Ibrahim Fraihat is an associate professor in international conflict resolution at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies and a member of the Palestine Academic Group (Pal-Ac).
In an unfortunately all too expected move, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced in late April the postponement of long-awaited elections that were scheduled to take place starting with a parliamentary vote on May 22, followed by a presidential election on July 31. Although it was his decision, he blamed the indefinite delay on Israel's refusal to allow the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, which Israel illegally annexed after the 1967 war, to take part in the elections, declaring that they would be postponed "until the participation of our people in Jerusalem is guaranteed."
Almost every Palestinian political party immediately condemned Abbas' move, and street protests broke out in cities in the West Bank and Gaza right after the announcement. Hamas and other Palestinian factions also quickly rejected his offer to form a national unity government in the interim. Despite Israel's actions in Jerusalem and Abbas' own claims, another reason for the delay seemed clear: the 85-year-old president's poor polling in the presidential election, along with the prospects of Abbas' Fatah bloc losing seats in the Palestinian legislature to two new breakaway slates of disaffected Fatah members. Imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, whose friends and allies formed one of those new electoral slates, has scored comfortably higher than Abbas in almost all the presidential polls conducted so far.
The postponement of the elections, practically a cancellation, has thrown the Palestinian political system deeper into a world of uncertainty, while reinforcing creeping autocracy under Abbas and an increasingly unaccountable Palestinian Authority that is backed by the United States and the European Union. These were supposed to be the first elections in the occupied territories since 2006. Instead, a democratic transition has been hindered again.
The decision to halt the elections further exposes the deficiencies in the Palestinian political system—mainly the issue of political legitimacy of its Ramallah-based leadership. It was Abbas who announced the Palestinian elections back in January, "after years of paralysis," according to one headline. Four months later, it was Abbas who decided to postpone them. He has basically turned Palestinian politics into a one-man show, making national decisions irrespective of Palestinian institutions like the Palestine Liberation Organization's Executive Committee and Central Council, or the Palestinian Authority's legislature, the Legislative Council. When elections are a privilege of the leader, not a natural right of its citizens, that's not a democracy but a dictatorship.
Abbas' unilateral move has only deepened divisions within Palestinian politics, beyond the existing polarization between Fatah and its Islamist rival, Hamas. When election registration began in March, 36 groups signed up to run, with Fatah splitting into three separate electoral slates led by Abbas, Barghouti and Mohammed Dahlan, Abbas' one-time ally who was expelled from Fatah in 2011 and now lives in exile in the United Arab Emirates. Barghouti's bloc also includes prominent Fatah leaders like Nasser al-Qudwa, a nephew of Yasser Arafat—who was promptly expelled from Fatah's Central Committee for his decision to join the rival list. The postponement has left deep resentment among all these stakeholders and added to Fatah's internal rifts.
Equally concerning, the de facto cancellation of the elections could alienate an entire generation of younger Palestinians who have never had the chance to exercise their right to vote, given that the last elections were 15 years ago. A generation between the ages of 18 and 33 has never had a say in selecting their president; Abbas is all they know. How can a healthy Palestinian democracy emerge in this kind of situation?
The Palestinian Authority's international backers haven't helped the election process, especially with their double standards in the way they treat principles of democracy and human rights between Israel and Palestine. The EU's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrel, called Abbas' decision "deeply disappointing" and said that "a new date for elections should be set without delay." Although he called on Israel "to facilitate the holding of such elections across all of the Palestinian territory, including in East Jerusalem," the EU has done nothing else about Israel denying Palestinians in East Jerusalem their basic voting rights.
In fact, according to a senior Palestinian official I spoke to who was directly involved in negotiating election issues with the EU's representatives in Jerusalem, a key European official refused to offer his country's diplomatic mission as a polling place when asked by the Palestinian Authority. "We can only do this if Israel agrees," that European official reportedly said. Of course, if Israel just agreed to allow Palestinian Jerusalemites to vote in their own elections, then there would be no need negotiate over whether European or any other foreign diplomatic missions can function as polling places in East Jerusalem.
The U.S., meanwhile, has been noticeably disengaged. Unlike his robust approach to undoing the international damage done by Donald Trump—from the Paris climate agreement to the Iran nuclear deal—President Joe Biden remains indifferent about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Biden's promise to "defend democracy globally," as stated in his initial foreign policy speech in February, utterly evaporates when it comes to defending Palestinian democracy. That was clear in the State Department's hands-off reaction to the postponement of the elections. "The exercise of democratic elections is a matter for the Palestinian people and for the Palestinian leadership to determine," its spokesman repeated several times in a press briefing.
Biden's indifference has sent the wrong message to the Israeli authorities, who read it as impunity for their actions in Jerusalem. This is obvious in the escalation against over 1,000 Palestinians who are at risk of losing their homes in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, as Israel tries to forcibly evict them and allow Israeli settlers to move in. This American silence, whether on Israel denying Palestinians in East Jerusalem their right to vote or expelling them from their homes, will only lead to more violence in and around Jerusalem, while severely undermining Biden's credibility and leadership internationally.
But there is still room to act. Internationally, EU leader need to make it abundantly clear that while they are against the postponement of the elections, they are also against Israel denying Palestinians in East Jerusalem their basic right of choosing their own representatives. In Washington, it is understandable that Biden's top priorities are the domestic situation in the U.S., as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on and especially after the painful experience of Trump openly threatening American democracy by inciting the Capitol riot after his own election defeat. Yet Biden's indifference on a basic democratic principle like the ballot box in Palestine will significantly undermine his global message of what he has called "democratic alliances."
The worsening situation in Jerusalem only adds to the damning picture of the 220-page report by Human Rights Watch documenting the crimes of apartheid and persecution of Palestinians in the areas where Israeli authorities maintain control. Recall that it was in 2014 when John Kerry, then the secretary of state, warned behind closed doors that Israel risked becoming "an apartheid state" if it did not reach a peace deal with the Palestinians soon. Seven years later, Biden should not continue to ignore this reality.
Then there is the Palestinian leadership, starting with Abbas. They must realize that they can't continue to be in their positions with such a huge deficit of democratic legitimacy. The popular will of Palestinians must be respected. An inclusive national committee should be formed to put together a new roadmap with specific dates for both legislative and presidential elections, which the Palestinian Authority must stick to. Elections ought to be completed within a six-month time frame. Second, instead of another attempt at a "unity" government run by Abbas, a technocratic government that does not involve any political party representation should be formed to run the Palestinian Authority until those elections. Third, when the vote is finally held, international monitoring groups must be dispatched to ensure that it is fair and free, while local NGOs also need to be given the full authority to oversee the entire elections process. Finally, the Palestinian Central Elections Committee must be empowered to perform its duties without interference or intimidation from the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, Hamas in Gaza and Israel in Jerusalem.
Palestinian elections are long overdue, and Abbas has only added to their delay. It's time for Palestinians to vote.
Photo credit: A protest in Gaza against the postponement of the Palestinian elections, May 5, 2021. (Photo by Yousef Masoud/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)