Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice-president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, spoke to an April 26 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about the Palestinian Authority's (PA) recently suspended plans to hold new elections.
The last time Palestinian legislative elections were held was in 2006. The U.S. and Israel were caught unprepared when Hamas, a designated terror group, won that election by a small majority. The West's pressure on PA President Mahmoud Abbas to sideline Hamas led to a rupture between the two groups, and in 2007 Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip, while Abbas retained control of the West Bank. The next fourteen years saw the two sides "clinging to their respective territories while engaging in a war of words."
Last year, Abbas, who "is now 16 years into a four-year term," changed course and announced new legislative and presidential elections to be held in May and June 2021, respectively. Schanzer attributes the change in strategy to the Abraham Accords and the transition to a new American administration. "There was a sense among the Palestinians ... that their cause was being left behind ... because they hadn't been able to speak in one voice," said Schanzer. The Palestinians, marginalized under the Trump administration, hoped that the Biden administration "might be more amenable to supporting [their] cause" and that "elections would help legitimize the Palestinian government."
The prospect of Hamas participating in elections should have set off alarm bells in Washington. Even if Hamas underperformed at the ballot box, it would likely gain a large minority of seats because of changes in the Palestinian election system, which is now based on a single-district proportional representation model.
However, in what Schanzer called an "unforced error on the part of the United States," the Biden administration made "a decision to not oppose Hamas participation." This was "shocking," he said, as Biden had authored the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act (PATA) when he was a senator, legislation that prohibits funding to the Palestinian government should Hamas participate in it or benefit in any way from it. The Biden administration, which recently decided to restore funding to the Palestinians, later contradicted itself by raising concerns about Hamas' participation.
Abbas eventually came to regret his decision. Whereas Hamas was set to present a united front in contesting the elections, splits in Abbas' Fatah party emerged, with a number of political challengers intending to form rival candidate lists, including Nasser al-Qidwa, Yasser Arafat's nephew; Salam Fayyad, the former Palestinian prime minister committed to reform and anti-corruption; Mohammed Dahlan, who is backed by the United Arab Emirates; and Marwan Barghouti, currently serving life sentences in an Israeli prison for his role planning terrorist activities by Fatah's armed wing.
In the face of these unintended consequences, Abbas chose to "climb down from the ladder" in late April by announcing an indefinite postponement of the elections. Abbas blamed Israeli "intransigence" for his decision, claiming Israel will not allow "for a full Palestinian Authority vote in East Jerusalem," but Schanzer said this excuse was "disingenuous at best," as Israel had allowed for a process enabling Palestinians to vote in Jerusalem in 2006.
Abbas' scuttling of the elections could lead Hamas "to vent its frustration against Israel."
With Hamas "none too pleased" about its participation in elections being "scuttled unilaterally by Mahmoud Abbas," Schanzer expressed concern that its "internecine conflict" with Fatah "could turn hot," and that "Hamas will begin to vent its frustration against Israel" – which appears to have come to pass with the subsequent uptick in violence now underway between Hamas and Israel.
Palestinian elections must have "guard rails" preventing the participation of Hamas.
Though critical of the Biden administration for failing to stop this chain of events by "dissuad[ing] the Palestinians from holding this vote" in the first place, Schanzer said that indefinitely postponing Palestinian elections is a bad idea, as the absence of a "legitimate interlocutor on the Palestinian side" is a major "stumbling block" to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The challenge is to create "guard rails" that would prevent the participation of Hamas but still "allow the Palestinians to settle upon a single voice, to represent both territories," for example by having "Islamists running independently ... [who] are not affiliated directly with Hamas." He suggested finding a "third party" willing to broker a compromise between Fatah and Hamas that will allow elections to go forward. "The U.S. can be involved from the sidelines indirectly and [try] to guide that process." He also recommended that the U.S. convince Abbas to name a successor (something Middle East dictators typically avoid) so as to prevent chaos from erupting when his time passes.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.