Fourteen years after the Palestinian pro-Islamist group Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) in 2006, Palestinians may finally be returning to elections as a mechanism to resolve their differences and to present a unified legitimate national leadership. In a sign of progress toward reconciliation, Palestinian leaders met in person and over teleconference on September 3 and vowed to address threats to the Palestinian national movement. Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas has given them five weeks to resolve all their differences. More tellingly, a two-day meeting in Istanbul between representatives of Fatah and Hamas last week signaled that both sides had agreed to settle their outstanding disputes through general elections. While a detailed roadmap for reconciliation had been agreed upon for some time, political will from the Palestinians and a foreign sponsor were needed to bring the project to fruition. After Egypt and Saudi Arabia supported the UAE and Bahrain’s normalization move, the Palestinians were determined to make reconciliation happen. However, they didn’t want to allow any Arab country the honor of hosting talks and went to Turkey to announce their decision in order to prevent Arab countries from co-opting the event. Most recently, President Abbas, addressing the U.N. General Assembly on September 25, declared that presidential elections would take place soon.
Elections have long been a source of tension between Hamas and Fatah. In January 2006, elections gave Hamas’s Reform and Change list, headed by Gaza’s Ismael Haniyeh, 75 out of the Council’s 130 seats. As a result, the President Abbas, had no choice but to charge Haniyeh with forming the next government, despite Hamas’s continued refusal to accept the conditions of the international quartet — made up of the U.S., EU, Russia, and the U.N. — including recognizing Israel and renouncing violence.
A year-long international blockade of the Palestinian Authority (PA) crippled the Haniyeh government, forcing Hamas into a unity government with Abbas’s Fatah movement in February 2007. The unity government, however, did not last long as clashes between the Palestinian national guard loyal to Abbas and armed militias loyal to Hamas erupted in the streets. In June 2007, Hamas militias routed forces loyal to Abbas and took control of the Gaza Strip. In response, the Ramallah-based leadership appointed a different prime minister, the centrist Salam Fayyad, and declared Gaza a renegade state. Since this impasse, no PLC or presidential elections have been held and the West Bank and Gaza have remained under different authorities.
Attempts at reconciliation
The two sides have previously failed in their attempts at reconciliation, despite reaching agreements in Cairo (2011, 2012, 2014), Mecca (2007), and Gaza (2014) through negotiations invariably led by Hamas politburo member Musa Abu Marzouk and Fatah Central Committee member Azzam al-Ahmad. These reconciliation efforts have focused on three main issues: the disarmament of Hamas in Gaza, reforms of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and when and how to hold new elections.
Having faced incoming fire from Hamas-backed militias, the PLO demanded “unified arms” for the Palestinian people under the aegis of its own security apparatus as part of the negotiations. Hamas, for its part, has been unwilling to give up what it calls “resistance weapons,” arguing “as long as there is Zionist occupation of Palestinian land, our people have the right to own their weapons.” While Hamas has claimed that its arms are for use against Israel, the PLO has seen how they can be turned against its own forces. Much to the chagrin of PLO, Hamas has aspired to replicate the Hezbollah model, acting simultaneously as a political party and a paramilitary organization. Furthermore, it is clear that neither Israel nor the U.S. would tolerate any legitimate role for a heavily armed Hamas.
Reform of the PLO, which oversees the PA and the PLC, has been another major sticking point in negotiations. According to credible sources, Hamas had previously demanded the right to appoint 40% of delegates to all PLO bodies as a pre-condition for joining the PLO. This demand is no longer one of Hamas’s conditions for reconciliation, but the group will likely seek other reforms to loosen Fatah’s grip on power. Reform proposal would certainly focus on two main issues: first, giving all Palestinians a say in setting the strategy and tactics of national liberation, and second, changing the method for selecting delegates from the diaspora to the Palestinian legislative bodies when elections cannot be held in their countries of residence. This process has been arbitrary in the past with Fatah filling the seats with its supporters.
New elections could possibly be the best way out of the bind because they would resolve doubts about who holds legislative and executive legitimacy. PLO circles in Ramallah believe that the public will reject Hamas at the ballot box, having learned much about its governing style from experience. While this might not mean a victory for Fatah in new elections, an overwhelming victory by Hamas seemed highly improbable. While some independents might outperform both factions, that result would be acceptable to the secular Fatah. However, until now, neither side was willing to risk elections that could strip them of their power over territories that they controlled (Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza). Hamas also insisted on holding legislative and presidential elections simultaneously, but President Abbas refused, insisting that legislative elections precede presidential ones. Abbas wanted flexibility to make adjustments if legislative elections showed the electorate swinging toward Hamas. In such a scenario, he would have been able to shift his strategy and perhaps hold onto the presidency at least.
The problem of presidential succession
Over the past 14 years of deadlock, one additional worry has loomed: what will happen when the 84-year-old PLO President Mahmoud Abbas passes away? Concerns over the chaos that might arise and the absence of a clear legal plan for succession was likely one of the driving factors behind the recent renewal of bipartisan interest in holding elections.
As of now, the prospects for presidential succession remain murky despite a fairly clear constitutional framework. According to the Palestinian Basic Law, which acts as a de facto constitution, if the president is unable to carry out his functions, the speaker of the PLC will take over as president for a 60-day period until presidential elections take place. This is precisely what happened after the death of Yasser Arafat on Nov. 11, 2004, when Rawhi Fattouh, a Gaza Fatah leader and speaker of the PLC, served as interim president until the election of Abbas, Arafat’s hand-picked successor.
