On January 15th, President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Mahmoud Abbas announced that elections would be held in 2021, which prompted a collective eye roll among inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Then, Abbas issued an official decree ordering national elections to be held — May 22 for Parliament, July 31 for the presidency, and Aug. 31 for the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the parliament of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Abbas’ announcement surprisingly revealed some level of seriousness from the 85-year-old politician who has led Fatah and the PA since 2004 following party founder Yasser Arafat’s passing.
On the surface, the prospect of PA elections initially appeared to be a positive development. Many hoped that these elections could serve to break the impasse Palestinian politics has found itself in in the 21st century. Politically immobilized by an unfavorable and continuously tread upon Oslo Accords, Fatah, which has led the PA since its inception in 1995, has happily operated under this diplomatic stalemate that consolidates their continued political authority under the auspices of both Israeli and US governments. This has come at the expense of the aspirations of the Palestinian people in the West Bank, Gaza, and in the diaspora; long seeking an end to Israel’s 55-year illegal occupation of the West Bank and the right of return for refugees.
Since the signing of the Oslo Accords, the PA has continuously stood by as illegal settlements are built in Palestinian territory and as the military occupation continuously harasses, imprisons, and murders its citizens. In fact, the PA gladly coordinates with Israeli security forces in maintaining this oppressive and further deteriorating state of affairs in the Palestinian West Bank. The PA actively participates in the suppression of political opposition and dissent the Israeli government enforces, arresting Palestinian activists who question their ineptitude and their alleged financial corruption.
Despite the announcement of official dates for the elections, pessimism remains prevalent. Analysts and voters alike believed that the decision to hold elections was not made in the spirit of democracy and revitalization, but largely due to external pressure, both international and regional, that threatens Fatah’s continued governance. Recent polling data from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research reveals that more than half of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza have little faith in the fairness of the Palestinian electoral process, where many have cast doubt on the legitimacy and fairness of the elections in its run-up.
Abbas then faced the unexpected. After years of stagnation with him at the helm, internal divisions surfaced among his party when Fatah politicians Marwan Barghouti – the imprisoned nephew of party founder Yasser Arafat – and Nasser al-Qudwa announced a rival slate of candidates under the “Freedom” list to run against Abbas’s ticket. Soon after, former Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan, who was expelled from Fatah in 2011 and then convicted in absentia of corruption, further split the party when he announced his own candidacy under the “Future” ticket. He currently resides in the United Arab Emirates, who recently established diplomatic relations with Israel with the signing of the Abraham Accords, and is rumored to enjoy close ties with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.
In light of these unexpected intraparty developments, recent polls reveal that Abbas has slid into second place behind Barghouti, whose imprisonment only amplifies his long-standing popularity. The assured victory which saw Abbas pragmatically call these elections no longer appeared a foregone conclusion, publicly testing his commitment to democracy.
Palestinians’ pessimisms came to fruition when, on April 29th, Mahmoud Abbas announced the postponement of the elections on the grounds that Israel has failed to confirm if it will allow voting for Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem. This has been seen as a convenient crutch for Abbas to avoid a landslide loss in the elections, with many lamenting his unwillingness to explore alternatives for Palestinians in Jerusalem to cast their ballot such as voting through mail or at the city’s outskirts. The indefinite postponement has sparked outrage from the Palestinian public long awaiting elections, with protests breaking out across the West Bank the next day.
Democracy as a Tool
Given Abbas’ hot and cold attitude toward the institution of democracy, the unrhetorical question has been asked – what is the point of elections for a government under military occupation? Why now? Of course, international relations are seemingly always the determining force rather than the needs of the citizens of the Palestinian territories in the affairs of its domestic politics. There are two recent factors that may have motivated Abbas’ decisive calling of elections: Trump’s Deal of the Century and Joe Biden’s election as President of the United States.
Biden’s election offered Abbas a route to reconsolidate his and Fatah’s authority in the wake of the new regional geopolitical landscape created by the Trump administration’s Deal of the Century – in essence, an Oslo Accords redux. Where Arafat eventually agreed to the similarly US-brokered Oslo Accords, Abbas initially vehemently rejected the stipulations of the Deal of the Century. This saw Trump deny him a seat at the negotiating table, pull 200 million in annual funds for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and go ahead with the peace plan regardless of Abbas’ and the PA’s say.
This brushing off of the PA by the very nations that granted them authority over the Palestinian territories in the Accords no less than 30 years ago rang alarm bells among Fatah. With their only real form of political agency and domestic authority stemming from this globally ascribed position as the international representative of the Palestinian people, Fatah could not afford to be undermined again on the international stage lest they lose their already diminishing political respect among the electorate in the barely sovereign territories the PA governs.
While Joe Biden was quick to reinstate aid payments to the Palestinians, he has signaled that he intends to build on Trump’s vision of the conflict and region’s future with the Deal of the Century and the Abraham Accords. Not wanting to draw mockery and once again be denied a seat at the negotiating table as he had been under Trump, Abbas may have called for these elections to once again firmly reposition Fatah and the PA as the sole representative of the Palestinian people as Yasser Arafat did before him with the signing of the Oslo Accords. Collaborating with the more diplomatic Biden offers Abbas a way to save face.
By winning these elections, Abbas would’ve sent a message to the Biden Administration – and indeed, Israel – that the PA is ready for a return to the “old normal.” If not, it would have at least shown willingness to be cooperative with this new region-wide normalcy the US has been carving with the Deal of the Century and the Abraham Accords – lest they lose the financial aid they rely upon once more.
Abbas’ ham-fisted attempt to reconsolidate his power in calling these snap elections has unexpectedly seen his rivals within Fatah pounce at this opportunity to unseat him. Now, he clumsily tries to undo his ‘mistake’ by using the occupation of East Jerusalem that Fatah has done little to address since their signing of the Accords as an excuse. To Abbas and Fatah, democracy was always seen as a tool and not as an institution.
Fatah has proven itself time and time again impartial to consistently administering fair and timely democratic elections. With 68 percent of Palestinians calling for Abbas’ resignation, it is time for him to step down and pass over the apparatus of the PA to a transitory body or the Palestinian National Council to fairly administer the elections in interim and capitalize on this democratic desire for change on the ground.
However, that does not change the reality proven once more by this episode – to be the President of the Palestinian Authority, under the structures of the Oslo Accords and now the Deal of the Century, means to react internationally rather than serve domestically. The shoehorning of democratic processes in this authoritarian political system, where elections are postponed due to a neighboring government’s illegal obstruction, only works to gloss over and siphon energy away from activist efforts challenging it. This conveniently makes the occupation be seen as an inherent political reality to be responded to rather than a breach in international law that should not stand.
While participating in elections, albeit in this severely compromised form, is important for Palestinians wishing to stake their political agency and presence defiantly on the international stage, elections to a body effectively beholden to a military occupier is not an exercise in freedom or democracy. The political machinations which engulf these elections reflect the reality of the Palestinian Authority – that the warring factions who vie for its control are no more than opportunistic political elites rather than the people’s vanguard they framed themselves as under Yasser Arafat. The Palestinian Authority functions as an oligarchic broker at best and controlled opposition at worst. For those seeking to resolve the impasse of Palestinian politics long under the heel of Israel’s military occupation, these elections and the PA do not provide a solution but more of the same stagnancy and deterioration of the 21st century.