Fair Policy, Fair Discussion

January 24, 2010

Palestinian parliamentary elections, four years on

Filed under: Palestinian politics,Washington's diplomacy — Helena Cobban @ 2:49 pm

Tomorrow will be the fourth anniversary of those historic PA parliamentary elections of 2006 in which Hamas won 74 or 75 of the 128 seats. The whole story of PA ‘democracy’ since then has been a deep, deep tragedy… and our U.S. governments, under both Pres. G.W. Bush and Pres. Barack Obama, have played a profoundly anti-democratic role in suppressing the results of those elections.

Palestinians themselves are currently pondering the implications, under the PA’s constitution, of the fact that now, not only the term of the PA’s elected-in-2005 president, Mahmoud Abbas, but also its Legislative Council (PLC), has expired. And there have been some signs that the US-backed and US-trained Palestinian security forces supposedly overseen by Abbas have been taking the opportunity to launch new sweeps against Hamas’s many supporters in the West Bank.

I see that the excellent thinkers at the Palestinian Center for Human Rights are currently arguing that before there are any new Palestinian elections, the two main political movements– Fateh and Hamas– need to conclude a serious reconciliation. Their argument seems quite sound.

But it will be hard for the two movements to reconcile, given the many hard feelings between diehards within them.  The U.S. government has, sadly, played a terrible role in exacerbating those differences throughout the whole of the past four years and continuing until today. (So, too, have both Israel and Egypt.)

The vicious campaign that Condoleezza Rice waged, to arm members of certain Fateh factions– just like the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s– and to instigate their attempt to overthrow the elected PLC-based government, was amply documented by David Rose, in this Vanity Fair article in April 2008.

The brutally anti-democratic nature of the campaign that both Israel and the U.S. waged against the elected Hamas leaders was evident when I went on a reporting trip to Gaza in early March 2006. To my certain knowledge, at least one leading, politically independent Palestinian parliamentarian was sent a death threat from the Israeli security services in the event that he should respond positively to the invitations Hamas had given him to join a government loyal to the Hamas-dominated parliament. (You can access some of my reporting and analysis from that era, here.)

The most brutal campaign against the Hamas-led authorities in the occupied Palestinian territories was the outright military assault that the Olmert government in Israel launched on Gaza on December 27, 2008. Even that assault failed to break the will of the Palestinians of Gaza; and it  failed to destroy Hamas as a political force, as Olmert had presumably intended.

Has Hamas been politically weakened within Palestinian politics over the past four years?  It is very hard to say. The data from polls conducted in the OPTs is notoriously unreliable– all the polling organizations there had completely failed to predict Hamas’s 2006 victory.  Given the many actual and potential penalties that attach to affiliation with Hamas in the West Bank, which accounts for around 2/3 of the OPTs total electorate, it is quite likely that pollsters approaching people there to request info on voting preferences would not always gain a completely frank answer.  Indeed, one point that Palestinian analysts made after the 2006 election was that a good part of Hamas’s victory had depended on voters having a high degree of trust that the way they voted would indeed be kept secret.

If it is unclear whether Hamas is any weaker now than it was in 2006, what does seem very clear is that Fateh is most likely weaker than it was then, and quite possibly by a significant margin.  Numerous Israeli actions have contributed to that weakening:

  • The steadfast refusal of both Israeli governments, under Olmert and Netanyahu, to give Fateh’s Mahmoud Abbas anything even remotely acceptable in the peace negotiations– and this, while additional colonial land-grabbing has continued in the West Bank.
  • The assault on Gaza certainly weakened Abbas’s standing.
  • So did the pressure that the Netanyahu government put on Abbas to withdraw the support he had expressed for the international campaign to implement the Goldstone Report. Netanyahu’s pressure was successful for a short while. But after howls of protest from everyone else in the Palestinian political elite, Abbas finally reversed course again and expressed his support for Goldstone once again. But the damage had already been done to his political standing among Palestinians.

I should note that though the original and most brutal portions of the U.S. campaign against Hamas were undertaken under the Bush administration, Pres. Obama has done nothing at all to reverse a U.S. policy toward Hamas that, under Bush, aimed at its exclusion, marginalization, weakening, and possible overthrow and dismantling. This, though Hamas’s leaders have continued to signal their clear interest in being included in the current peace diplomacy… and despite the fact, too, that they have abided by successive, unilateral cessations of hostilities across the Gaza-Israel border, the most recent of which was the unilateral ceasefire announced on January 18 of last year.  And beyond abiding by the ceasefire themselves, they have also taken some very significant (and politically risky) steps to rein in escalatory actions that were taken, or planned to be taken, by some of the other much more radical Palestinian groups in Gaza.

With all the current spate of worrying about the “constitutional” consequences for the Palestinian Authority of the current expiration of the “legitimate” terms in office of both the president and the PLC, one thing that has been lost, I think, is a recognition of the essentially transitional nature of the whole A venture, from the get-go.

When the PA was established in 1994-96, under the terms of the Oslo agreement of 1993, it was only ever conceived of, and planned to act, as an interim body.  Indeed, its full name is the Palestinian Interim Self-Government Authority, PISGA.  The Oslo agreement, which was concluded between the Government of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), stipulated that the final-status peace agreement between the two of them should have been completely negotiated by May 1999, and thereafter, presumably, would speedily start to be implemented.  But pending completion of that negotiation, the PLO was allowed to send most of its leaders back into the OPTs and establish the PISGA, which would give them some basis for establishing a “permanent” government after 1999.

