By: Omar Karmi
A certain amount of excitement, both domestic and international, has been generated by the January announcement of Palestinian elections for the Palestinian Authority presidency and parliament.
But a popular vote cannot obscure the fact that the Palestinian Authority – for whose main bodies elections are being held – is a largely powerless institution that has seen its very existence jeopardised as statehood prospects recede ever further.
The best that can perhaps be said for elections is that they offer some limited way for some Palestinians to exercise a little choice over how some of their taxes are being spent.
They might also, superficially, heal a 14-year-old political divide that is deeply unpopular.
That at least is why Hamas and Fatah say they are ready to face the electorate 15 years after the last elections.
It was the result of those elections, won by Hamas, that precipitated a competition for power in 2007. The two factions fought themselves into a stalemate that has lasted until now: Fatah was left in control of parts of the occupied West Bank and Hamas in charge of Gaza.
These two dominant factions now say they view elections as the best way to end that division.
But elections also serve to mollify the international community. Mahmoud Abbas, the PA president, made the announcement on 15 January, just days before the inauguration of Joe Biden, the US president.
Is the fix in?
The timing – and the many previous aborted attempts at holding elections – suggest that at least to some degree this is a show for a new US administration after four years of the most egregiously pro-Israel White House rendered chances of a two-state solution – upon which the PA’s existence is predicated – hanging by a thread.
Is it serious? Abbas, in his 16th year of what should have been a four-year term, has amassed so much power in the office of the presidency – sidestepping entirely a Legislative Council that has not sat for over 14 years while ruling by decree – that he could cancel or postpone elections at any time or, in theory, nullify their result.
Elections have been announced before but never took place. And plenty of excuses not to hold a vote have already been lined up, notably whether or not Israel will allow a vote in occupied East Jerusalem, a deal breaker for both Fatah and Hamas.
Nevertheless, all leftist factions, from the Communists of the Palestine People’s Party to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, PFLP, so far say they will participate and only Islamic Jihad and other, minor Islamist parties are refusing to take part.
There is certainly popular momentum for a vote, with polls showing 75 percent of respondents in favour.
But if they proceed, is the fix already in?
Have the dominant factions determined the outcome by tacitly agreeing a kind of power-sharing to preserve their current spheres of influence in Gaza and the West Bank, but present a unified Fatah-led face to the world?
Precedent suggests this might be prudent.
In 2006, Hamas’ victory was met by a set of international conditions – to recognise Israel, renounce the armed struggle and accept previous agreements – that the Islamic Resistance Movement was unwilling to meet.
Fatah refused to join a unity government, and the international community announced sanctions. It was very much the international response that led to the Palestinian division.
Would it be enough for the world this time if Hamas had quietly agreed not to form a government even in the event of a clear victory, thus in effect guaranteeing that Fatah will form the next government?
The international community has not changed its tune on Hamas. Hamas has not changed its official position. Both Fatah and Hamas would likely be keen to avoid a repeat of 2006.
That all suggests the outcome, if not the result, has been preordained.
What is the point?
This in turn raises an even more fundamental question: what is even the point of holding elections? And not just because of the outcome. These are elections to a body that exists entirely at the mercy of a foreign power, under hose belligerent military occupation it operates and is entirely dependent on the charity of foreign countries and institutions?
This is, or ought to be, no idle question and it is not (merely) a question of principle.
The Palestinian Authority is generally understood to be exercising limited self-rule or autonomy over the West Bank. (Gaza in theory should follow the same rules, but since Hamas took over, has followed a slightly different path.)
What is often not spelled out is how limited that exercise really is.
- The PA exercises the full extent of its limited authority – for policing and civil affairs — over just 18 percent of the West Bank, the so-called Area A, comprising the major towns and cities of the West Bank and some of their environs.
- A further 21 percent of the West Bank is defined as Area B, where the PA still oversees civil affairs, but the Israeli military is in charge of security.
- Area C is the largest part of the West Bank at just over 60 percent. It is here the majority of Jewish settlers live and where almost all settlements are located. Israel retains full control over both security and civil matters.
- Indeed, the Israeli military remains in overall charge throughout the West Bank. The military will routinely and at will enter Area A, where any Palestinian security forces deployed, by agreement, have to step aside.
- Israel controls all external borders and all movement to, from and within areas of the West Bank, of goods and people. It collects duties on imports, ostensibly on behalf of the PA, but has withheld those taxes as a punitive measure in the past or tried to use them as a form of coercion.
- The ID cards that all residents in the area must obtain to live in any part of the West Bank are issued by Israel. Israel determines what kind of ID card any given individual will carry, if any. The PA has no say in who may or may not be allowed entry, even if only entry to Area A.
Those are the very sharp constraints on Palestinian power and while the situation in Gaza is somewhat different, the overall outcome — total Israeli control — remains the same.
Unlike the PA, Hamas resists Israeli military incursions, and the result has been three deadly Israeli offensives over the past 15 years, in which thousands of Palestinians have died and tens of thousands have been wounded and maimed.
Israel still retains control over imports and exports since goods are only allowed into Gaza through crossings with Israel. Indeed, it has imposed a strict regime of allowed imports into Gaza, causing widespread hardship and an estimated $16 billion hit to the local economy.
The Gaza-Egypt border is for people only, but Cairo, under agreement with Israel, has kept a tight lid on movement there as well.
With Israel controlling all airspace and sea space, the Gaza Strip remains as occupied as the West Bank, a fact recognised by the UN.
Stuck in the interim
With little power to actually exercise in the event of an election victory, the usual answer given to the question of why bother, is that the PA is a democratic-state-in-waiting as per the Oslo accords.
As such, elections signal not only the intent to be democratic, but the practice, even if the exercise of power remains limited for now.
The “for now” part of that argument, however, has been severely undermined in the intervening years during which Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu made explicit his opposition Palestinian statehood as long as he is in power.
The argument was stronger in 2006, but even then, the Oslo interim period had been long over.
While the Oslo accords never promised statehood or sovereignty for Palestinians, that is how the PLO saw them, as did many Palestinians, and most international actors.
The accords are now more than a quarter of a century old, however. The interim period should have finished in 1999. If elections are overdue, statehood is long past its sell-by-date.
The international community has instead focused decades of efforts and resources to prepare the PA for statehood. But it is now ten years since the UN announced that Palestinian institutions were ready.
And in that time, chances of statehood have only receded further. Israel has continued to expand settlements in occupied territory, consolidating its hold on the land.
And the previous US administration under Donald Trump offered a peace plan that reflected this reality, offering Palestinians only limited self-rule in isolated areas as part of a final agreement, while recognising Israel’s claim to all of Jerusalem and green-lighting the annexation of all settlements.
Elections now may certainly be a play by the PA to get into a new US administration’s good books.
But even among the PA leadership – so slavishly devoted to a failed peace process for so long – there must be recognition that salvation is unlikely to come from Washington.
And without Washington, the wider international community has so far proven toothless.
What is the alternative?
Another problem surrounding the elections is representation. A vote will be held for occupied territory only, including, at Israel’s discretion, East Jerusalem. But at 5.2 million that is not even half of the estimated 13.7 million Palestinians worldwide and there is no provision or voice for Palestinians in the diaspora.
Without East Jerusalem – and Israel has not yet indicated whether it will allow a vote in the occupied part of the city – or indeed Hamas, whose potential candidates are already being harassed by Israel to prevent them from running, the outcome will be even less representative.
There are some legitimate local reasons to hold elections. The PA collects and spends taxes from and on behalf of the local population. For a long time now, this has happened without any popular mandate or any proper representation.
Reinjecting life into a Palestinian parliament, however limited its powers, could also be positive, if only to revive public political debates that include most factions and political streams.
But a vote will not change the actual dynamics on the ground vis-à-vis Israel or even between the main factions. No matter the outcome, Fatah will not give up control of the West Bank in any meaningful way, nor will Hamas in Gaza.
Nor is it likely elections will bring any fresh ideas. Without a Hamas candidate running against Abbas, and in the absence of other Fatah leaders mounting a challenge – the interesting prospect would be jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who consistently polls ahead of all other politicians – the political prospects will look exactly the same.
But though largely an exercise in futility, elections do remain the only way for a minority of Palestinians to have their say. In the present situation, alternatives that allow for similar popular influence are hard to envisage.
A revived PLO – which on paper remains the most senior Palestinian institution even if in practice its importance today is less than that of the PA’s — would appeal to diaspora Palestinians, though there is no guarantee that Palestinians in their various locales abroad would be able to vote in any election to such a body.
However, only a re-centring of political life away from the PA would allow such an eventuality come to pass. And with the PA having sought and received recognition from two-thirds of UN members as the State of Palestine – however insignificant such recognition has so far proven – there is as yet no appetite in the senior leadership for such a move.
Indeed, that is unlikely to happen until and unless Israel finally pushes the PA over the edge.
Perhaps the only thing that can really be said for elections is this: For the foreseeable future, they are the only chance for some Palestinians in some parts of Palestine to exercise some very limited choice.
Omar Karmi is an independent journalist and former Jerusalem and Washington, DC, correspondent for The National newspaper.
Rosa Paper is a collection of analyses and relevant viewpoints irregularly published by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Regional Office of Palestine and Jordan. The content of Rosa Papers is the sole responsibility of the author and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Regional Office of Palestine and Jordan.
The Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung is one of the major institutions of political education in the Federal Republic of Germany. it serves as a forum for debate and critical thinking about political alternatives, as well as a research center for progressive social development. It is closely affiliated to the German Left Party (DIELINKE).
The Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung has supported partners in Palestine since 2000, and established the Regional Office in Ramallah in 2008.Today, the office is in charge of project cooperation with partners in the West Bank, in East Jerusalem, and in the Gaza Strip as well as in Jordan.