How would postponing the presidential election for one year, until January 2010, affect the current Palestinian political situation?
First, it hasn’t been confirmed yet that the election will be postponed. There is still a discussion about the legality of doing this. The election law clearly states that presidential and legislative elections should be held together, while the Basic Law limits the president’s term to four years.
After the initial announcement that elections would be postponed until January 2010 met with opposition, President Mahmoud Abbas revised his decision, saying that legal procedures would be examined and that all options were under consideration. In other words, the president left the door open for elections either in January 2009 or 2010.
As Hamas has made it clear that after January 2009 the president will lose his legitimacy, any postponement would play into Hamas’s interest in claiming to be the only legitimate party. That’s why there is a desire at the moment to hold elections as planned, so as not to give Hamas the opportunity to act as if everyone is equally without legitimacy.
If elections were held as scheduled in 2009, would there be more than one candidate?
Most likely only one candidate would run on behalf of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), but that is not guaranteed unless President Abbas achieves better organization and coordination within the PLO. In the last election there were a large number of candidates.
What will happen if presidential and legislative elections both are held in 2010, in view of the standoff between Hamas and Fatah?
Hamas is not enthusiastic about holding elections, whether in the West Bank or Gaza, but it is still unclear at the moment whether Hamas would take part. Political bureau leader Khalid Mishal said recently that there should be coordination among Hamas members leading up to elections, which suggests that he wants to clarify certain matters such as who would be on the election commission, which government would run day-to-day affairs until then, which security apparatus would maintain order during polling, etc.
Without Hamas’s involvement in preparations, it would be impossible to hold elections in Gaza, which means that only Palestinians in the West Bank would be able to vote for their president. That would deepen an already serious divide between the West Bank and Gaza.
This leaves us with difficult choices. On the one hand if elections are not held on time, we risk the legitimacy of the president, the government, and the Palestinian National Authority. On the other hand, if we have elections in January 2009, they might be held without cooperation among all parties. That is why the best solution is to reconcile Fatah and Hamas before the elections.
Are the amendments that President Abbas made to the electoral law—changing to a party list system and requiring all parties to accept the PLO as sole legitimate representative—in September 2007 seen as legitimate?
Yes, they are legitimate. Hamas has not endorsed them because they were made by a presidential decree, which is within the executive rights of the president as long as the Palestinian Legislative Council is not in session.
I expect that the Council will meet most likely before elections are held (unless Council members who are detained by Israel are not released) and when it does, it will revoke Abbas’s amendments to the electoral law. But more importantly, Hamas would not be involved in election preparations under the electoral law with Abbas’s amendments, which it finds unacceptable. This will represent the biggest challenge leading up to the elections.
As an expert on the subject, how much do you think public opinion has changed in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip since the Hamas coup in July 2007?
There have not been major changes in public opinion in the last two years. Hamas succeeded in the 2006 elections not because it won the most votes but because Fatah lacked unity and leadership. Not much has changed since. Hamas’s popularity has receded slightly while Fatah’s has improved, but this is not sufficient to guarantee a different outcome in the next elections. As long as Fatah remains divided, Hamas is likely to win again.
What did Fatah learn from the 2006 elections?
Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that Fatah has learned from that experience. It has kept the same unpopular leaders, who lack any leadership qualities or influence and moreover are still divided among themselves. Fatah’s failure so far to hold the leadership conference it has been preparing shows that the group still has not found a way out of its current crisis.
On the Israeli side as well, there is a leadership crisis. How will this affect the progress of the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations?
There has been a dramatic change in the Israeli leadership since former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon withdrew from politics. Since then there hasn’t been a politician with a strong character to lead Israel and its government. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is weak, and now he is leaving office without a clear successor.
Competition among Tzipi Livni from the Kadima party, Ehud Barak from Labor, and Benjamin Netanyahu from Likud will dominate the political scene until the next elections. They are each focused on winning elections and thus will not allow each other to achieve any progress in the peace process. This means more expansion of Israeli settlements, wavering in negotiations, making peace talks a bargaining chip, and using them to score political points without achieving tangible results.
Ghassan al-Khatib is vice-president of Bir Zeit University, former minister of labor in the Palestinian National Authority, and co-editor of the e-magazine Bitterlemons. Michele Dunne conducted this interview; Barkuzar Dubbati translated it from Arabic.