On 16 January, Chair of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Mahmoud Abbas issued a presidential decree calling for general and presidential elections in the Occupied West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem on 22 May and 31 July this year, respectively.
According to the same decree, Palestinians everywhere, in the Diaspora as well as in the whole of Palestine, were to elect their representatives to the 700-member Palestinian National Council (PNC) a month after the holding of the presidential elections.
The call for the elections was warmly received worldwide and among the Palestinians. The only dissenting voice among Palestinian organisations was that of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
Egypt, for its part, took the decree very seriously, hoping that these elections, once held, would assist in ending the eight-year division between the PA and Hamas. Furthermore, they would pave the way for a peaceful and democratic transfer of power, badly needed in the PA, and make room for younger leaders to emerge and hold the reins of power in a changing world and regional landscape.
Cairo hosted two rounds of talks under the heading of the Palestinian National Dialogue, one in February and the second in March this year. The purpose was to make sure that all Palestinian organisations and the PA agreed on the modalities and conditions for holding the decreed elections.
Judging from the results of the two rounds, we can safely say that all was set for opening a new chapter in Palestinian politics after the elections and the election of a national-unity government that would have led to reinvigorated political legitimacy capable of meeting the demands of new realities on the ground. If there was agreement on one thing, it was on the recognition that the present Palestinian leadership and a divided Palestine, torn between the Occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip, are no longer tenable. This status quo must change in the best interests of the Palestinians.
But to the dismay of Palestinians, Arabs and the world at large, the chair of the PA announced on 29 April that he had decided to postpone the elections, sine die, on the pretext that the Israeli government had not allowed elections in East Jerusalem.
The decision was received with consternation and opposition from all Palestinian organisations. Hamas expressed its regret and called the decision a betrayal of the agreements already sealed to hold the elections and form a national-unity government. It added that both the PA and Fatah, the largest Palestinian political organisation, would be held responsible for any adverse consequences that could take place because of the postponement of the elections. It went on to say that it was inadmissible that the destiny of the Palestinians and what it termed “the popular consensus” should be held hostage to “the agenda” of a particular Palestinian faction, meaning Fatah.
Egypt, at the time this article was written, that is to say 48 hours after the postponement decision, had not reacted officially to the news. Frustration with the PA and its chairman would be an understatement, however. Cairo had been looking forward to the elections and their results as a turning point in Palestinian politics that could lead to an elected Palestinian government that would embody a new popular and political legitimacy capable of speaking on behalf and in the name of all of Palestine, a sine qua non in dealing with a new US administration that has expressed its support for the two-state solution after a four-year hiatus in which the previous administration of former president Donald Trump almost scuttled the idea altogether.
Egypt believes that the time has come for a renewal of Palestinian politics and of the Palestinian national leadership. The trust and confidence in the present one and in other leaders of various Palestinian organisations have almost withered away. To host other rounds of the Palestinian National Dialogue would be an exercise in futility, to say the least.
The current Palestinian leadership has wasted the chance to allow for the emergence of younger Palestinian leaders that will be more capable and more effective in addressing the world and in dealing with a new set of Israeli leaders in the post-Netanyahu era. Theirs should be a leadership of the future and not a leadership anchored in the past.
The reason for postponing the elections is that there are new realities on the ground in Palestine that the PA refuses to admit or acknowledge. The consensus among Palestinian observers is that Fatah was not assured of coming out the winner. With three competing electoral lists, the chances were that Hamas could carry a majority of the votes across all of Palestine. Palestinian voters were divided among three Fatah electoral lists, Fatah proper, the Future list led by Nasser Al-Kidwa, a close relative of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the Independence list led by the dissident Mohamed Dahlan.
Postponing the elections will not change this equation. On the contrary, if Abbas has any moral authority left, he has probably squandered it with his regrettable decision. Even his legacy within the Palestinian National Movement has been tarnished.
The US reaction to the decision by Abbas has been quite muted and has reflected the low priority the Biden administration gives to the Palestinian question, and, for that matter, to the peace process in the Middle East. Jalina Porter, principal deputy spokesperson of the US State Department, had this to say in her press briefing on 30 April: “Obviously, the exercise of democratic elections matter for the Palestinian people, and it is a matter for them to determine their leadership as well.”
“We also encourage all parties to remain calm in the process.”
As for European reactions, four governments, those of France, Italy, Spain and Germany, released a joint statement regretting the postponement of the Palestinian elections, and there was a separate statement by the British government. The European Union expressed its regret at the decision announced by Abbas. EU High Representative for Foreign Policy Josep Borrell released a statement calling on all the parties to agree on a new date for holding the elections and requesting the Israeli government to allow Palestinians in East Jerusalem to participate in them.
He added that the European Union has always stressed its support for “credible, comprehensive and transparent elections” in Palestine.
The statement emphasised the fact that the EU believes that it is necessary for the Palestinians to develop strong democratic institutions that are accountable and are based on the respect for human rights on the way towards the two-state solution. I could not agree more. It called on all Palestinian parties to resume “efforts” to build on the “successful talks” among various Palestinian organisations and fix a new date for Palestinian elections “without delay.”
This would be questionable, at least in the short term. Resuming talks under present circumstances would lack credibility.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly