Between 8 and 9 February the 14 Palestinian factions and organisations that signed the Palestinian Reconciliation Agreement nearly a decade ago convened in Cairo for the 14th round of the Palestinian National Dialogue. Held under the sponsorship of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, the goal was to draw up a working plan for Palestinian presidential and legislative elections.
The outcome of the meeting was an agreement on 15 main items, namely: commitment to the timetable set by the decree of legislative and presidential elections, with an emphasis on holding them in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza without exception, and a pledge to respect and accept their results.
It also called for the formation of a court for election lawsuits in agreement with the judges in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem. The Palestinian police in the West Bank and Gaza, in their uniforms, will secure the election headquarters and their presence will be in accordance with the law.
The meeting’s statement also called for the promotion of civil liberties and political freedoms, and the immediate release of all those detained on the grounds of factionalism or for expression of opinion.
It also called for ensuring the provision of complete freedom for political advertising, publishing, printing, holding political and electoral meetings and financing them in accordance with the provisions of the elections law.
The agreement also called for ensuring the impartiality of the security services in the West Bank and Gaza and that they do not interfere in the elections or the electoral propaganda of any party, in addition to a pledge to provide equal opportunities in the official media without discrimination for all electoral lists.
The agreement also stressed that all mechanisms must be used to ensure that elections are held in Jerusalem, including candidacy and elections.
Furthermore, a meeting of the Palestinian factions will be held in Cairo next March, in the presence of the presidency of the national council and the Central Elections Committee, to agree on the foundations and mechanisms through which the formation of the new national council will be completed with the aim of activating and developing the Palestine Liberation Organisation and strengthening the national resistance programme based on it being a national liberation movement.
There was a general sense of optimism that a new dynamic was in reach for Palestinian reunification. According to a source familiar with the Palestinian reconciliation process, Cairo has done everything possible to facilitate and encourage the dialogue and is committed to helping convert the outputs of this meeting into the committees and other executive mechanisms needed to translate the decisions taken into concrete action.
Other sources in Cairo, citing Palestinian reports, confirmed the generally positive atmosphere, especially during the face-to-face meeting between the Fatah and Hamas delegates held at the end of the first day. In addition to agreeing on the outlines of the closing statement of this round of the Cairo dialogue, participants discussed differences that need to be resolved in order to hold elections. Of central importance here are a number of judicial rulings by the Palestinian Supreme Constitutional Court, and the High Court of Justice which has jurisdiction over disputes related to elections.
Sources nonetheless caution against over-optimism, saying progress will be “gradual”. Many challenges lie ahead. The Palestinian factions have yet to take the necessary actions to transform the terms of the reconciliation agreement they signed in 2011 into realities on the ground, a delay that has worked to entrench and institutionalise the Palestinian schism, pitting the West Bank, governed by the Palestinian Authority (PA), against Gaza, ruled by Hamas. This has complicated fence-mending efforts, difficulties compounded by alliances and conflicts between regional actors and axes. Cairo is perhaps the exception to the rule in that among regional actors it has maintained good working relations with all concerned parties, including close relations with the PA and a practical and strategic relationship with Hamas.
“As the sponsor of the dialogue Egypt must possess all the ingredients necessary to generate an atmosphere in which these talks can prove fruitful,” said Major General Mohamed Ibrahim, assistant director of the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies and one of the architects of the 2011 reconciliation agreement.
He believes Egypt possesses five main qualities in this regard. First, it has close relations with the PA under President Mahmoud Abbas, aka Abu Mazen, as well as with Palestinian factions and organisations in Palestine and abroad. It keeps an equal distance from them, and is committed solely to the welfare of the Palestinian people.
Second, Egypt has never changed its position that the Palestinian question can only be resolved based on a two-state solution, an independent and sovereign Palestine within the pre-June 1967 borders with its capital in East Jerusalem, coexisting side-by-side with Israel in peace and security.
Third, Egypt has a unique experience of the Palestinian question in its various phases of development. Ibrahim stresses that there is no better testimony to this than the fact that the main document proposing a solution to the Palestinian rift was prepared and launched in Cairo on 4 May, after three years of difficult yet persistent mediation.
Fourth, the Egyptian working group that oversees the Palestinian reconciliation process consists of professional and committed team members endowed with the expertise needed to deal with issues that are directly connected to Egyptian national security.
And fifth is the simple fact that Egypt is the crucible of all serious efforts to advance the Palestinian cause. According to Ibrahim: “We could say that Egypt is the cardinal compass point for stimulating action and keeping the focus on this question, particularly given that Egypt has excellent relations and coordinates closely with all countries concerned with the issue, especially Jordan and the main international powers.”
President Abbas is clearly tired of the status quo and looking forward to a process of “change for the sake of change” even if it does not immediately yield “comprehensive arrangements”, and even if Fatah does not yet appear prepared to fully engage in the reconciliation process. One factor that has influenced Abbas’ openness to change is the arrival of a new administration in Washington.
As for Hamas, according to sources contacted by Al-Ahram Weekly, its position will be contingent on its assessments of the situation in the lead-up to the elections and its prospects of winning a parliamentary majority. In the 2006 elections, Hamas won 74 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian parliament, compared to Fatah’s 45.
Analysts predict that, in the forthcoming poll, Hamas could lose between 20 to 25 per cent of its seats but still lead Fatah. Fatah is unlikely to make any large electoral gains, with remaining seats expected to be divided among 12 factions: the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine; the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine; the Vanguard for the Popular Liberation War; Palestinian People’s Party; the Palestinian Democratic Union; the Palestinian Popular Struggle Front; the Palestinian Liberation Front; the Arab Liberation Front; the Palestinian Arab Front; the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command; the Palestinian National Initiative and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
A source who preferred to remain anonymous told the Weekly that Hamas has the ability to conduct accurate opinion polls and that, regardless of what it agrees to in Cairo, the polls will ultimately determine its position.
So can we expect a change in the political and security situation in Gaza if the elections result in a coalition government or another type of power-sharing arrangement?
According to this source, Hamas will never hand over control over its security-related posts or dismantle its security apparatuses. On the other hand, he stressed that the agreement we are concerned with here primarily has to do with the elections, not with the reconciliation process per se, although this does not rule out some limited progress towards “rapprochement”.
The road to elections will not be free of other impediments. Will the approximately 340,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem be able to vote? Palestinian Prime Minister Mohamed Shtayeh said last month that he would formally ask Israel to abide by its agreements on this subject and by relevant international conventions. Concern remains, however, that Israel will deprive Palestinians in East Jerusalem of their right to vote now that the US has recognised Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. According to Mohamed Kanaan, a former Arab member of the Knesset, this was one of the subjects that Abbas discussed in his meeting with the heads of Egyptian and Jordanian intelligence in Ramallah last month. Kanaan added that the PA has been following through on this matter with the EU, the new US administration, Russia, Egypt, and Jordan in order to build pressure on Israel to ensure East Jerusalem’s inhabitants are not deprived of their right to vote in the forthcoming Palestinian elections.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly