Palestinian election call indicates tentative hope in Biden’s Middle East policy

By Clifford Mason

PALESTINIAN president Mahmoud Abbas’ election decree earlier this month may indicate hope that US foreign policy towards Israel will change under Joe Biden, experts have said.

The legislative elections in Palestine – the first in 15 years – are to be held in May this year, with presidential elections to take place in July.

The factors behind Abbas’s decision to hold elections now are varied, although it’s hard to avoid Joe Biden’s inauguration as the new US president last week.

Palestine suffered a number of heavy blows from Donald Trump, who made no secret of his support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing politics.

These include Trump’s recognition of Israel’s right to several annexed areas of Palestine, as well as opening a US embassy in Jerusalem.

Netanyahu himself is not completely secure, with an election in the Knesset this year casting doubt on his leadership of the Likud party.

Israeli historian Ilan Pappé claimed the call for elections now is a sign of the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) hope of change in American foreign policy. He told Redaction Politics: “This could be seen as a gesture that should help Biden to regard the PA more positively, should he reverse Trump’s policies.”

But London School of Economics Senior Fellow Ian Black believes Palestinians have little to hope for from Biden.

“It won’t be as bad as the Trump administration, but they’re not optimistic,” he said.

“It’s not clear to me Biden will go far enough to present a solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict.”

Black said Biden could undo some damage by reopening the Palestinian mission in Washington or reopening the US consulate in East Jerusalem, but it’s probable he will do less rather than more.

Another factor on Abbas’ mind will have been Israel’s improving relations with the rest of the Arab world.

Last summer, the Abraham Accords saw the normalisation of relations between Israel and the UAE.

The list of Arab states publicly improving relations with their long-term enemy is growing, and Palestinians are feeling increasingly marginalised.

But among the most pressing concerns for Palestinians now is whether the elections will even take place. 

At present it’s far from certain, with the pandemic creating numerous challenges for an already fragile process.

Palthink for Strategic Studies founder Omar Shaban also highlighted it wasn’t the first time Hamas and Fatah, Palestine’s main parties, have discussed elections.

“We are more optimistic than before because it’s the first time there is a decree by the president with an exact date,” he said. “The problems between the two sides are huge, and we cannot be sure they will be able to solve it.”

Black highlighted the problem of Israel’s part in it.

“They certainly won’t do anything to encourage Hamas in the Gaza Strip to take part in these elections,” he said. “They are also unlikely to allow Palestinians to campaign openly in East Jerusalem either.

“There are plenty of barriers to these elections.”

Hamas refused to participate last time elections were called. This time, it agreed. If they do go ahead in the summer, elections will be far from easy. The division between Fatah and Hamas runs deep.

Black and several Palestinian analysts believe the main problem is based on generational differences.

President Abbas is 85, but almost 70 per cent of his country is under the age of 29, and many are fed up by the lack of progress with Israel.

The ‘two-state solution’ – the foundation of all resolution strategies in the region – is fraying along every edge.

“For young Palestinians the two state solution is not only unachievable, but it’s a fantasy,” Black said. “Younger Palestinians are very frustrated, and understandably so.”

One potential solution for the presidential elections comes in the form of Mohammed Dahlan, a Fatah loyalist and former security chief of Abbas’s predecessor, Yasser Arafat.

A charismatic yet controversial character, Black told Redaction, Dahlan loathes Abbas.

Based in Abu Dhabi, if elected, Dahlan would provide a link between Palestine and his Emirati supporters who signed the recent Abraham Accords with Israel.

In the parliamentary elections, a Hamas win also isn’t out of the question.

Polls in the summer by Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research showed Fatah maintained a mere 2 per cent lead on Hamas’s 34 per cent popularity.

That said, with so many barriers between now and May, projecting whether the elections will even take place, let alone the outcome, is difficult.

“Apart from Abbas standing down, I don’t see the elections having potential positive outcomes,” Black said.

“It’s hard to see a happy end.”

Featured Image: Makbula Nassar @WikimediaCommons

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