By: Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh.
The Palestinian circles have been satisfied with the developments in the dialogue between Fatah and Hamas in Istanbul that seems to have come a long way. An agreement was reached to hold elections in the West Bank (WB) and Gaza Strip (GS) within six months on the basis of full proportional representation, where President ‘Abbas would issue a decree to that effect. According to Jibril Rajoub, first, the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections will be held, then the presidential elections, and finally the Palestinian National Council (PNC) elections. There is also consensus to continue intra-Palestinian dialogue to promote national unity, in which the rest of the factions would join to put the Palestinian political house in order and face the challenges.
The positive aspects of this consensus is manifested first in the positive push to overcome the Palestinian division—and the catastrophic losses it caused, and the fact that there is a widespread popular desire to overcome division and achieve national unity.
Second, this consensus contributes to uniting the efforts of the Palestinian people against the great dangers facing their cause and future, particularly the Trump deal and the Israeli annexation projects of parts of WB.
Third, these dialogues and consensus are part of the search for what’s mutual and confidence-building. For these are the bases of reforming the Palestinian political house, the coexistence under one official institutional roof, removing the elements of fear and suspicion of the other side, referring to fair and transparent mechanisms in Palestinian decision-making, and defining the supreme interests of the Palestinian people, and the priorities that govern this stage and their political program.
Fourth, they are an opportunity to take a set of measures in WB and GS that would grant political and media freedoms, activate student and trade union action, and municipalities, and stop security pursuit of opposition movements.
Elections are a Desirable but “Booby-Trapped” Mechanism:
Both sides chose elections to break the impasse and re-put the Palestinian political house in order. At first, elections seem to be the best possible mechanism for knowing the popular weight of the Palestinian forces, however, at the same time, if they were not controlled and protected by a number of guarantees and limitations, they would become a “booby-trap” mechanism that carries the risk of failure.
The most prominent of these risks is the ease with which Israel would obstruct the legislative and presidential elections of the Palestinian Authority (PA), and the absence of any guarantees to prevent it from interfering in the elections and thwarting them. Will Israel allow a Palestinian “celebration of democracy” to be held?! Will it easily allow the Palestinians to regain their national unity and express their true popular weight?! Will it allow the participation of Jerusalemites in the elections? Will it allow Hamas and the resistance forces to rearrange their ranks in WB, and their candidates to campaign and mass mobilize? The circumstances now are different from those of 2006, and when Hamas won (which Israel did not expect) it undertook quick measures to block, disrupt and thwart any action… Within months of a major military escalation, dozens of Hamas representatives and symbols were arrested in WB…Thus, its actual ability to work was impaired. At the end of the day, Israel remains the “absent present” in the Palestinian arrangements for the internal elections. Therefore, is it conceivable that elections under occupation be a prelude to reforming the Palestinian political house in order to confront the occupation itself?! Isn’t that a big risk? Isn’t that making the launch of reform subject to the enemy’s mood swings?!
Some may answer that the PA may resort to electronic voting, which is a procedure to be studied, and whose success and integrity must be guaranteed. However, the steps following the election results remain subject to Israeli interference, to which appropriate responses must be found.
Second, the PA itself is no longer the one established in 1994, nor the one that wanted to absorb the resistance and pass the “road map,” after the 2005 al-Aqsa Intifadah. Rather, it is in a political and economic crumbling state, after becoming a tool serving the occupation that took advantage of it and then disowned it. Furthermore, there is no more a state project, a two-state solution, nor a political horizon for the PA. Therefore, if there is talk about elections to form a government according to the standards and visions that reflect the Palestinian will, then this talk is far from reality. Rather, in such a case, a “new function” of the authority must be defined, in light of the national reform program and putting the Palestinian political house in order, where it would focus on serving the Palestinians; leave the political aspect to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO); distance itself from security cooperation with Israel; provide the appropriate cover for the resistance in GS; and refuse to subjugate GS to the Israeli tools and standards, which were imposed in WB.
Third, elections should be a prelude to reforming the Palestinian political house and not just to reshuffling the PA that is dependent on Israel. That’s why the previous consensus according to the Reconciliation Agreement of May 2011 stipulates holding simultaneous presidential, legislative and PNC elections; to ensure the success and seriousness of the electoral process, and take a major step towards reforming the PLO. However, the discourse these days to merely hold legislative elections at first, would bear the risk of disrupting the rest of the electoral process, as in 2006, when Hamas won a surprise victory in the PLC elections, and the PLO and Fatah leadership suspended the completion of the agreed upon procedures in the summer of 2005, concerning the formation of the PNC.
Therefore, the lack of synchronization may provide Fatah, if it loses again, with a “safety net,” where it would suspend the presidential and PNC elections, either willingly or under various Arab and international pressures. Moreover, Fatah’s victory may encourage it to be satisfied with “delegitimizing” Hamas as the representative of the Palestinian majority in the PLC, thus completing the path it started years ago. Then, it would demand Hamas to respect the peace process adopted by Fatah, making the latter bolder when speaking on behalf of the Palestinians in any potential negotiations or peace settlement deals. It would demand Hamas to hand over GS to the PA, and subject it to its standards, out of respect to the democratic process. At the same time, the PLO and the PA leadership (as in previous experiences) can find a thousand excuses to evade the completion of the presidential or PNC elections, or the reform of the Palestinian political house. This means that the elections were a mere “booby-trap” for Hamas and the resistance forces. This is not to mention that it is almost certain that the elections with proportional representation will naturally make Hamas—whether it wins or loses—lose more than half of its previous majority in the PLC.
Therefore, the new consensus needs a “safety net” that ensures that a transparent electoral process and the reform of the Palestinian political house continue to their end.
Fourth, proceeding with elections without agreeing on a national program is too risky, as there are two different paths (peace settlement and resistance) that have different visions, priorities and programs. Hamas and the resistance forces are not expected to yield to the peace settlement program if they lose the elections, and it is very unlikely that Fatah will turn to the resistance path and leave the peace settlement camp, to which it reiterates its adherence, until this moment. Therefore, reforming the Palestinian political house depends mainly on a national program that is more concerned with protecting the fundamentals and facing the occupation than with holding the elections. Furthermore, before the elections, the factions must agree on the outlines of this program, otherwise the conflict between different movements would explode more powerfully than before.
Fifth, the historical experience of the past fourteen years raises concerns about the reconciliation process; talks about elections were repeated a lot, and a number of agreements and understandings were reached (The National Conciliation Document of the Prisoners 2006, Mecca Agreement 2007, Cairo Reconciliation Agreement 2011, Doha Declaration 2012, Al-Shati’ Agreement 2014, Cairo Agreement 2017, etc). These agreements highlighted the tactical aspect of managing the relations, discussed selectively chosen issues, and undergone subjective interpretation. With them, it was easy to return to exchanging accusations, attempts of imposing a fait accompli, achieving gradual gains, hence they became part of managing the conflict rather than solving it. Therefore, the two parties are required now to work hard to establish a real and effective “confidence building” system, even if it si a gradual one, so as to build a success story… and not another failure that adds frustration to the accumulated ones in the Palestinian scene.
Sixth, the elections environment and the accompanying competition, friction and mutual “exposure” may fan hostilities rather than healing and uniting the ranks. This is where consensus matters, not only on the ethics and manners of the electoral process, but also on the outlines of the national program. In this way, the competition would be on the details within the framework of the best interests of the Palestinian people, where no party would feel that the other side will lead the Palestinian people to a disaster… justifying the ending of their agreements.
Seventh, there are concerns among pro-resistance parties that the PA behaviour is tactical, aiming to strengthen its position against Israeli and US pressures, and confront the Israeli normalization penetration into the Arab world, which have weakenedthe political position of the PA and the PLO. In that way, it would appear as a leader of all Palestinian forces, who seem to be under its wings. There are concerns also that the PA and the PLO leadership would link the ceiling of the Palestinian resistance to its “peaceful” low ceiling and slow and cautious move, thus providing an opportunity to Israel to impose a fait accompli, proceed with its plans without effort, and overcome any real resistance on the ground. These concerns increase with the feeling that the PA leadership is seeking to pass the phase until after the US elections, hoping that Joe Biden would win, the deal of the century and the Israeli annexation projects would falter, and the peace process would regain its vitality. At that point, the PA would return to its old habit!!
These concerns are legitimate. Those talking about them do not aim to disrupt the reconciliation, but seek to find sufficient guarantees for its success.
Reconciliation Success Factors:
There are a number of needed factors that would positively push towards a genuine reconciliation, and seriously re-put the Palestinian poltical house in order, mainly:
– Granting political and media freedoms in WB and GS, activating student and trade union action, releasing prisoners of conscience and stopping security coordination with Israel.
– As a gesture of good faith, the PA leadership would call the current PLC to resume its sessions, pending new elections, and lift the GS sanctions.
– Seeking to achieve a pre-election national program that would be an acceptable basis to the Palestinian forces at this stage.
– Implementing a program of gradual and mutual trust between Fatah, Hamas and all the other factions.
– Activating the PLO and its bodies abroad, opening its institutions to all the Palestinian people; holding “workshops” to reform it, and activating the role of the Palestinian communities abroad.
– Commiting to simultaneous elections, and pledging to respect the election results and seeing them through to the end.
– Agreeing on all the levels and stages of strict transparent electoral mechanisms.
Finally, the Palestine issue is witnessing historical milestones where there is no room for political maneuvers and waste of time. Rather, it needs serious and constructive efforts; and every second to rebuild the Palestinian political house, regain its momentum, and restore its strengths.
Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, 1/10/2020