Palestinian factions begin election talks in Cairo

Representatives of Fatah, Hamas and other groups gather in Egyptian capital; negotiations may send Palestinians to the ballot box after 15 years, but observers skeptical

Palestinian faction leaders gather to discuss holding Palestinian national elections, in Cairo on February 8, 2021 (WAFA)
Palestinian faction leaders gather to discuss holding Palestinian national elections, in Cairo on February 8, 2021 (WAFA)

Representatives of 14 Palestinian factions on Monday morning began talks in Cairo, hopeful that they will lead to the first national elections in 15 years, official Palestinian Authority media reported.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas issued a decree in mid-January ordering three successive rounds of national elections. The first round — for the currently defunct Palestinian legislature — is set to be held on May 22.

“We are at a turning point in the Palestinian struggle,” senior Hamas official Khalil al-Hayya pledged to Hamas-linked Safa News, at the Rafah crossing with Egypt on Sunday morning.

Observers are skeptical that elections will indeed happen, as several election promises have fallen by the wayside since the last Palestinian national elections were held in 2006.

Negotiating teams led by Fatah Secretary-General Jibril Rajoub and Hamas deputy chief Saleh al-Arouri left for the Egyptian capital on Sunday to begin the talks. Representatives of other Palestinian factions, such as Islamic Jihad and the Popular Struggle Front, also attended the discussions.

Palestinians have not held a national election since 2006, when a Hamas landslide in the Palestinian parliament led to an unstable unity government between Fatah and the terror group.

Tensions between the two sides exploded into open war in 2007, leading to a bloody struggle for control of the Gaza Strip. Fatah lost and was largely expelled from the coastal enclave to the West Bank, where Abbas announced an emergency government by executive fiat.

That emergency government has remained the status quo. Previous announcements of a return to the ballot boxes have flopped, leading to deep cynicism about the process.

As the Palestinians have never held a national election since the current rift emerged, the factions were said to be debating the procedural aspects of conducting an election with two distinct regimes in the West Bank and Gaza.

An independent elections court must be assembled to resolve disputes. Both sides would need to commit to an election without politically motivated arrests, and then there’s also the thorny question of whose security forces will guard the polling stations.

One of the most intriguing possibilities that could be worked out in Cairo is the potential establishment of a joint ticket between Fatah and Hamas to run in the May legislative elections.

Fatah’s Azzam al-Ahmad, right, and Saleh al-Arouri, left, of Hamas shake hands after signing a reconciliation deal in Cairo on October 12, 2017, as the two rival Palestinian movements ostensibly ended their decade-long split following negotiations overseen by Egypt. (AFP/Khaled Desouki)

Rumors have fluttered through Palestinian media for weeks Hamas and Fatah were planning on presenting a joint slate. A prior agreement between the two major Palestinian factions would make the results far easier to control — a win-win for both risk-averse movements.

Fatah Secretary-General Rajoub told Palestine TV in an interview last week that while no decision had yet been made on the subject, his faction was heading to Cairo “with their hearts open to any possibility.”

Asked directly about the possibility of Fatah-Hamas merger, Fatah Central Committee member Azzam Al-Ahmad did not rule out a joint slate between Fatah and Hamas, but suggested that Hamas was unlikely to agree to it given Fatah’s conditions: Hamas alignment with the PLO’s political program.

“We have proposed it since 2014… But I don’t believe Hamas wants to. They say again and again that they’ll look into it, but that means they don’t want to do it,” Al-Ahmad told The Times of Israel.

Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.

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