palestinian institutions, or as an occasion to dust off policy positions about avoiding the PLO that most put aside a generation ago?
Those are the postelection questions that will most likely thrust themselves on the international agenda. But domestically there will be others that are even more pressing, and may occur on a daily basis.
First, what will the relationship be between reassembled Palestinian institutions and the Hamas administration in Gaza? Will ministries and administrative bodies in the territory that have effectively answered to the Hamas leadership for fourteen years really be fully reintegrated? It seems unlikely that Hamas will disarm or surrender its role in internal security, so what are the arrangements that will be worked out for policing and patrolling borders?
Second, what will happen to the legal edifice that has grown since the 2007 split between Hamas and Fatah? There are two categories to consider. First, the Hamas-dominated rump parliament and cabinet in Gaza have issued laws and regulations. Will they be canceled immediately or will there be a sort of sorting process? Will West Bank courts begin treating as valid verdicts from their colleagues in Gaza?
Third, what will happen to the cavalcade of laws that President Mahmoud Abbas issued by decree? The constitution is clear and states that they will all have to be presented to parliament when it meets. Those decrees that parliament does not approve will lose their validity. But it would take hours to read the decrees and perhaps years to review them all. The parliament will therefore even be asked to approve the decrees that made its own election possible.
These questions are legalistic and dry, but the way they are answered will have major implications. They will shape who the leaders are, of course, but we should avoid the tendency to reduce all Palestinian politics to personalities. Instead, those interested in Palestinian affairs should pay attention to what emerges, since this will shape how and if Palestinians will operate as a national community.