Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas issued a decree setting dates for new elections in the Palestinian territories. On May 22, Palestinians will go to the polls to elect a new Palestinian Legislative Council – the institution established through the Oslo peace process that has been defunct for more than decade. On July 31, the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and east Jerusalem will elect a new president for the Palestinian Authority.
The last time the Palestinians went to the polls to elect their president was in 2005, and in 2006, to elect their legislators. Today, about 1.5 million Palestinians between the ages of 18-30, half of the electorate, have never voted in their entire lives. Now they too have the right to vote. While there is a great deal of skepticism regarding whether or not the elections will actually take place, there is already a flurry of action on the ground of initiatives to launch new political parties and jockey for positions within the existing political frameworks.
There is a higher probability of elections actually happening than at any time since 2006. This is so at least for the Legislative Council. The presidential decree came as a result of intensive Egyptian mediation efforts between Fatah and Hamas. Then Hamas issued a letter to President Abbas indicating their willingness to conduct the elections in the order that Abbas wanted and not first for the Palestinian National Council (the All Palestinian Parliament, which heads the PLO and includes Palestinians from the diaspora communities and not just within the territories), which Hamas has demanded until now.
Once Legislative Council elections take place, it will be a lot more difficult for Abbas to prevent the elections for the position of Palestinian Authority president. Many people are already speculating that Abbas will be the candidate of Fatah for the presidential elections.
People are also speculating that Hamas will not run a candidate of their own, at least not under the Hamas banner. It is too early to make those speculations. Let’s not forget that Abbas is 85 years old and not in the best of health. Let’s also note that at least two-thirds of the Palestinians, according to public opinion polls in the territories, want Abbas to step down.
THE ELECTIONS for the Legislative Council are an opportunity for the Palestinians to revive their political movements and to strive for the democracy that most young Palestinians aspire to. The positions that the potential political candidates must present to their public are not only on the consensus issue of ending the Israeli occupation, but on how to go about bringing it to an end.
There is the question of the viability and desirability of the two-states solution and the possibilities for any other kind of solution. Preserving Palestinian presence and rights in and to Jerusalem is a central issue of concern, particularly for the 350,000 Palestinians in east Jerusalem who will have to have the right to vote and to be represented – with Israel’s agreement or without it.
There are also very important issues concerning fighting corruption, creating clean, transparent and accountable governance. One of the most important issues today, especially after the coronavirus pandemic, is the economy, jobs and education. The pandemic also brought home the terrible state of the Palestinian healthcare system, the lack of a social security system, and no pension plans. The corruption that most Palestinians complain about focuses on the absence of the rule of law. Perhaps the most pressing issue of concern to Palestinians is how to reunite the two Palestinian territories – West Bank and Gaza.
Unlike the upcoming Israeli elections, for the fourth time in two years, the Palestinian elections will probably deal with policy issues and not just personalities. Palestine has been dominated by two political movements for decades. A large part of the Palestinian public does not support either of them. Many Palestinian friends have said to me, “I will vote for anyone except Fatah and Hamas,” and I believe that sentiment is widespread. There is an opportunity for the birth of new political movements. There has been no real political debate and public discourse on national strategies for many years. There are generations of Palestinian young people who have never participated in political life. The new generation is online and exposed to life outside of the small confines of the West Bank and Gaza. They need and want a voice. This is their chance to begin to create real democracy.
I also hope to see young Palestinian women stand up and be counted. The new election law in the Palestinian Authority set a benchmark for 26% representation of women in the political parties lists that will be presented. Not one of the main political parties running in the current round of Israeli elections is headed by a woman. It would be great if the Palestinians would demonstrate to the world that Palestinian women can lead.
This is probably not going to happen, unfortunately. The area would be blessed if the Palestinian people would use the opportunity of elections to foster democracy, which is not only the right to vote. Democracy is first and foremost equality under the law, respect for human rights and giving a voice to the voiceless. I wish the Palestinian people a lot better outcome than we have had in Israel over the past two years.
The writer is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book, In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine, was published by Vanderbilt University Press.