But 1999 never happened. Or rather, the final peace negotiations never got completed by that date. Indeed, under Pres. Clinton’s (mis-)management of the peace “process”, the two sides never even really got to start negotiating the final peace until 2000!  And the peace-“processing” has been an on-again-off-again process ever since.

Currently, “off”.

Meanwhile, a few of the mechanisms that were legacies of Oslo have just continued on auto-pilot. The PISGA, also known as the PA, is one of them.

The construction of an entire “bypass road system” for the convenience and safety of the (completely illegal) Israeli settlers in the West Bank is another.

The continued growth and expansion of the settlements is another.

The financing of the PA by gullible western aid donors is another.  (This financial help from outside means that the financial cost of actually administering the occupation has been just about lifted from Israel’s national budget altogether.)

In a real sense, then, the big question in Palestinian politics today is not whether and how some of the (interim) constitutional mechanisms erected within and around the PISGA/PA can be adapted to the current political impasse between the big Palestinian movements. It is, rather, how can the current impasse in the final-status peace talks be ended, and rapidly so… So that the unbearable situation of the OPT Palestinians having to live under foreign military occupation for nearly 43 years now can be ended.

Military rule is always anathema to lovers of democracy.  Rule by a foreign military should be even more unacceptable.  In and after 2006, Washington took evident– and quite brutal– steps to combat the flowering of a little bit of democracy and accountability within the PA’s structures. But now, surely, our country’s central goal should be the ending of foreign military occupation altogether, in both Gaza and the West Bank.  The Palestinian people, from both within and outside their historic homeland, must be allowed to claim their national independence. It is time for the occupation of 1967 to end.



  1. I am in no position to be opining about what needs to be done before the Palestinian elections. But I can’t help but comment on the suggestion by the PCHR that Hamas and Fateh need to be reconciled as a first step to elections. Admittedly the stakes are much higher when assassinations and death threats are involved, but other countries’ systems don’t need reconciliation between competing political parties before elections can be held — specifically our “own” Democratic and, especially, Republic parties, in spite of Obama’s calls for it, show no signs of reconciliation. I fully agree with the thrust of the posting, that the US (and Israel) have waged a vicious anti-democratic campaign to weaken and destroy Hamas. How do you reconcile with that going on? What I don’t understand is why the UN doesn’t send in peacekeepers and get the occupiers out of the West Bank and Gaza. Well, I guess I do understand, but I think it’s scandalous that they don’t.

    Comment by Oscar Romero — January 24, 2010 @ 4:41 pm | Reply

  2. Helena, what would prevent Fatah and Hamas holding elections for a representative body in the territory they each control? One might argue that neither body would represent the Palestinians as a whole, but at least they would have local legitimacy and they could work towards a merger.

    Comment by Joe in Australia — January 24, 2010 @ 9:20 pm | Reply

  3. The problem with holding elections in each territory is that Fatah will lose in the West Bank, assuredly. So will Fayyad, assuredly. The whole US-project goes to ash if that happens, because then the PA/Dayton Contras won’t have even a shred of legitimacy.. they don’t on the street outside my apartment in the West Bank, but I mean anywhere on earth.. There will not, and cannot be elections. Whether Hamas has the love of the people is debatable; but that Fatah and the PA apparatus is loathed is true beyond a shadow of a doubt. Fatah is the shame of Palestine, and the PA is simply it’s most vulgar manifestation. Ask anyone not getting rich off it’s corruption, it’s unanimous.

    Comment by Jon — January 25, 2010 @ 9:56 am | Reply

  4. Thanks for the explanation, Jon. But why would the US-project collapse if Fatah lost? Yes, they’re heavily invested in Fatah, but why couldn’t the USA work with a legitimately-elected replacement? I know that they refused to work with Hamas, but I can’t see the West Bank voting to turn itself into Gaza Two.

    Comment by Joe in Australia — January 25, 2010 @ 6:34 pm | Reply

  5. There is not and has not been any real chance of a negotiated settlement. Ever since Israel made the decision that it wanted all of the land and none of the people. The only solution acceptable to Israel now is apartheid with a series of Bantustans connected by tunnels under the Jews only roads. The Palestinians to have the land they actually stand on and no more, no water rights, no control of borders, no right to do anything not approved by Israel, but with an “elected” president and legislature. Only US/Israeli approved people and groups allowed to run from now on. The corrupt Fatah leaders are the only hope for such a solution. They would get to keep their titles, offices, perks and bribes. The US/Israel has so much invested in creating this corrupt Quisliing paragovernment that there is no possibility of ever recreating it with a different group. As Jon points out, there is no chance of this group retaining power in honest elections, so we are at stalemate. This maintains the status quo, which is just what Israel wants.

    Comment by Jack — January 26, 2010 @ 2:01 pm | Reply

  6. Hamas won in every single West Bank city, including Jerusalem and [Christian] Bethlehem. Hamas did not win because of Gaza.

    Comment by Jon — January 27, 2010 @ 1:39 pm | Reply

  7. We need another Eisenhower – and badly!

    But don’t expect either major party president (or Congress) to do anything right in the Middle East. It was encouraging then 54 House members supported justice in the Middle East – but that’s still a long, long way from a majority.

    Comment by Edward R. Brandt, Ph.D. — January 28, 2010 @ 2:36 am | Reply

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