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Palestine at the Polls: Will This Time Be Different?

By: Jonah Kaufman-Cohen

Palestine is a land in limbo. For 73 years the Palestinian people have been denied a state on the land promised to them by the United Nations. Conquest by Jordan and Egypt in 1948 and then Israel in 1967 have mired generations of Palestinians in conflict and occupation. Occupation has kept state-building and reconstruction efforts at a crawl as peace with Israel remains elusive. Yet peace and statehood are not the only things Palestinians have been denied. Article 5 of the Palestinian constitution states that “the governing system in Palestine shall be a democratic parliamentary system, based upon political and party pluralism. The President of the National Authority shall be directly elected by the people.” Furthermore, Article 36 states that “the term of the presidency of the National Authority shall be four years” with the possibility of only one additional consecutive term. Yet, Palestine has not had an election in 16 years.

President Mahmoud Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 2005. Although his constitutional term expired in 2009, Abbas has managed to hold power for over a decade without going to new elections. While President Abbas has called for elections nearly every year, there has been no follow through. As each new election fails to materialize, Abbas’s rule slips deeper into the folds of autocracy. Abbas has a demonstrated track record of cutting down would-be rivals for the presidency. His party, Fatah, has even resorted to violence to prevent its main competitor Hamas from challenging its grip on power.

So why might this call for elections be different? For one thing, Mahmoud Abbas is 85 years old. He has yet to designate a successor, and he remains deeply unpopular among Palestinians. If Abbas is looking for a path to quietly relinquish power, such elections would be indispensable. A second indicator of Abbas’s intentions is that, unlike with previous proposed elections, the P.A. has actually set dates for the vote. Abbas decreed that legislative elections are to take place on May 22 followed by presidential elections on July 31. In fact, phase one of the election has already been carried out. The Central Elections Commission wrapped up voter registration for the upcoming election on February 17. 2.6 million Palestinians are now registered to vote, amounting to 93% of eligible voters. Such high interest in voting would be uncommon in even the most established and stable democracies. The fact that so many Palestinians are preparing to vote suggests that there is cautious optimism on the ground.

Strategically, there are several good reasons for Abbas to go through with the scheduled elections. Speculation holds that Abbas’s call for elections is a tactic to gain favor with the incoming Biden administration. It is no secret that the Trump presidency brought hard times for the Palestinian Authority. Despite Abbas’s initially rosy overtures towards Trump, relations quickly soured when the U.S. recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, throwing yet another wrench into the long-stalled peace process. Trump squandered his country’s role as a mediator by supporting the expansion of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories. The coup de gras came when the Trump Adminstiation cut all aid to the Palestinian Authority. Thus, with a new administration settling into Washington, Abbas is in sore need of a rapprochement. By holding elections, Abbas is extending an olive branch to Biden. If Palestine can show its competence as a democracy, then it is possible that more American hearts and minds will open to their cause.

However, Abbas has his eyes on much more than Washington. In the summer of 2020, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signaled Israel’s intention to annex the West Bank. Such an act would signal the death knell for the hopes of a Palestinian state. With no cover from Washington, Abbas struggled to respond. In protest, Abbas refused to accept the tax revenue that Israel collects on the P.A.’s behalf. This money amounts to 60% of the P.A.’s budget. As 1 in 6 Palestinians are employed by the government, this move sharply increased unemployment in the Palestinian Territories. While most Palestinians, inured to hardship by decades of occupation, initially accepted the move as a necessary sacrifice and act of resistance, as Abbas’s aid boycott continued, his popularity sunk to new depths. When Israel agreed to suspend its ambitions of annexation in exchange for a peace deal with the U.A.E., Abbas’s boycott became redundant. Yet he persisted, hoping to wring some sort of diplomatic concession out of the Israelis. In the end, friendless in Washington, abandoned by Arab states, and scoffed at in Europe, Abbas finally cut his losses. The aid flow was restored, but Abbas’s position as leader of the P.A. was now more tenuous than ever. Now 85 years old, unloved by his people, humiliated diplomatically, and stymied economically, it seems Abbas may be looking for a way to leave office in a way that does credit to his people and their struggle.

A final piece of evidence that suggests Abbas’s genuine willingness to hold an election is that state of the opposition. In the past, Fatah has resisted holding elections because it would almost certainly lose to its hated rival Hamas. While Fatah is often seen as collaborating with the Israelis and while Hamas’s advocacy for violent resistance has won the hearts of more Palestinains than Fatah’s gradualist approach, Hamas faces its own popularity problems. Although Abbas’s aid debacle hardly brought merit to his party, Hamas’s administration of the Gaza strip has become a Palestinian nightmare. Staggering under the intense pressure of an Israeli-Egyptian blockade, Hamas has failed to provide even a bare minimum of government services to the people of Gaza. While their fiery rhetoric and constant rocket bombardment of innocent Israelis may win praise for Hamas from Palestinians fed up with Fatah’s passivity, Hamas has totally failed as a governing party. So while in the past Fatah was willing to do anything to prevent an election they were sure to lose to Hamas, today the outcome seems far from inevitable.

Elections are often lauded as marking the end to conflict. While no one is under the illusion that an election in Palestine could bring peace to the 70 year struggle, a free and fair election in Palestine could signal the start of a new era. With Abbas gone and Hamas humbled, new paths forward might open. Of course, 2021could mark more of the same. Abbas could go back on his word again and make an ever more egregious mockery of Palestinian democracy. The elections could lead to violence, chaos, and the ascendancy of extremism. Yet if the Palestinian people stand up and make their voices heard, it could be an important step on the way to controlling their own destiny. As the Zionists put it, “if you will it, it is no dream.”

Jonah Kaufman-Cohen is a sophomore studying history and SIS. He is originally from Oakland, California. Jonah is thrilled to bring his love of writing and lifelong fascination with all things Israel. As a new member of the team, Jonah is looking forward to contributing his skills and learning the ins and outs of the editing process.

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