Less than a week before the inauguration of US President Joe Biden, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas issued a decree ordering parliamentary and presidential elections to be held later this year.
It was widely interpreted as a gesture to the new US administration, which would likely have an easier time engaging with a Palestinian leadership that has more legitimacy at home after a decade and a half without an election.
But the White House has reacted to the initiative coolly, and with near-utter silence — differing drastically from the lead-up to the last time national elections were held in 2005-2006, when the Bush administration had been one of the initiative’s loudest cheerleaders.
In its first three weeks, the administration has paid little attention publicly to what is happening between Israel and the Palestinians. Biden has yet to call either Abbas or Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and has signaled a go-it-slow approach to the Middle East peace process, eschewing major initiatives so far.
But experts say that the administration’s seeming cold-shoulder toward Palestinian elections is also a product of the fact that the vote will force Washington to grapple right out of the gate with the likely strengthening of the Hamas terror group, which rules Gaza and is expected to make gains in the vote.
While the US supports elections in principal, putting Hamas in the picture could foil the administration’s work to reset relations with the PA, controlled by the more moderate Fatah.
A senior Palestinian official expressed a degree of frustration over the lackluster American response to the election announcement, which had partially been aimed at capitals abroad.
“We’re constantly being faulted for [not holding elections] by the international community, but then when we try and hold elections, suddenly we’re told the timing isn’t right,” said the official, on the condition of anonymity.
Misreading the signs?
Ramallah has made no secret of the fact that the move to call a new election was spurred by the changing of the guard at the White House.
“We’re very confident that these elections will take place, and we hope the international community will help ensure that they do,” said the Palestinian official.
“We’re doing this for us and our own domestic legitimacy, but it’s also a message to Biden and the international community that has been pushing for elections,” the official added.
Hanan Ashrawi, who stepped down recently from the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, told Foreign Policy as much last month. “It’s a nod to Joe Biden and the new administration that they are a democracy and responding to the requirements of the moment…[The Palestinian leaders] are sending signals that they are willing to play ball.”
But the Biden administration has yet to publicly acknowledge those signals.
Asked whether the Biden camp had been pushing Ramallah to hold elections, the Palestinian official who spoke to The Times of Israel hesitated. He said several former US officials “affiliated” with Biden had responded positively to the idea during conversations in recent months.
But those nods from Biden affiliates appear to be the extent of the encouragement the Palestinians have received from Washington on the matter.
A State Department official pressed on whether the US supports Palestinian elections and will recognize the results even if Hamas wins, issued a laconic statement offering little more than tacit approval of Abbas’s decree, combined with a narrow path for acceptance of Hamas participation in the next government if it falls in line with the PA’s stance on Israel.
“The exercise of democratic elections is a matter for the Palestinian people to determine. We note that the US and other key partners in the international community have long been clear about the importance of participants in the democratic process accepting previous agreements, renouncing violence and terrorism and recognizing Israel’s right to exist,” the statement read.
If it ain’t broke…
According to former PA official Ghaith al-Omari, the Americans are worried that Palestinian elections could derail US plans to renew relations with Ramallah.
Just two weeks ago, the Biden administration announced that it will restore aid to the Palestinians and reopen shuttered diplomatic missions in Washington and Jerusalem. But US engagement with the Palestinians will be hampered once their government includes members of a group blacklisted by the State Department.
A December poll had 38 percent of Palestinians supporting Fatah in legislative elections, compared to 34% who back Hamas.
“Any election scenario will entail the integration of Hamas into the PA system — in the best case scenario, as a sizable minority,” said al-Omari, who is now a scholar at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy. “The repercussions wouldn’t just be political, but legal as well.”
Congressional legislation from 2006 prevents the US from providing any aid to the PA if Hamas is part of the government. This would mean funding to the Palestinian security forces that cooperate with the Israel Defense Forces would be barred.
A former Barack Obama administration official familiar with the matter noted that elections will only happen if Hamas agrees to Abbas’s demands to renounce violence or accept previously signed agreements, such as the Oslo Accords, which include recognition of Israel.
The Obama official noted that the needle on willingness to deal with Hamas had already moved considerably since 2006, when it won a plurality of legislative seats, leading the US to sever contact with the new government.
In 2014, the Obama administration expressed willingness to work with a technocratic Fatah-Hamas unity government. Today, Israel holds indirect talks with Hamas and helps facilitate the flow of tens of millions of dollars from Qatar to the Islamist group.
“But it also creates an early, complicated test for the Biden administration on what to do with Hamas,” the ex-official acknowledged.
Al-Omari was more circumspect that Hamas would reform, noting that reconciliation talks would only occur after elections, when the group will be less likely to make concessions.
“It’s unthinkable that they’ll agree to clamp down on the Qassam Brigades (Hamas’s military wing) post-elections, especially if they do well,” he said.
Hussein Ibish from the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington speculated that part of the Biden administration’s silence on Abbas’s announcement has to do with the fact that “they probably don’t think it’s going to happen.”
Abbas has promised elections several times since 2009. But every push subsequently flopped, due to a combination of deep mistrust between Fatah and Hamas, a fear both have of losing power and a general lack of political will. Israel also opposes PA activity in East Jerusalem, including allowing polling stations there, in addition to arresting Hamas activists in the West Bank, which Palestinians say compromises their ability to hold free and fair elections.
“For elections to happen you’d need the Palestinians to cooperate and international support and for Israel not to block it. That’s really asking for a lot,” he said. “For elections to be meaningful, both sides have to be prepared to lose, and that is not currently the case.”
He also noted that the Biden administration hasn’t even finished filling senior roles in the State Department yet, let alone had time to craft a comprehensive policy on the matter.
Timing is everything
The former Obama official noted that elections were consistent with US policy goals, namely support for democratization and a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Elections will bring Fatah and Hamas closer to reconciling, a likely precondition to any peace deal with Israel, which would be nearly impossible if the Gaza Strip and West Bank aren’t under one unified rule.
But he argued that if the Palestinians were calling elections to virtue signal the Biden administration and repair ties with the US, they would be better served by focusing on reforming their prisoner payments policy.
Senior Palestinian officials say Ramallah has begun working on a proposal to amend its controversial payment of stipends to Palestinian security prisoners, as well as the families of terrorists and others killed by Israelis. The move is widely understood to be a gesture to the US, which maintains that the policy incentivizes terror, including by paying more for longer sentences.
The altered policy would base the stipends on prisoners’ financial need rather than the length of their sentence, senior Palestinian officials told The Times of Israel.
While pilloried by Israel and the international community, the stipends are popular among the Palestinian public and Abbas has resisted heavy international pressure to cut them off for years.
“They’re trying to do both [the prisoner payments reform and elections] in parallel right now, but it’s going to become increasingly difficult to continue doing so once elections kick up,” the former Obama official maintained.
“They’re just so excited about Biden coming in and so relieved that Trump is gone, and that good things are going to happen as a result,” he said. “But they’ve got to be patient and recognize that this issue is not going to be a top priority for Biden.”
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