The European Union is pressuring the Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership to hold legislative and presidential elections, as the body appears to be moving toward a more strong-armed approach to Palestinian affairs after recently becoming the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) largest financial backer.
The EU became the PA’s top donor after the administration of US President Donald Trump, previously the authority’s highest supporter, ended hundreds of millions of dollars in security, economic and other assistance in 2018 and early 2019.
“Europe is sending a very clear message to the Palestinian Authority and [PA] President [Mahmoud] Abbas that elections need to take place,” a European source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Times of Israel.
“There are some in Europe asking: ‘Why are we paying all this money while our goals are not being achieved?’” the source said, noting Europe’s chief aims include promoting the two-state solution and advancing the development of democratic Palestinian institutions.
The PA has not held parliamentary or presidential elections since 2006 and 2005, respectively.
A Palestinian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said German Chancellor Angela Merkel personally conveyed a message to Abbas at a meeting in Berlin in August that she believes the Palestinians must take action to hold elections.
“When were you last elected?” Merkel asked Abbas in a meeting, according to the official.
After Abbas responded he was last elected in 2005, Merkel responded, “I’ve been elected four times since you were last elected,” the official stated.
Saeb Erekat, the secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee, who attended the meeting between Abbas and Merkel, said that he could not comment on private discussions between the Palestinian and German leaders.
A spokesperson for the German Representative Office in Ramallah said it does not “comment on any talks behind closed doors of members of the government or in a diplomatic context.”
Pressuring or encouraging?
The PA and Hamas have been at loggerheads since the latter ousted the former from Gaza in 2007. Multiple attempts to reconcile the two, bring the West Bank and the Gaza Strip under a single government, and hold new elections, have failed.
In recent years, the EU has given the Palestinians hundreds of millions of dollars. In 2018, it contributed more than $400 million.
Diplomats from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and Spain met with PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh earlier this week and told him that the PA needs to move forward with efforts to hold elections, the European source added. A Palestinian Authority official, who asked to remain nameless, confirmed that the meeting took place.
Abbas told the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in September that he would call for general elections in the near future.
He has since met several times with the head of the PA Central Elections Committee, Hanna Nasser, to discuss holding elections. Meanwhile, Hamas has said it is prepared to participate in legislative and presidential votes.
PA Social Affairs Minister Ahmad Majdalani argued that the EU was not “pressuring” the Palestinians to hold elections, but rather “encouraging” them to do so.
PLO Executive Committee member Wasel Abu Yousef said it is “no secret that the Europeans, like us, want elections to take place.”
Will Israel permit voting in East Jerusalem?
The Palestinians have said that a major sticking point to the elections taking place is that Israel has not said whether it will allow them to take place in East Jerusalem.
Israel considers all of Jerusalem to be a part of its sovereign capital.
An Israeli official, who asked to remain nameless, said Israel received a request from the PA to hold elections in East Jerusalem but has not made a decision about whether it would allow it to do so.
Hoping to bring the Palestinians closer to holding elections, the EU has been pushing Abbas to issue a presidential decree setting dates for legislative and presidential elections, even if Israel has still not announced whether it will allow them to take place in East Jerusalem, the European source added.
But Abbas is not acceding to the request, saying he will only issue a decree after Israel agrees to allow the Palestinians to hold elections in East Jerusalem.
“We want the elections to happen because since 2006, legislative and presidential elections have not occurred here. Therefore, we must hold these elections, but not at any price,” Abbas told a meeting of the Fatah Revolutionary Council on December 17.
“There are some saying: ‘Issue a decree.’ Why should we issue a decree? To pressure Israel? Assume Israel does not give us [permission], what will we do with the decree?” he said.
Erekat called on Europe and the broader international community to push Israel to say whether it will allow elections to take place in East Jerusalem.
“I urge the Europeans and the international community to tell Israel to respond to our request regarding elections in Jerusalem,” Erekat said in a phone call. “If we receive a positive response from the Israeli government, the president will issue a decree the next day.”
The Oslo Accords, signed by Israel and the PLO in the 1990s, set out a mechanism to enable Palestinians to participate in elections in East Jerusalem.
The overwhelming majority of Palestinians in East Jerusalem cannot vote in national elections in Israel because Israeli law only permits its citizens to cast ballots. Palestinians in East Jerusalem largely do not hold citizenship, but rather permanent residency.
Michael Milstein, the head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African studies, said he thought Abbas has raised the issue of the Palestinian vote in East Jerusalem as a pretext to avoid having elections.
“The issue of East Jerusalem provides Abbas with a ladder to climb down from the tree. He never wanted elections to take place and he knows that there is no way Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu will allow them to occur in East Jerusalem in the coming months,” he said. Israel is set to hold a third round of national elections in less than a year on March 2, 2020.
Erekat rejected arguments that the Palestinians do not want elections.
“We want elections more than anyone. Palestinian democracy is our greatest advantage,” he said.
Milstein also stated he hopes Europe does not push Abbas “too far,” arguing that weakening him could undermine the West Bank’s stability.
Other analysts agreed that Israel will likely block the Palestinians from holding elections in East Jerusalem and said other intra-Palestinian issues also cast doubt on the prospect of votes taking place.
“The possibility that elections will take place is very low,” Jihad Harb, a Ramallah-based Palestinian expert, said. “I would say that it stands around 20 percent.”
Harb said that PA and Hamas have still not reached agreements on a number of issues related to elections, such as which court will be responsible for arbitrating disputes and who will provide police supervision.