As Palestinian vote looms, Israeli attention is elsewhere. That could backfire

If the scheduled vote is delayed, the PA might face rising popular anger. If it goes forward, Hamas could surge to victory. Is a distracted Israel ready for any of this?

Palestinians wave national flags during a protest against normalization of ties between the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain with Israel, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, September 15, 2020. (Majdi Mohammed/AP)
Palestinians wave national flags during a protest against normalization of ties between the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain with Israel, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, September 15, 2020. (Majdi Mohammed/AP)

In just over four weeks’ time, Palestinians are scheduled to head to their first national vote in 15 years, a vote that — if it actually happens — could carry enormous consequences for Israel.

But one wouldn’t know it from the largely silent public discourse inside the Jewish state, as the country struggles with numerous internal and external challenges. Its own March 23 election — the fourth within two years — has left the country’s political leaders deadlocked, with no coalition and no budget amid the ongoing fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and rising tensions with Iran.

“No one has any time for it. We’ll wake up two minutes before they happen. With the effects of coronavirus and Iran and assembling the government to deal with, who has time to think about the Palestinians?” said Michael Milshtein, a former senior Israeli defense official

The Times of Israel spoke with several ex-security figures on how the vote might play out and found some strong disagreements. Israeli security agencies have declined to take any public stance on the elections. In response to queries by The Times of Israel, several political parties also declined to comment.

In this October 20, 2012, photo, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas shows his ink-stained finger after casting his vote during local elections at a polling station in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

The hesitation to have a public debate on the matter may also reflect a justified skepticism about whether the elections will take place at all. The Palestinian leadership in Ramallah has repeatedly promised its people a chance at the ballot box since the 2006 legislative vote, only to back away at the last moment, and recent days have already seen rumblings by Palestinian Authority leadership that history could soon repeat itself.

In the last election, held in 2006, the terror group Hamas trounced Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement. The groups briefly established a joint government that was rejected by Israel and several world powers. Infighting and paralysis ensued. In a brief, bloody civil war a year later, Hamas forces expelled Fatah from the Gaza Strip, creating the current Palestinian political reality: a Hamas-ruled government in Gaza and a Fatah-ruled government in the West Bank.

When Abbas issued a formal election decree in January ordering a vote, most observers dismissed it as a stunt with a short life expectancy. But in the succeeding weeks, the planned election has marched through obstacle after obstacle. Voters have been registered, an election court formed, new political parties assembled, slates of candidates submitted and approved.

“Let’s put it like this: Abbas has done everything needed to inaugurate the elections,” said Barak Ben-Tzur, who served in several senior positions in Israel’s security establishment before joining the Shin Bet security service, where he worked for two decades.

But Fatah has splintered into factions ahead of the vote, and many in the party fear another electoral defeat, amid gains for the united Hamas. The PA has begun to indicate in recent days that it may delay the elections over the highly charged symbolic issue of whether Israel allows East Jerusalem Palestinians to participate.

Israel has yet to say whether it will permit voting in its capital, but it seems unlikely to grant the request, and Abbas could use that as an excuse to delay the elections. Key adviser Nabil Shaath said on Tuesday, “If Israel continues to ignore our request to hold the elections in East Jerusalem, the electoral process will be postponed.”

Women wear face masks at a registration station of the Central Elections Commission, in Gaza City, February 10, 2021. (Adel Hana/AP)

The election trap

Whether the Palestinian vote happens or not, Israel has now been placed in a complex bind. If the elections do take place, they could lead to a renewed role for Hamas in the Palestinian political system, disrupting Israel’s relations with Ramallah.

“I don’t see anything good emerging from these elections for Israel. From the Israeli perspective, it would be preferable that there be no elections,” said Gen. Roni Numa, who directed the Israeli military’s Central Command, which oversees the West Bank, from 2016 to 2018.

Abbas similarly fears a Hamas victory against his internally divided Fatah movement. But matters may be slipping out of his control. Anticipation for the vote has been building in the West Bank for months and should Abbas now call off the vote for any reason, the result could be tumultuous.

