Avi Bell
Avi Bell

Understanding the Possible Palestinian Elections

Despite numerous announcements of Palestinian elections in the past decade, Palestinians have not gone to the polls since 2006. It is little surprise, therefore, that only modest media attention and no small amount of skepticism have greeted the announcement of Palestinian elections to take place later this year.

Palestinian elections can be puzzling to casual observers. The limited reports to date have done little to help readers make sense of the Palestinian election plans. Here’s a short guide to what’s to come.

Palestinian elections, if they take place, will take place under procedures established by and under the control of Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and of the Palestinian Authority. According to Abbas’ decree from January, the elections will be divided among three phases.

The first vote, scheduled for May 22, 2021, is open to Arab residents of the West Bank. If Hamas cooperates, Arab residents of Gaza will also vote; if Israel cooperates, Arab residents of “east Jerusalem” will vote as well. Coordination between Hamas and Abbas on the election is possible, but cooperation between Abbas and Israel is more doubtful, especially given the expected participation of Hamas in the election. Lack of such cooperation may be used an excuse to cancel the elections.

If held, the May 22 vote will decide which Palestinian terrorist organization will take control of the toothless 132-member Palestinian Authority council (called the Palestinian Legislative Council). The Palestinian Legislative Council has been “suspended” since 2007, and in any event, the Council does not legislate since the Palestinian Authority is governed by Presidential decree.

The main contenders in the potential elections are Hamas, which today controls the Gaza Strip, and Abbas’ Fatah, which controls autonomous Palestinian areas of the West Bank (areas A and B). Political parties unaffiliated with terrorist organizations are permitted to run in the elections, but are not expected to win significant support. In 2006 elections, all but 9 of the 132 winning candidates ran on the tickets of terrorist organizations. Of the major contenders, Fatah claims to the West no longer to be involved in terrorism, though it continues to arm and fund terrorists; Hamas proudly claims credit for its terrorism, which makes it the more popular organization among the Palestinian populace.

Elections for President of the Palestinian Authority are scheduled for July 31, 2021, among the same voters eligible to vote in Palestinian Legislative Council elections. Importantly, there will be no parallel election for presidency of the PLO. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is now serving in the seventeenth year of a four-year term in office he won in January 2005, is unlikely to allow the elections to go forward unless his victory is guaranteed. If Abbas were to miscalculate and hold and lose the election, there is no realistic possibility he would yield power, but the loss would be embarrassing. Abbas is also president of the PLO, and he has no plans to surrender authority over that organization. Given the overlap between the Palestinian Authority and the PLO (Abbas calls both organizations the “State of Palestine” and he moves expenses and assets between the budgets of the organizations to avoid oversight), there is no realistic possibility of Abbas surrendering control of the Palestinian Authority while he continues to control the PLO.

Elections for the PLO’s Palestinian National Council are scheduled for August 21, 2021. The Palestinian National Council has no governing authority, but it does select the PLO’s executive council, whose chair serves as president of the PLO. The Palestinian National Council has also taken part in important propaganda exercises since it was first founded in 1964, such as the Palestinian declaration of independence in 1988. Elections for the council have been promised since 1964, but if elections actually take place this time, they will be the first in the history of the PLO. At least in theory, voters should include Arabs of Palestinian ancestry everywhere in the world. But it is unclear who would be eligible to vote and where voting would take place. No details have been released about the scheduled elections, probably because there are no actual plans to hold them.

About the Author
The author is a professor at Bar Ilan University’s Faculty of Law and the University of San Diego Law School, a senior fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum, and recently a visiting fellow at the Project on the Foundations of Private Law at Harvard Law School.
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