By Solomon D. Stevens
If they are not canceled again, elections will be held in the West Bank and Gaza for the first time in 15 years, in May for the legislature and in July for the presidency. It is important to understand that these elections do not mean that Fatah or Hamas are making any progress at all toward democracy. And they do not signal a new openness to peace. At best, the elections will result in a cosmetic change in leadership and some minor compromises between these two rivals.
Normally, elections are seen as a good sign; most people believe that democracy must be advancing if elections are being held. But it is important to look beneath the surface. Both Fatah and Hamas are classic autocratic and kleptocratic entities, and Hamas is a terrorist organization. They both control the press and arrest journalists who dare to speak out against them. They routinely arrest political rivals and dissidents, as has been documented by Human Rights Watch and Freedom Watch. They torture those under arrest and have political control of what are called courts. Each rules without significant internal competition, so any candidates for the legislature or the presidency exist only because they are allowed by the current leadership.
If the elections are not signaling a movement toward democracy, what are they? More than anything else, they are a recognition that, in the Middle East, the struggle of the Palestinians is no longer seen as central to the future of the region. Four Arab countries, Morocco, the UAE, Bahrain and the Sudan, have normalized relations with Israel, and this is probably only the beginning. For years, the Palestinian conflict was seen as the key to peace in the region, but this is no longer the case. The question is whether or not the Biden administration understands this. Both Fatah and Hamas recognize that the upcoming elections could offer them an opportunity to get back in the game.
The key to all of this is the new Biden administration, which could be impressed with the elections and see this as a reason to return to old models for understanding the Middle East. Biden is anxious to reassert American leadership around the world, and he might be enticed to insert America back into the middle of the Israel-Palestinian conflict at a time when the rest of the Middle East has moved on.
This would be a particularly tempting move for Biden if Hamas announced that it was renouncing terrorism (or at least formally separating its political and military components). It has rebranded itself before, when it felt its influence slipping. In 2017, Hamas said it would end its association with the Muslim Brotherhood, and it formally ended its call for Israel’s destruction. At the same time, it said that it still rejected Israel’s right to exist and that it supported armed struggle against it. And while it said that it would accept a “transitional Palestinian state” within the 1967 borders, it still advocated the liberation of all Palestine, and since its definition of “all Palestine” includes Israel, this amounted to a call for Israel’s destruction. The change in tone did not reflect a change in its ultimate goal.
If the election does take place, it could be complicated by the fact that Abbas, who is now 85 years old, is not popular. In a recent survey, the Palestine Center for Policy and Survey Research found that the most popular political leader throughout the West Bank and Gaza is Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five consecutive life sentences in an Israeli prison for murder and terrorist activities. In addition, Mohammed Dahlen and Nasser al-Qudwa could play a roles in the election. Dahlen was a rival of Abbas until he was driven out of the West Bank in 2011. He has been in exile in the UAE since then and often mentioned as a possible successor to Abbas. The Jerusalem Post calls him a “wheeler-dealer” rather than a “conviction politician,” and therefore someone who might bring some change to the Palestinian Authority. But several of Dahlen’s key associates were recently arrested in the West Bank. Nasser al-Qudwa is the nephew of Yasser Arafat and a former envoy of the PA to the United Nations. He was on the Central Committee for many years but was just dismissed when he announced his intention to run in the legislative election and support Barghouti for president.
With all of these contentious players, the Fatah vote could be split, bringing a victory to Hamas. In 2006, Hamas won the legislative election, but international pressure (some overt and some covert) led to an open conflict between Fatah and Hamas, which resulted in Fatah assuming power and marginalizing Hamas in the West Bank after they assumed power in Gaza. The question is this: How would the Biden administration respond to another Hamas victory?
Solomon D. Stevens has a Ph.D. in political science from Boston College and is the author of the book, “Challenges to Peace in the Middle East.”