Palestinians should not be denied legitimate representation
Palestinians have extraordinarily little say over their own affairs. Most are in exile, more than 5 million are refugees and about 5 million live under military occupation. It is, therefore, tough for many to swallow that all three Palestinian elections scheduled for 2021 — for the legislative council, the presidency and the Palestinian National Council — have been postponed indefinitely.
At best, the Palestinian Authority (PA) is no more than an enfeebled, aid-dependent entity with highly limited quasi-municipal authority. Palestinians would, in theory, only be able to elect a Palestinian president who cannot leave Ramallah unless soldiers at an Israeli checkpoint let him through. Only in March, Israel confiscated the travel pass of the Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Maliki just because he had the temerity to go to The Hague to visit the International Criminal Court. He shrugged it off when I asked him about it. “They confiscated my pass so I have to go through intrusive Israeli searches, which I had to do all my life before becoming foreign minister,” he said. Which other foreign minister in the world has his pass confiscated and has to submit to full body searches?
The Israeli authorities did everything they could to thwart these elections. They refused to allow any electoral activity in East Jerusalem and even arrested Palestinian candidates for daring to hold a press conference. If anyone had any doubt about the power relationship between Israel and the PA, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dispatched the head of Shin Bet to meet President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah in March. He reportedly demanded that the elections be canceled. The Israeli government feared that elections would allow Hamas to become the largest party in the Palestinian Legislative Council.
This approach merely demonstrated the colonial attitude of the occupying power — Palestinians may be allowed to vote, but only where and when the occupier permits, and only if they vote the right way. This colonial approach raises a significant question: Given Israel’s almost complete control over the Occupied Territories, what is the point of having Palestinian elections?
Critics are also right to point out that delaying the elections suits Abbas and Fatah. Last week’s move was self-serving and widely interpreted as an attempt to hold on to the little power they have. With this, Abbas and Netanyahu share at least one thing in common — a dogged determination to remain in office.
As in 2006, Fatah is massively divided. This time, the party had three competing lists running for the legislative council and even competing candidates for the presidential election, which was scheduled for July. Marwan Barghouti was strongly rumored to be considering running against Abbas, even as he remains in an Israeli jail. Polls indicated he would win handsomely.
The postponement harms the Palestinian national movement and, despite its leaders’ protests, will not necessarily displease Hamas, which can continue to act as the warden of the prison that is Gaza. The renewal of the Palestinian leadership is an integral part of ensuring legitimacy and effectiveness. It has been 15 years since the last legislative elections and Abbas has just started the 17th year of his four-year term.
The US and European governments were quick to voice their criticisms. The EU described the decision as “deeply disappointing” and said a “new date for elections should be set without delay. We reiterate our call on Israel to facilitate the holding of such elections… including in East Jerusalem.” The US administration, however, refrained from even mild criticism of Israel’s blocking of the election in East Jerusalem.
Criticisms from many Western governments ring rather hollow. Where were these champions of Palestinian democracy in 2006, when they refused to accept the verdict of the Palestinian electorate after Hamas had won? Notably, none stated unequivocally that they would accept the results of the 2021 vote. There are many valid reasons not to approve of Hamas, including its attacks on civilians and its regressive politics, but democracy is about respecting the result.
The US government also made it clear that it opposed any candidates who did not recognize the state of Israel or who supported terrorist activity. Imagine if the US government had opposed Israeli candidates in Israeli elections who opposed a Palestinian state or who backed war crimes, including settlement building.
The renewal of the Palestinian leadership is an integral part of ensuring legitimacy and effectiveness.
Moreover, when the Israeli government refused to budge on allowing Palestinians to vote in East Jerusalem, what did the US and European governments do? Well, they issued more statements, to add to the mountains already issued, expressing concern about Israeli actions. Israeli governments have ignored each and every one of these statements for decades, so it was no surprise that the Netanyahu government did not shift.
The reality is that the European governments in particular know perfectly well that only real and sustained pressure has a chance of working with Israel. There have been thousands of condemnations of Israeli settlement building but never any consequences. This means that European governments are, in reality, quite content with settlements, home demolitions and Palestinians being denied their freedoms. Put another way, if the EU said that its partnership with Israel would be suspended if Palestinian elections were not permitted, it would shatter the complacency in the Israeli corridors of power.
However, the EU is right to call for new election dates. This should be a very brief postponement, though it is hard not to see it as an out-and-out cancelation. To thwart that, concerted efforts, including pressure on Israel, must be made to ensure that Palestinians in East Jerusalem will be allowed to participate fully in this exercise. A failure to allow this must finally trigger hard consequences.
Palestinian politics have always been vibrant if, sadly in recent times, bitterly polarized. In all, 93 percent of eligible Palestinians registered to vote. But Palestinians need the space and the avenues to debate their future as part of the process of their liberation and self-determination. Right now, with the prospects of negotiations so slim and the occupation at full throttle, a reinvigorated strategy is crucial. Israeli leaders, not least Netanyahu, have relished the Palestinian political divisions and done everything to encourage them, knowing full well this weakens their hand. What would truly scare the Israeli leadership would be a Palestinian counterpart with a full and legitimate political mandate to demand its people’s national and individual rights. This should not be postponed.
Above all, proper, fair and full Palestinian elections are a Palestinian requirement and aspiration that should be realized immediately, without obstacles or interference.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech