Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad (L) and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It has been seven months since Hamas and Fatah formed a unity government made up of technocrats. This purportedly conciliatory move, coming seven years after Hamas ousted Fatah from the Gaza Strip in a bloody revolt and Palestinian leadership was split between Gaza and the West Bank, was supposed to set the stage for, among other things, presidential and legislative elections in the Palestinian Authority.
But while Israel is in the midst of election season, Hamas and Fatah have failed to settle their differences and embark on the democratic process of choosing a political leadership.
The presidential elections that brought Mahmoud Abbas to power took place in 2005. Abbas’s four-year term ended in 2009. He has been serving ever since without a democratic mandate from the Palestinian people.
The parliamentary elections, which were won by Hamas, took place in 2006. This was also for a four-year mandate.
In short, parliamentary and presidential elections are long overdue. Failure to hold elections undermines Palestinians’ faith in their political leadership. For Israel, PA elections are important because without them any agreement signed with the PA lacks legitimacy.
In principle, Abbas could issue a presidential decree that would set in motion a three-month preparatory period, after which elections could take place at any time. If he were to issue that decree now, Palestinian elections could follow Israel’s March 17 elections by less than a month.
But this is unlikely to happen for a number of reasons, says Dr. Khalil Shikaki, head of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. And this is true even though 71 percent of Palestinians want elections to take place in less than six months, according to a poll the PCPSR conducted at the beginning of the month.
Fatah and Abbas rightly believe they would lose if elections were held now. Therefore, they are in no hurry. The PCPSR poll found that Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh would receive 53% of the vote while Abbas would receive just 42%. Similarly, Hamas would beat Fatah in parliamentary elections, according to the poll.
Hamas’s popularity has risen sharply in the wake of last summer’s Operation Protective Edge. Before the fighting, Fatah has a slight advantage in popularity. Now a majority of Palestinians favor Hamas’s tactics against Israel to Fatah’s and want to see the “armed struggle” à la Gaza replicated in the West Bank.
Another obstacle is that Hamas and Fatah have yet to agree on the electoral system to be used. In the 2006 elections, Hamas won in part because system – a mixture of proportional representation and a first past the post system – favored the unified Hamas over a more fractured Fatah. This time Fatah demands that the system be based solely on proportional representation, like the Israeli system, while Hamas says at least 25% of the seats must be based on winner-take-all districts.
Meanwhile, as elections are postponed, Abbas seems to be betting on improving his popularity among Palestinians by internationalizing the struggle, particularly by pushing for a UN Security Council vote calling for the creation of a Palestinian state by 2017.
But even this campaign, strongly opposed by Israel because it is an attempt to bypass direct negotiations, lacks backing among most if not all Palestinian political parties outside of Fatah. This is because the proposed UN motion does not go far enough in defending Palestinians’ conditions, especially regarding Jerusalem – which Palestinians refuse to share with Israel as a capital – and Palestinians held in Israeli prisons – whom Palestinians demand be released.
As long as elections are delayed, Palestinians will lack a legitimate political leadership that can be said to faithfully represent them. The leadership that is eventually elected might end up being Hamas, which would be a tragedy for the Palestinians as it would mean the end of hopes for self-determination through a negotiated agreement with Israel. But at least Israel and the world would be confronted with the Palestinian reality, not a convenient delusion.