According to the Palestinian Central Elections Commission, 93 percent of eligible Palestinians have registered to vote in the upcoming election, many for the first time in their lives. Some 36 vying slates of candidates have joined the fray as well.

The Walla news site says the Israeli military is increasing its security presence in the West Bank in the coming days in the expectation that popular frustration will boil over should Abbas seek to call off the vote.

“Maybe a month ago, there was a 30% chance it would take place. Now it’s closer to 50%. It’s moving forward: they consolidated the slates, submitted them; now they’re approved. Soon they’ll formally begin their electoral campaigns. When will Abbas manage to end it?’ Milshtein said.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (right) alongside Central Elections Commissioner Hana Naser on January 15, 2021, announcing an election decree (WAFA)

If the vote goes forward, it could upend a status quo that Israel has found, if not ideal, then certainly acceptable. Israel and the Palestinian Authority are committed to coordinating on security, which has boosted Israeli security services’ ability to crack down on violence and terror.

According to Numa, the Palestinian elections could throw that security coordination into doubt. Israel could find it difficult to coordinate with a restored Palestinian legislature harshly opposed to the matter, or a true Fatah-Hamas unity government.

“We would prefer that the status quo continue and for the Palestinian leadership to continue with security coordination, holding a worldview that sees armed struggle as bad for the Palestinians in the long run,” Numa said.

But Israeli officials also understand that elections will inevitably need to happen, if not this year, then sometime soon.

Abbas, now 15 years into his original four-year term, has little credit left with his own people, and consistent majorities regularly demand his resignation. The 85-year-old’s reign cannot last forever. And when he does finally exit the political scene, Israel has every interest in seeing an orderly transition rather than — in the worst-case scenario — a civil war between his would-be heirs.

“We have an enormous interest that the Palestinians should see peaceful transfers of power, and for a successor to Abbas to be chosen in a democratic and legitimate way. At the same time, what’s also important for us is the fulfillment of agreements between us,” Ben-Tzur said, outlining the dilemma.

A repeat of  2006?

The greatest fear, the nightmare scenario leaked to the press by Israeli security officials, is that the elections might see a return of Hamas to the West Bank.

“In 2006, it was traumatic. Hamas shattered our security reality. We’re worried that the precedent of 2006 and 2007 will repeat itself, but not in Gaza — in the West Bank,” Milshtein said.

Most ex-security officials, however, dismissed that possibility as ultimately overblown. Abbas’s Fatah now commands a far more formidable array of security forces, aided by American funding.

And unlike in Gaza, from which Israel formally withdrew in 2005, Jerusalem would be able to block a Hamas uprising in the West Bank: Its security forces are deployed throughout the territory, hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers live in the area, and the Israeli military regularly arrests Hamas members for alleged terror plots.

Palestinian students who support the Hamas movement take part in an election campaign rally for the student council at Birzeit University, near the West Bank city of Ramallah on April 26, 2016 (AFP/Abbas Momani)

“The idea of a Hamas takeover is, I think, quite disconnected from reality,” Numa said. “The elections will make life difficult in many senses, for all sides, but they won’t bring Gaza to the West Bank.”

Ben-Tzur, the former Shin Bet agent, suggested that the scars of 2006 were leading to exaggerated fears of Hamas’s capabilities.

“For some of the security officials in Israel, who recommended going forward with those elections, their defeat in the battle in 2006 had a kind of traumatic effect,” Ben-Tzur said.

Palestinian members of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, march during a rally to commemorate the 27th anniversary of the Islamist movement’s creation, at the Nuseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip on December 12, 2014. (AFP/ SAID KHATIB)

One prominent Abbas critic, former PA minister Nabil Amr, went even further.  In a Facebook post, Amr said that thinly veiled Israeli concerns about a Hamas victory were strengthening the terror group in the eyes of Palestinians.

“When Israel says ‘We don’t want elections because Hamas will win,’ you’re crowning Hamas as the leaders of the Palestinian people by default. Hamas will have won even if the elections aren’t held,” Amr said.

“Hamas will say ‘The Americans are afraid of me, the Israelis are afraid of me, the region fears me, the world fears me! As such, we will lead the Palestinian people,’” Amr said. “It’s free aid and comfort to Hamas.”

What is Israel’s policy?

Contacted by The Times of Israel, a Defense Ministry spokesperson said simply that “it’s a Palestinian decision,” declining to elaborate.

But that is, of course, an oversimplification.

Israel controls all of the entrances and exits to Palestinian areas of the West Bank. It arrests Palestinian legislative candidates in East Jerusalem and Hamas candidates in the West Bank. It is inexorably tied to Palestinian daily life. Jerusalem does not only have a key interest in the unfolding vote — it is a key player.

Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman paid a visit to Abbas in Ramallah last month. According to Fatah Secretary-General Jibril Rajoub, Argaman urged Abbas into canceling the elections. Abbas, according to Rajoub’s account, refused.

If the Palestinian leadership is truly determined to hold a vote, there is little Israel can do to stop it, save a massive military operation.

Israel has three potential policy responses, broadly: It could openly agree to the elections, facilitating the process as is required; it could actively work to shut them down, potentially providing Abbas with a way out, if he seeks one; or it could ignore them entirely, practicing strategic ambiguity.

A Palestinian walks past a section of Israel’s security barrier covered with campaign posters for the upcoming Palestinian parliamentary election in the West Bank village of A-Ram, in the outskirts of Jerusalem, January 23, 2006. (AP/ Oded Balilty)

Each strategy comes with advantages and drawbacks. Should the election go forward, the status quo might be disturbed. But if Israel intervenes to prevent them, it could draw international criticism for quashing Palestinian democracy.

Ex-security officials warned that any Israeli attempt to shape the vote could backfire.

“We’ve sought to crown kings in the past. It never worked. We should not dictate, in any way, the course of the Palestinian elections,” said Dov Sedaka, a former head of Israel’s West Bank Civil Administration.

So what is Israel’s policy, exactly? The Israeli political class, grappling for control of the next government, has yet to take public stances. Likud, Yesh Atid, Yamina, and Blue and White did not respond to requests for comment, nor did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office.

“The Shin Bet, Central Command, all these departments are working on the elections… the professionals live it, they understand it. I don’t assume this, I know this,” Numa said.

But in the absence of a public government stance, observers have been forced to decipher Israeli actions and guess at what policy they may reflect.

The East Jerusalem neighborhood of Issawiya (Aaron Boxerman/Times of Israel)

Israel has yet to respond to the Palestinian request to hold Palestinian elections in East Jerusalem. Nor, according to Palestinians, did it respond to a letter sent by senior Palestinian official Hussein al-Sheikh asking for Israel’s cooperation in holding elections in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, Fatah officials were arrested on two occasions as they sought to hold election-related events in East Jerusalem over the past month. And over the past several weeks, Israeli security forces have also repeatedly detained Hamas officials, including candidates for parliament.

For now, Israeli policy seems to be conducted mainly through non-political leaders. Israel’s outgoing military liaison to the Palestinians, Kamil Abu Rukun, told Kan news in a rare interview that he hoped the elections would not take place.

“It was an enormous mistake to go to these elections, given that Hamas will likely win. My recommendation is that we do not cooperate with them,” Abu Rukun said, including not allowing Palestinians to vote in East Jerusalem.

Abu Rukun’s public declarations angered some of the former security officials, who deemed them inappropriate for an outgoing civil servant.

“It could be that his remarks were a kind of distress call because he has nowhere to sound his ideas within the system,” Ben-Tzur speculated.

Head of Shin Bet security service Nadav Argaman visits at the 8th International UVID Conference at the Avenue Convention Center in Airport City, on November 7, 2019. (Flash90)

With an enormous number of crises sitting on the docket of Israel’s political leaders, the Palestinian vote appears to be of relatively little consequence to them, for now. Ben-Tzur warned that this could backfire.

“Israel needs to act coherently. But there’s no coherence, no policy, there’s no one who has any kind of attention for this matter — between Naftali Bennett and the ex-CEO of Walla News and operations in the Red Sea, there’s no one who is paying attention,” he said.

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