Since June 2007, Palestine has been speaking with multiple voices. In that fateful month, Hamas staged a coup to overthrow the national unity government, taking complete control of the Gaza Strip. Weeks later Israel laid siege to over two million Palestinians there on the pretext that Hamas is a “terrorist organisation”. Neither the overthrow of the Palestinian government nor the Israeli siege could give peace a chance. Rather, Palestinian politics became entangled in divisive confrontations between the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and Hamas in Gaza, which had its ramifications in Arab and regional politics too. Iran sided with Hamas, so did Turkey to a lesser degree, while Arab countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia have done their best to steer a middle course between the two factions while trying to salvage the peace process, particularly the Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations.
These negotiations came to a standstill in April 2014 when the Palestinians refused to continue negotiating while the Israelis expanded their settlements in the West Bank. In retrospect, this withdrawal did not advance the Palestinian cause. Seven years have elapsed with three different American administrations in Washington and Israeli settlements have spread, so did the never-ending Israeli expropriation of Palestinian land. The last seven years have not empowered the Palestinians even if their motives for not resuming negotiations with Israel are justifiable. Their withdrawal made it easy for the Israeli government to claim, falsely, that there is no peace partner on the Palestinian side.
With a new American administration in Washington that marks a complete break with the previous one, the Palestinians need to unify their position and speak to the world with a single voice, expressing their willingness to resume peace negotiations with Israel. The peace narrative in the Middle East should not be left to Benjamin Netanyahu. That is why the first round of the Palestinian National Dialogue in Cairo, ten days ago, was a welcome development. Whether it will turn the page on Palestinian divisions remains to be seen. It is definitely worth the try. This round came on the heels of the call for elections in Palestine. Late last year Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) issued a decree that legislative and presidential elections should be held in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem (subject to an Israeli approval) in the summer, including the 700-member representative body.
The first round of the National Dialogue brought together 16 Palestinian factions including both Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, and it aimed to reach an agreement on the procedures governing the upcoming Palestinian elections. Fortunately, the conclusions reached so far are promising. What was termed a “complete national partnership” starts with holding the parliamentary elections next May, followed two months later by the presidential elections. It was agreed to respect the electoral schedule as well as the results of the elections, a concern for some. The future of peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis will depend on two factors: respect for the election’s results and the commitment of the new, unified Palestinian government to negotiations without preconditions.
If the Palestinians surprise the world community with a “viable democracy” and a peaceful transfer of power occurs within the Palestinian Authority, said community – notably the European Union and the Biden administration – are likely to help the Palestinians tremendously, particularly in the framework of peace talks with the Israelis, regardless of the results of the Israeli elections scheduled for 23 March. The Biden administration came to the rescue of the two-state solution. Ten days ago American Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a “revolutionary” statement when he told an American news channel that the two-state solution is the “only alternative to peace in the Middle East. The Palestinians should not waste this opportunity.”
The Egyptian government has invited the Palestinian factions for a second round of talks next month, and in the meantime decided to open the Rafah border crossing indefinitely, a decision welcomed by the Palestinians. Some might see this as a kind of reward to Hamas for showing a much hoped-for flexibility in the Cairo talks early this month, and preparing for a unified Palestinian government after the elections in May and July 2021.
No one should underestimate the roadblocks on the way to setting up a unified government that would benefit from the allegiance of all Palestinian factions. In other words the question is how to protect such a government from the fractious politics of the Palestinian factions. One of the questions that the Palestinians should address is whether those factions will remain politically relevant if the Palestinian people in a free and fair election under international supervision choose an indivisible Palestinian government in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem (assuming Israel approves elections in the latter). Another major hurdle is the status of the Palestinian elections if the Israeli government decides to bar Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem from casting their votes. If this happens, and I hope it doesn’t, will there be unanimity in accepting the elections as legitimate?
I wish the elections in East Jerusalem could be postponed till regional and international developments warrant them.
Another hurdle, no less significant, is Iran which is manoeuvering its way across the Middle East and in Yemen to reposition itself in a much stronger negotiating position in case talks with the Biden administration on the future of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iranian Nuclear Deal of July 2015) should start. Iran could play the spoiler in the Palestinian elections, but it will not be alone. Israel might also want to ruin the elections in order to keep the Palestinians divided and keep the West Bank and the Gaza Strip separated, for the status quo serves the interests of both Iran and Israel.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly