Palestinian Elections are in Sight, but Prospects for Reform Remain Slim | Opinion

With the recent decree by Mahmoud Abbas to hold Palestinian general and presidential elections later this year, the issue of Palestinian political unity comes back to the surface. Abbas, who is 85 years old, is in the 16th year of his four-year term and presides over a population divided into several territories and under different political forces.

While distrust and division are nothing new in Palestinian history, it seems that with each passing year Palestinians lose more hope of a solution. Hamas, the terrorist organization ruling Gaza, remains stubborn, polarizing and popular while Fatah and Abbas maintain their monopoly over power in the West Bank. After several rounds of talks between the two factions in Doha, Ankara and Cairo, the situation shows no sign of progress towards reconciliation or cohesion. Fatah announced last week that Abbas is to remain its candidate, making it obvious that not much change is to be expected. Despite the possibility of significant rivalry from other members of Fatah, namely Mohamed Dahlan—who is close to the rising center of Arab power in Abu Dhabi—and Marwan Barghouti—a terrorist mastermind currently in an Israeli prison—many remain profoundly skeptical of any meaningful potential for political change.

Conversation about the potential election has been wide ranging. There have been discussions of the electoral participation of Arab residents of Jerusalem, reports—and then denials of those same reports—about coming meetings between Fatah and Hamas in Doha, inner schisms, doubt over the fairness of the elections and so on. For most Palestinians, the idea that Fatah would abdicate power is simply unthinkable. The last time they held elections, it resulted in a civil war which broke down any dreams of national cohesion the Palestinians might have built up in the post-Oslo years. Thus, in recent polls, the Palestinians rightfully express ambivalence towards an electoral process they know they can't really decide. Endemic infighting even causes many to doubt that the elections will actually be held.

But all the talk of elections and power struggles also shows the primary flaw in the Palestinian national project itself. For all the election-related issues under discussion, there is seldom any talk of political agendas, economic plans or issues other than power, and certainly no discussion of political rights, democracy or women's issues. The promise of new Palestinian elections, supposedly the fruit of decades of national struggle, are a facade hiding a struggle between the brokers of the holy cause. As if the Palestinians themselves are a one-dimensional people who only exist to be represented by others in a sacred struggle for power.

Now is a pivotal time for the region. New diplomatic agreements have transformed the situation of both Israelis and Palestinians, and Palestine has clearly declined as a priority on the regional agenda. The interests of the Palestinians themselves seem to be the least of the concerns of international observers, EU officials, UN bureaucrats, or the mediators in Cairo, Doha or Ankara—as well as of Palestinian politicians. Their sole function remains a merely iconographic one—a part of a system of symbols deployed in Palestinian power struggles, regional competitions, American domestic politics and academic discourse.

Mahmoud Abbas
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas holds a placard as he speaks in the West Bank's Ramallah on September 3, 2020, as he meets by video conference with representatives of Palestinian factions gathered at the Palestinian embassy in Beirut in rare talks on how to respond to such accords and to a Middle East peace plan announced by Washington this year. Photo by Alaa Badarneh/POOL/AFP/Getty

Ironically, most agree that the elections announcement has more to do with the results of the American elections than any Palestinian domestic concerns or developments. The initiative declared by President Abbas is widely seen as a symbolic gesture toward the new Biden administration in hopes of buying some affection in Washington. It is no surprise that the Palestinians show so much doubt about a political process to which they seem to be the least important part.

Perhaps the most curious absence in the conversation about Palestinian elections is any discussion of democracy, a word beloved by so many both in the West and the East. This is not surprising since, historically, the reservoir of legitimacy for Palestinians lies not in popular will but, defying all common modern political sensibilities, in a tradition of oppositionalism. This is most obvious in the results of the polls mentioned above, which show more Palestinians favoring the terrorist Barghouti than either Abbas or Dahlan.

This historically has been the face of the Palestinian national struggle, which failed to promote any interest in democracy or tie itself to demands for political rights—other than against Israel. Democracy has never been on the agenda of any Palestinian leader, including Abbas. In a post-Arab Spring Middle East, Arab thinkers, journalists and analysts ponder with bitterness the reasons for the Arab failure to move any closer towards democracy. Many, such as the prominent Lebanese journalist and thinker Hazem Saghieh, are starting to make the case that the Palestinian cause, in its purest form of raw opposition towards Israel, is itself one of the biggest obstacles to Arab democracy.

This new realization—curiously not the work of pundits and propagandists of Gulf regimes but actual Arab intellectuals and independent thinkers—threatens the Palestinians with isolation not just from Arab regimes moving towards Israel but from the Arab political and intellectual opposition circles from which they used to acquire their moral support. In the wider circle of Arab politics, the behavior of Palestinian politicians risks turning the symbol of the Palestinian people from an icon into a caricature.

It remains to be seen whether Palestinian elections will actually take place. But even if they do, there seems to be very little hope in any improvement of the situation of the Palestinian people. The new American administration is likely to try, in goodwill, to make things better for them but no attempt is likely to yield any productive results under a Palestinian political class interested only in itself and committed to the absorption of all issues into its own inner power struggle.

Hussein Aboubakr Mansour is EMET's Director of the Project of Emerging Democratic Voices from the Middle East based in Washington D.C.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.