For more than a decade, Israel and Palestine have been moving further away from the chance of peace, or even from the chance of renewing a peace process. On the ground, 14 million people living between the River and the Sea are basically equally divided numerically – Jews and Palestinians. Despite the demographic balance there are huge discrepancies in power between the two sides. Israel is strong economically and militarily and Palestine is weak in almost every aspect of life which is also under Israeli control. Both sides are balanced in their ability to deny the other side peace. Both sides have the ability to kill people on the other side, although Israel is much better at it than the Palestinians. Both sides feel that they are the victim of the other, although objectively speaking, the Palestinians are far more victims of this conflict that the Israelis are. Both sides are balanced in their own self-image of being the legitimate owners on the space we share and call different names.
When I ask Israelis and Palestinians what is the fastest and best way to return to negotiations and a peace process, each side puts the onus of the task on the other side. “The Israelis are the stronger side; they should make the first move” many Palestinians say. On the other side, many Israelis say “The Palestinians have to demonstrate that they are willing to make compromises and live in peace with us Israelis”. As an Israeli I wish that Israel would take the first step towards the Palestinians but anyone who objectively looks at Israeli society can easily see that we have moved further away from any chance of an Israeli first step towards the Palestinians. The one hope that I do have is that the mass protest movement over the past seven months has opened up more legitimacy for talking about real equality within Israel between all segments of our society, even between Jews and Arabs. There has also been more space opened to legitimately claim that there can be no real democracy with occupation and statements like “from the River to the Sea there should be equality for all” can be heard more loudly from one week to the next. But I have no real hopes that even if the current all right government falls and a new more centrist government takes over that there would be any genuine Israeli moves to renew a peace process with the Palestinians. We saw the “Government of Change” act no differently towards the Palestinians than previous right-wing governments.
I know that the Palestinians are also not really in the position to take the first step. They have a broken government with no elections since 2006 and a general sense amongst most Palestinians, in the West Bank and in Gaza, that their government is not legitimate any more. What unifies Palestinians is their demand for general elections. They want to elect a new President, a new Legislative Council, the want to renew the institutions of the PLO. They want a voice and they want their voice to lead to the reunification of Palestinian political reality. The majority of Palestinians, according to all public opinion polls, support violent acts against Israel and there is almost no one in Palestine who believes that Israel wants peace. In recent elections in Palestinian universities, a majority of students voted for the Islamic blocks. In my understanding, which is backed by most Palestinian political analysts, Hamas did not win those elections, Fatah lost. There are no real political movements in Palestine anymore – in the sense of a group of people who share the same basic ideological position and debate issues, elect representatives and leaders and engage in politics at all levels of life. The political parties in Palestine, not unlike other parts of the world, are no longer active centers of political debate. Fatah is perceived by most Palestinians as a small cliché of Palestinians who run the Palestinian Authority and many believe that it is run like a private business. In Gaza, many people think the same of the Hamas leadership running the government there.
From the point of view of a supporter of peace between these two people, Palestinian elections are essential as a first step towards any kind of renewal of a political process that could lead to negotiations. Palestinians need to choose their leaders. Palestinian political divisions need to end with reunification of forces under an elected leadership. To the best of my knowledge and according to the best Palestinian polling and experts on Palestinian society, Hamas has little chances of gaining a majority in national elections. The electoral system will be like Israel’s where you vote for a political party which will gain representation based on the proportional distribution of the votes. There are serious efforts underway to build coalitions between people who were identified in the pasts with the Fatah movement, many of them still support a two states solution. The main blockage in the process of moving forward with Palestinian elections is the claim of Mahmoud Abbas that Israel will not allow Palestinians in East Jerusalem to participate in elections. In 2021 when elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council were supposed to take place, the Palestinian Authority requested permission from Israel to allow East Jerusalem Palestinians to participate and Israel never returned an answer. There was no negative answer, there was simply no response. On that basis Abbas canceled the elections.
I claim that this was not only a disservice to Palestinians and their right to hold free and fair elections, it was also directly against Israeli national interests. Israel allowed Palestinians in East Jerusalem to participate in Palestinian elections in 1996, in 2005, and in 2006. Palestinians from Jerusalem were elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council in the past. Former PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is officially a resident of East Jerusalem. The governments of Netanyahu are clearly interested in keeping in power in Palestine people who do not have legitimacy in the eyes of the Palestinian people. As long as the security coordination continues with the Palestinian Authority, and President Abbas has made it well known that he will continue it, and as long as Hamas demonstrates a measure of pragmatism, like not participating in the last two rounds of warfare in Gaza, Israel wants the people in power to continue to be in power. The excuse of not allowing East Jerusalemites to participate in elections is convenient for those who want to stay in power and for those who want them to remain in power.
There are solutions. For one, why should the Palestinians even ask Israel for permission to enable Palestinians in East Jerusalem to participate? It is clear that asking permission only plays into the hands of the occupier. The foreign consulates in Jerusalem are more than willing to open their doors for balloting. People can also travel beyond the separation wall to vote and there are also secure enough online solutions to enable voting to take place. There is no legitimate excuse not to hold Palestinian elections. It is time for Israelis who take to the streets to preserve and protect Israeli democracy to say openly we support Palestinian democracy along with ensuring Israeli democracy. It is time for the international community to tell President Abbas that there is no excuse to delay holding elections any more. It is time for the Palestinian people who want those elections to take to the streets and scream “DEMOCRACY!” I know there is no democracy with occupation – that is true for Israel and also true for Palestine. Israel rules over Palestine with a military dictatorship and it is our responsibility as Israelis to end it. Palestinian elections, as a democratic move is an essential step to help us to end Israel’s occupation over the territories conquered in 1967.