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What Drives the Palestinian Reconciliation and Election Processes?

Filed under: Palestinians, U.S. Policy
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

What Drives the Palestinian Reconciliation and Election Processes?
Fourteen Palestinian faction leaders gathered in Cairo on February 8, 2021, to discuss holding Palestinian elections. (WAFA)

Institute for Contemporary Affairs

Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 21, No. 2

  • Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has announced parliamentary elections to be held on May 22, 2021, followed by elections for the presidency on July 31, 2021.
  • Abbas and the Fatah movement he heads believe that the elections and an apparent reconciliation with Hamas will strengthen their ability to prevent further erosion of the PA’s status caused by the normalization agreements between Israel and several Arab countries, which have pushed the Palestinian issue into a secondary place on the Middle East agenda.
  • They also expect that the election process, together with other cosmetic changes in their behavior (such as changing the method of paying salaries to incarcerated terrorists), will justify the new U.S. administration’s intention to recommence economic assistance to the Palestinian Authority.
  • Moreover, the elections are intended to satisfy the Palestinian public and the international system by creating a false facade of Palestinian unity, while ensuring the continuation of the status quo on the ground and Abbas’ unchallenged rule in the territories.
  • Hamas is eager to hold the elections for its own reasons, as it seeks to keep Gaza under its control and secure international legitimacy. There are elements in the new U.S. government, such as Hadi Amr and Robert Malley, who have previously argued for granting legitimacy to Hamas.
  • However, this would mean recognizing Hamas as a legitimate political body and not a terrorist organization without its meeting the three conditions previously set forth by the International Quartet: recognition of the State of Israel, the cessation of terrorism, and the acceptance and implementation of the agreements between Israel and the PLO in the Oslo Accords.

Mahmoud Abbas’ orders regarding the dates for the “Palestinian state” parliamentary elections on May 22, 2021, and presidency on July 31, 2021, reflect the insights that have become common among the Fatah leadership, headed by Mahmoud Abbas personally, and among Hamas leadership as well. The advantages of implementing this move with Hamas leadership, which has been repeatedly rejected so far, are likely to surpass the risks.

What Motivates Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah?

Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah believe that the elections and reconciliation with Hamas will strengthen their ability to advance the Palestinian national interest or at least prevent further significant erosion beyond the severe loss of status caused by the normalization agreements between Israel and several Arab countries.  These have undermined the intensity of Arab allegiance to the Palestinians, significantly pushed the Palestinian issue into a secondary place on the Middle East agenda, and decreased more than ever the probability that Israel will make dangerous concessions demanded by the Palestinians and their supporters.

From the PA’s view, the Biden administration’s inauguration opens the door to renewing the internationally-led political process with U.S. and EU participation, based on UN Security Council Resolution 2334 that the Obama administration passed in its final days, which sided with Palestinian positions in the conflict. This is a substitute for President Trump’s peace plan. Moreover, they expect that the reconciliation and election process, together with other cosmetic changes in their behavior (such as the method of paying salaries to incarcerated terrorists), will justify the new administration’s intention to recommence economic assistance to the Palestinian Authority and reestablish direct ties with it, including the reopening of the PLO office in Washington and the American consulate in Jerusalem designated for contact with the Palestinians. Palestinian leaders maintain these hopes despite the Palestinians’ adherence to their problematic narrative centered on the struggle against Zionism and the PA’s insistence on paying generous salaries to Palestinian terrorists imprisoned in Israel, which so far prevents American economic assistance to the PA and exposes the Palestinian Authority to lawsuits in the United States.

The series of appointments of Americans of Palestinian and Arab descent to positions in the White House (although not directly related to leading the Palestinian issue in the administration) and the State Department (where Hadi Amr, known for his ties to Qatar, is responsible for the Israeli-Palestinian issue) is welcome in Ramallah and increases the hope that the new administration’s policies will support Palestinian positions.

The Palestinian hope is also gaining strength from the ICC pre-trial chamber decision to approve the court’s prosecutor’s intention to investigate alleged Israeli war crimes and from the relatively restrained American reaction to the decision.