Since January 2006, however, the role of PLC speaker has been held by Hamas’s Aziz Dweik. As factional tensions lingered and Abbas’s health worsened, the idea of a transition without elections became troubling. Would a Hamas member become interim president upon Abbas’s passing? In early 2012, Israel helped Abbas by arresting Dweik for “involvement in terrorist activities,” before releasing him in June of the same year. It is uncertain how Israel and the international community might react in the future if a Hamas leader seems poised to assume the interim presidency.
To avoid such an outcome, Abbas officially dissolved the long-defunct PLC in December 2018 and appointed a constitutional court of loyal judges. Meanwhile, his own legitimacy has been questioned regularly by both friends and foes. Abbas insisted that if and when elections took place he had no plan to run again. He also rejected the idea of appointing a vice-president, preferring to let the people select his successor.
Beyond the issue of presidential succession, several internal and external factors also accelerated the current efforts toward reconciliation, which may come to fruition in the coming weeks.
Hamas has been straining under the heavy burden of running the Gaza Strip without any serious source of income. The PA receives, manages, and distributes a significant portion of the foreign assistance directed to the Palestinian people. These funds have been inaccessible by Hamas and will likely remain so as long as the group is unreconciled with the PLO. Many countries that classify Hamas as a terrorist group have gone as far as to cut off aid to humanitarian organizations in Gaza out of concern that resources were being diverted to support violent activities. For example, in 2016, Australia stopped contributing to the Gaza programs of the international NGO World Vision after accusations from the Israel Security Agency that several of its employees were aiding and abetting violence by Hamas. Even though the accusation has been thoroughly debunked by an Australian investigative team and by World Vision itself, the temporary suspension of payments took its toll. At times, Israel has encouraged Qatar to send cash to help keep Gazans from lashing out in anger and frustration, but residents need a more reliable source of funding. By reconciling with the PLO, Hamas perhaps hopes to gain access to aid routed through the PA and to burnish an international reputation that until now has starved it of foreign assistance.
Another internal driver is the new public partnership between the leaders of Fatah and Hamas, most notably Jibril Rajoub, secretary of Fatah, the head of the Palestinian Olympic Committee, and a possible successor to Abbas, and Saleh al-Arouri, deputy head of Hamas’s politburo, who reportedly has been vying for the top job in Hamas as secret internal elections are approaching — although no date or definite procedures have been announced.
Rajoub and Arouri had been friends for years in Israeli jails and had maintained a close relationship. In July, Rajoub and Arouri made their behind-the-scenes efforts public in a virtual press conference held simultaneously in Ramallah and Beirut. As the reconciliation effort was ripening, it became clear that intra-Palestinian negotiations might soon bear fruit, thanks in large part to their collaboration.
While Hamas was struggling with the burden of running Gaza, Fatah was facing a different kind of a problem. Former PA national security advisor Mohammad Dahlan, who has resided in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) since 2011, was making waves. Dahlan supporters in Jerusalem and Gaza became much more vocal, calling themselves the “reform wing” within Fatah. While Ramallah-based security forces were unable to operate in Jerusalem or Gaza, they jailed a number of Dahlan supporters in the West Bank. Abbas harbors personal animosity toward Dahlan, whom he has accused of poisoning former PA President Arafat. This rivalry has led the Palestinian president to press for Dahlan’s public vilification and ban him from returning due to his conviction on charges of corruption leveled in absentia.
While Rajoub has disparaged Dahlan in the past, he is likely to take a more conciliatory position than Abbas. In fact, Dahlan was Rajoub’s deputy in the early years of the Oslo process when he was head of Preventative Security. Though it is unclear how Rajoub would deal with Dahlan once Abbas is no longer president, he offered a hint during an interview with Palestine TV. He said that legislative and presidential elections, as well as elections on the basis of proportionality for the various PLO bodies, will take place within six months. But Rajoub added an important proviso; he called for national unity, a robust role for youth, and insisted that there will be no veto on any faction or individual. This was interpreted by many as olive branch to Dahlan, especially as Fatah needs his supporters and money from the UAE in the coming elections.
The biggest external change has been the Trump administration’s abandonment of traditional U.S. positions on Jerusalem, settlements, occupation, and the two-state solution. The U.S. also made the unilateral decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and announced a unilateral plan — devised without consultation with Palestinian leaders — that called for the transfer of 30% of the West Bank to Israel. This included all of Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley, and every settlement in the West Bank. The plan, which featured detailed maps, gave Israel full security control over border crossings and exchanged valuable Palestinian land with plots of land in the desert. The U.S. has also punished Palestine on an economic level with its decision to cut aid to UNRWA, to Jerusalem hospitals, and to water infrastructure programs in the West Bank.
The recent move by Arab Gulf states to normalize relations with Israel has accelerated the reconciliation process. The decision of the UAE and Bahrain to break with the Arab and Muslim world by violating the terms of the Arab Peace Initiative, which calls upon Arab states to reject normalization until Israel ends the occupation, was viewed as an existential threat to the Palestinian national movement.
The upcoming elections in Palestine could coincide with a new, less hostile administration in the U.S., which is also due to have elections in early November. As Palestinians prepare for the future, they have agreed to use only non-violent means of resistance in their popular struggle so that accusations of terrorism will be less effective in discrediting them. If elections and unity come to pass, the Palestinian position in negotiations with any future US administration will be more legitimate and more powerful than their current divided representation. The question now will be whether a unified Palestinian policy, means of accomplishing it, and a new leadership can be born in the coming six months.
Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. Follow him on twitter @daoudkuttab. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
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