No Elections Meant a Loss of Legitimacy

In Mahmoud Abbas’ view, the harm to the status of the Palestinians was made possible, among other things, by the erosion of the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority (or the “State of Palestine,” as they define themselves) and the loss of popularity of the Palestinian leadership at home. This is due to 15-16 years, during which no elections were held for PA institutions such as the President and parliament and because of the ongoing split (almost 14-year) between the Gaza Strip under Hamas rule and the territories controlled by the PA and Fatah in Judea and Samaria. When these elections were last held, the Palestinian entity was an “authority” and did not define itself as a “state,” even among Palestinians.

According to Mahmoud Abbas’ view, the changes in the U.S. administration and the “Abraham Accords Peace Agreement” sharpened the need for measures that would make it difficult to use these Palestinian weaknesses to harm the PA’s chances of advancing its objectives and maintaining his absolute rule and that of his Fatah loyalists in the PA territories. They rely on the undemocratic methods with which they manage their affairs and ensure their ability to enjoy the government’s benefits. Those methods include the incitement to hatred and violence, the payment of salaries to terrorists and their families, and the Palestinian policy towards Israel, which consists of the struggle against Israel in international institutions.

Therefore, the elections were intended by Abbas and Fatah to satisfy the Palestinian public and the international system by creating a false façade, according to which Palestinian unity was achieved and progress was made by the Palestinians toward a democratic regime.  In practice, however, beyond creating an image of change, there is probably no material transformation in the situation.

Abbas got badly burned in the 2006 elections, in which he had to accept Hamas’ terms on how to conduct the elections, thus leading to Hamas’ victory (despite failing to win a majority of votes). This time around, he will probably be careful with anything flammable, insisting that the results of the elections be guaranteed in advance – if possible, in the face of the demand for transparency. Abbas wants to ensure the continuation of the status quo on the ground, i.e., Fatah’s victory and his unchallenged rule in the territories under the Palestinian Authority’s control.

Hamas’ eagerness to hold the elections at almost any cost, for its own reasons, significantly strengthens Abbas’s ability to achieve his goal.

From a previous era: Mahmoud Abbas flanked by Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh (left) and Mohammed Dahlan
Once they could stand on the same platform. Contenders for Palestinian leadership: Mahmoud Abbas (center), Ismail Haniyeh (left), and Mohammed Dahlan (right).

Beyond Hamas, Abbas will have to ensure that the elections are conducted in a way that prevents his opponents in Fatah, led by Muhammad Dahlan and Marwan Barghouti, from challenging his rule and the control of Fatah and the Authority by his associates. This is done both from the perspective of the short term and as in preparation for the “day after” Mahmoud Abbas. He is determined to prevent Dahlan from running for President on the pretext that he has been charged with corruption offenses. It is not yet clear how he will deal with the challenge posed by the incarcerated Barghouti and the possibility that Fatah will not run on a single unified list in the elections. But there is no doubt that Abbas intends to act firmly on these issues. If he fails to address these threats successfully, he may cancel the elections.

Mahmoud Abbas seems convinced – with good reason – that the United States, Europe, and even Hamas, will agree to support a framework that would make the election a boost for Abbas and improve the Palestinian’s starting point as Biden’s presidency begins. The question marks he has about Israel’s expected position do not bother him too much. He is likely to assume that with American backing, he will be able to compel Israel to come to terms with any framework that would satisfy the Palestinians regarding the vote of the Arab residents of east Jerusalem. This is especially true if it ensures that the elections will not undermine the PA’s status in Judea and Samaria or lead to the seizure of power in the PA by Hamas or other extremist elements.

Hamas presents a flexible and compromising approach regarding the characteristics of the elections, as long as it is guaranteed that the elections will not challenge Hamas’ continued control of Gaza. It is likely that Mahmoud Abbas is willing to accept this condition because he sees that any insistence on a different form of elections could prevent any elections from taking place.  Hamas views the elections primarily as a winning achievement since its main interest, beyond keeping Gaza under its control, is securing international legitimacy, precisely because of the distress it has faced in recent years, the increasing recognition of the futility of terrorist activity, and the growing difficulty in meeting the needs of the population (in part due to PA pressure from Ramallah and the coronavirus pandemic).

Hamas attempted to improve its situation in this context in 2017 by publishing a political paper that tried to bridge its commitment to the hardline Hamas Charter with the recognition of the international and regional reality. But this attempt did not bear fruit, in part because it was premature. Now with the rise of the Democratic Party to power in the United States, with its progressive elements ready to legitimize Hamas (or at least not ruling it out), and seeking Palestinian unity as a tool to advance Palestinian interests, Hamas has a more tangible incentive to integrate into the Palestinian system and gain American and European legitimacy. It should be noted that there are elements in the U.S. government ranks, such as Hadi Amr and Robert Malley, who have previously argued for granting legitimacy to Hamas. In Europe, too, more elements are expressing support for ties with Hamas, in acceptance of its de facto control of Gaza.

Three Conditions for Hamas? Recognize Israel, End Terrorism, Accept Oslo Accords

The elections will not require Hamas to make substantive policy changes, since it will probably not participate in the elections as “Hamas,” but rather a party affiliated with it (as it was in 2006). This way, Hamas may gain limited international legitimacy even without meeting the three conditions previously set forth by the International Quartet (recognition of the State of Israel, the cessation of terrorism, and the acceptance and implementation of the agreements between Israel and the PLO, i.e., the Oslo Accords). There is also the possibility of Hamas joining the PLO as another step in the election process, and this, too, does not require compliance with these conditions since there are still factions in the PLO that also reject the Oslo Accords, notably the PFLP.  On the other hand, Hamas integrating into the PLO may serve the movement as a preferred channel for the subsequent takeover of the Palestinian political system, rather than directly through the elections.

The Palestinian Authority and Fatah, on the one hand, and Hamas on the other hand, have just concluded an ostensibly successful meeting of the Palestinian factions in Cairo, where they discussed the framework and technicalities for conducting the elections and reached an agreement on those issues. The purpose of Fatah and Hamas in the next round of talks, scheduled for March, is going to be to ensure that the framework guarantees the outcome of the elections so that they do not jeopardize their control of the West Bank and Gaza, respectively. The two sides may promote their other interests, for example, by running in the elections on a joint list.

Saleh Abdel Ahad
Saleh Abdel Ahad, representative of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, speaking during the Palestinian National Dialogue hosted by Egypt’s General Intelligence Service in the capital Cairo, on Feb. 8, 2021. (Egypt State Information Service)

In both movements, internal struggles are being waged and threaten their ability to achieve their goals. In Fatah, there is tension with Dahlan, Barghouti, and other parties who wish to challenge the leadership close to Abbas and take advantage of the elections to leverage the public despair against Mahmoud Abbas and replace him.

Hamas has internal tensions between the Khaled Mashal camp and the Ismail Haniyeh camp in the primaries for the elections, and this is also reflected in different attitudes defining Hamas’ objectives. Against this background, it appears that it will be difficult to reach compromises between the factions before Hamas’ internal elections, which are expected to be held soon (possibly still in the month of February).

 In the past, Fatah and Hamas succeeded in reaching reconciliation agreements (2011, 2012, 2014) and even formed a unity government of technocrats (2014) that operated for about a year. Since 2006, however, they have not been able to formulate an agreed format for elections.

The goals that Abbas (and Fatah) are trying to advance as the national interests of the Palestinians, as he defines them, are to establish a Palestinian state in all areas of 1967 (with limited land swaps) with east Jerusalem as its capital and solving the refugee problem on the basis of recognition of the “right of return.” All this he seeks without Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, that is, without renouncing the long-term goal of eliminating the Zionist presence throughout the land of Israel/Palestine. The pathway to achieving this goal is a multi-dimensional struggle – political, legal, cultural, economic, and violent.

For Fatah and Hamas, all types of violence are legitimate for promoting the Palestinian struggle, including terrorism, but the violence should be used to reap the maximum benefit relative to the damage involved in its use. Therefore, for many years, Mahmoud Abbas believes that the preferred type of violence is the avoidance of firearms. Thus, he calls for the “popular uprising,” which means demonstrations, stone-throwing, Molotov cocktails, and sometimes stabbing and vehicular attacks.

However, it seems that despite the relatively sympathetic approach to the Palestinian positions of the Biden administration, and its aspiration to move closer to the Palestinians while leveraging the elections and reconciliation for this purpose, the Americans do not intend to apply their energies at this time vigorously. The remarks of the U.S. representative to the UN Security Council discussion on the Palestinian issue made clear that the administration sees its primary mission as preserving the option of implementing the two-state solution and improving the situation on the ground, with an emphasis on the humanitarian situation in Gaza, given the significant gaps between the parties’ positions.

The President will oppose unilateral measures by both sides (especially settlements and house demolitions) and incitement and Palestinian payments to convicted terrorists. He will try to build trust between them but will not embark on a new peace initiative. The Palestinians praised the new policy, especially the intention to renew economic assistance. However, they also realized that for now, they should have no expectations to recruit the Americans to advance the Palestinian positions even if the internal reconciliation and elections do take place. It is Hamas that has a better basis to hope for legitimacy. Hamas noticed with satisfaction the UN Secretary-General and representatives of the international community encouraging the Palestinians to promote reconciliation, ignoring the fact that this move means recognizing Hamas as a legitimate political body and not a terrorist organization.

What This Means for Israel

So far, Israel has refrained from officially relating to the Palestinian elections. It seems that Israel has not yet formulated a position and has not yet defined its objectives in this context. On the one hand, it wants stability and the renewal of ties between the United States and the Palestinian Authority while creating an image of Palestinian unity. This may contribute to stability on the basis of the status quo that exists in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, and serve Israel’s purpose to pass the Biden era in the Palestinian context peacefully and with no political fallout. On the other hand, there is a source of concern: in the medium and long term, solidification of international support for Palestinian positions based on the misrepresentation of unity and leniency toward Hamas may lead to its strengthening within the Palestinian system.

Another Israeli consideration is the projection of the way the elections are held on the status of Jerusalem. After the American recognition of the city as its capital, Israel has an interest in demonstrating its sovereignty over the city. At the same time, it does not negate the right of Arab residents to vote in elections for the Palestinian Authority. Israel certainly does not want a confrontation with the new administration on this issue. Therefore, it is likely that Israel will allow a creative voting format that will not question Israel’s sovereignty in the city.

In order to formulate its policy regarding the elections, Israel should consider whether to return to the formula of the 2006 elections. Israel was then persuaded by the Americans to allow Hamas to participate in the elections under the guise of the “Party of Reform and Change” even though it failed to meet the conditions set by the 1995 Interim Agreements (Appendix 2, Article 2) regarding participation in elections:

  1. presenting the candidacy of candidates,
  2. refusal of parties or coalitions,
  3. the cancellation of nominations submitted or registration if such candidates, parties, or coalitions acted or sought to implement their objectives through racism, illegal means, or non-democratic means.

The Bush administration then assured Prime Minister Sharon that if Hamas achieved a significant election victory, Americans would prevent the appointment of ministers from the movement into the government and would not have a working relationship with its representatives. Sharon bowed to the pressure despite strong opposition from senior intelligence officials. In practice, following Hamas’ victory, the Hamas party leader, Ismail Haniyeh, was appointed to head the government, and Aziz Duwaik, a Hamas member in the Palestinian Legislative Council, became head of the council, a position he still holds to this day. Although the Americans refrained from contacts with Hamas members, the movement became very strong in the Palestinian system.

At the end of the day, Hamas forcibly took control of the Gaza Strip.  Following the concession then (and in the face of Israel’s acceptance of Hamas rule in Gaza), Israel may find it difficult to use this clause today to prevent Hamas (and possibly the Islamic Jihad) from participating in the elections, though it has the legitimacy to do so. However, Israel can demand that the United States again commit to refraining from cooperating with a Palestinian government in which Hamas will be represented, if only indirectly.