The Palestinians will likely hold elections in the coming months for the first time in fifteen years, for three distinct institutions that make up the key organs of their political system: the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC, May 22); the Presidency of the Palestinian Authority (PA, July 31); and the Palestinian National Council (PNC, August 31, the “parliament” of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the umbrella group of the entire Palestinian national movement). 

The surprise move, often promised but always delayed, became official after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas issued a January 15 decree outlining the process. Follow-on meetings in Cairo between officials from Abbas’ secular-nationalist Fatah movement and their Islamist rivals in Hamas provided more clarity and agreement on the exact details of the vote.

While some uncertainty remains about whether the votes will go ahead as planned, the process thus far has gone beyond the point expected by most analysts and foreign officials. In this regard, the price for any new postponement will be high for those – whether in Fatah or Hamas – seen to be scuttling the move. 

The international community, and in particular the United States, has long called for more accountable, transparent, and democratic governance in the Palestinian Territories. In addition, the split between the Fatah-controlled PA in the West Bank and Hamas-ruled Gaza, dating to 2007, has been a major humanitarian and security concern internationally; multiple “reconciliation” bids between Fatah and Hamas have all failed in recent years, the most recent in 2017. Finally, the reality of a divided Palestinian body politic (geographically and politically) is often pointed to as an impediment to any negotiated resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Elections hold the theoretical prospect of resolving all three of the above concerns. Yet risks abound.

Far from unifying the Palestinians, elections could exacerbate the pre-existing divisions and tensions between Fatah and Hamas, and inside Fatah itself – as was the case last time elections were held in 2006. Such a scenario holds the prospect of undermining current stability, however tenuous, in both the West Bank and Gaza. Any gains made by Hamas – a U.S.-designated terrorist group – could severely complicate efforts by the Biden administration to renew relations with the Palestinians and fulfill its stated objectives on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

The prospects of any “realistic reset” of U.S. foreign policy on the Middle East Peace Process will be beholden to the outcome of these upcoming Palestinian elections and the potential changes they may augur inside Palestinian politics.

Background to the Current (Surprise) Push:

The genesis of the current election push dates to last summer and the threat by the Israeli government (with the approval of the Trump administration) to annex large swathes of the West Bank. 

In response, Palestinian President Abbas suspended ties with Israel and, via senior Fatah official Jibril Rajoub, launched a very public reconciliation bid with Hamas. The move was meant to signal to Israel and the international community that Abbas was considering “all options,” as Rajoub put it, to stop annexation – including collaborating with their sworn rivals in Hamas to organize mass demonstrations and other forms of “popular resistance.”

Israel’s annexation bid was ultimately halted as part of the normalization deal with the United Arab Emirates agreed to last August. Yet the Palestinian reconciliation process continued as both a hedge against any Trump re-election win and pushback against what the Palestinians perceived as betrayals by their erstwhile Arab allies (Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan would subsequently join the UAE under the Trump-sponsored “Abraham Accords.”). 

The thinking, summed up by one Palestinian official, was that “the Palestinian cause is being liquidated based on the American-Israeli vision and that only through unity and the legitimization of elections can we stand up to this conspiracy.” 

Summit meetings in Istanbul in September between Fatah and Hamas officials came to agreement, for the first time, on the holding of future elections. Hamas later ostensibly made the initial concession, agreeing that the votes for the three institutions (PLC, PA presidency, and PNC) would be held sequentially and not in parallel on the same day.  

With Joe Biden’s victory in the U.S. general election, many speculated that the Palestinian electoral push would fizzle out like all previous efforts. Hence the surprise at Abbas’s January 2021 decree and follow-on meetings in Cairo between Fatah and Hamas that fleshed out additional procedural details. 

Yet the timing of the vote, if not the vote itself, was the biggest surprise. 

The first round of voting for the PLC will be held in late May: Israel will likely still be sorting out its own election results and future government after the March 23 poll; the Biden administration will be just four months into office; and the COVID-impacted Palestinian economy will, at best, only be starting to recover from the damage of the past year, including a financial crunch brought on by the months-long severing of ties with Israel. 

Each factor alone would have militated against the holding of an election so soon. 

The Palestinian leadership, however, seems intent on moving forward as planned – at least for the PLC. And the Palestinian public appears overwhelmingly supportive, with three-quarters demanding the holding of legislative and presidential elections, per the most recent December 2020 poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. 

Indeed, according to official figures provided by the Palestinian Central Elections Committee, 2.6 million people are currently registered to vote in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem – over 93 percent of those eligible – a resounding signal of both interest and intent.

In short, Abbas and his Fatah party appear motivated by a desire to renew their democratic legitimacy at home while healing the division with Hamas and reuniting the West Bank and Gaza. For the 85-year old Abbas in particular this is likely a legacy issue as well. Moreover, as highlighted above, this comes after the past year where Abbas’ diplomatic strategy internationally reached its nadir: under direct attack by the U.S. and Israel, with Arab acquiescence, and European inability to stop it. 

European officials, for their part, have been calling on the Palestinians to hold elections for at least over a year, with “democratic renewal” a priority in its messaging to the Fatah-controlled PA. Palestinian officials may also have believed that a move towards elections would appeal to the Biden administration, too – although this was almost certainly a misunderstanding of the new administration’s intentions. 

Hamas’s motives appear more straightforward. For the past seven years the Islamist movement, which seized power in Gaza from Fatah/PA in 2007, has been trying to offload the burden of governing the blockaded territory. Hamas is also intent on regaining a foothold in the West Bank (made harder in recent years due to close security coordination between Israel and the PA) and to finally be allowed entry into the Palestine Liberation Organization. Hamas, it should be noted, was not called upon to disarm its formidable military wing, the Qassam Brigades, as a precondition for participating in the democratic process – a redline for the group it clearly would not have accepted. 

As one Israeli security official put it, both Hamas and Fatah think they can use the elections to outsmart the other – but they both can’t be right. 


The 2006 Precedent:

The Palestinian Authority has only held three general elections since its founding in 1994. The first two – legislative and presidential elections in 1996, along with presidential elections in 2005 – were all won handily by Fatah, which effectively ran unopposed as Hamas boycotted the vote.

The third such vote, legislative elections in 2006, Hamas did decide to contest, scoring a shock victory as it won 74 seats in the 132-member Palestinian Legislative Council (compared to Fatah’s 45). 

Hamas had run a unified and disciplined campaign under the heading of the “Change and Reform” list, a stark reminder of the perceived corruption and ineffectiveness of the PA, dominated since its creation by the Fatah movement. 

More to the point, the electoral system ultimately favored Hamas – with half the PLC seats apportioned via proportional representation through national lists (similar to the Israeli system) and the other half apportioned via majority voting in the PA’s 16 districts. Fatah ran multiple candidates in each district, cannibalizing the vote from one another. 

While Fatah nearly equaled Hamas’s results in the national lists, losing by just one seat, Hamas won the districts in a landslide, taking 45 seats as compared to Fatah’s paltry 17. 

The impact of this clear parliamentary majority would be felt immediately as a new Hamas-led PA government was sworn in without Fatah. Senior Hamas officials like Ismael Haniyeh (prime minister), Mahmoud al-Zahar (foreign minister), and Said Seyam (interior minister) dominated the cabinet. 

Israel responded by cutting off all contact and halting tax and customs transfers to the PA, a crucial source of budgetary funding. The U.S. and European Union also suspended aid to the PA after Hamas refused to abide by the reasonable conditions put forward by the Quartet (U.S., EU, United Nations, and Russia): recognize Israel, renounce violence, and adhere to past Israeli-Palestinian agreements. 

The U.S. Congress codified the policy into law with the passage of the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act (2006) – “no PA ministry, agency, or instrumentality controlled by Hamas” could receive U.S. assistance so long as Hamas refused to accept the Quartet conditions. The bill’s chief Senate sponsor was Sen. Mitch McConnell, with Sen. Joe Biden a key co-sponsor. 

Amidst a deteriorating financial situation, armed clashes between Fatah and Hamas cadres escalated. PA civil servants, including from the security forces, went unpaid for months, while (legally allowed) U.S. efforts to bolster forces under the direct command of President Abbas met with only limited success. Hamas, for its part, responded by increasing direct cash funding from Iran and creating its own parallel, uniformed security body in Gaza called the Executive Force. 

Saudi Arabia attempted to arrest the growing lawlessness in March 2007 by brokering the creation of a unity government. Yet the ensuing cabinet was still controlled and led by Hamas and did little to stem the PA’s international isolation or domestic security and financial crises. 

Events reached a head in June 2007, as Hamas launched a putsch against Fatah/PA forces in the Gaza Strip. In less than six days Hamas forces routed their numerically superior rivals, who themselves were divided and effectively leaderless. Far from healing divisions, elections in 2006 only exacerbated prevailing tensions and led to the Hamas takeover of Gaza – a situation that remains in place to this day and which the upcoming elections are meant to rectify.


Legislative Elections:

Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections are set to be held first, and as such are of more immediate importance than the Presidential and Palestinian National Council (PNC) elections (more on them below).

The most direct risk, and one that clearly concerns Israel and a growing number of international observers, is a repeat of the 2006 ballot: a victory for the extremists of Hamas and not the moderates in Fatah, with all the ensuing diplomatic, financial, and security fallout that would entail. 

On the face of it, Fatah this time around is better positioned for a more positive outcome. In the wake of the 2006 defeat, Abbas changed the electoral system, doing away with the districts (majority voting) that had caused Fatah so much trouble and going solely with a national list (proportional representation) vote. 

According to the most recent PCPSR poll from last December, Fatah holds a slight edge over Hamas in public opinion, 38 percent to 34 percent. (It should be noted that opinion polling ahead of the 2006 election also had Fatah consistently in the lead.) Moreover, a slogan like “Reform and Change” no longer has the same resonance in describing a party that has ruled alone over Gaza for the past fourteen years. Fatah officials feel confident that Hamas’s disastrous record governing Gaza, including three destructive wars with Israel and near economic collapse, will increase support for their own movement. 

Yet the main risk for Fatah’s prospects is again divisions within the movement. 

In early March, senior Fatah official Nasser al-Qudwa, a former UN ambassador and Yasser Arafat’s nephew, was expelled from the party for his intention to field a separate list in the PLC election. From exile in the UAE, former Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan intends to field a list built on his Democratic Reform Current – effectively a dissident wing of Fatah that draws support from Gaza and various refugee camps in the West Bank. Marwan Barghouti, currently serving multiple life sentences in Israeli prison and arguably the most popular Fatah figure, is unlikely to build his own list, yet his support for Abbas’ mainstream Fatah faction is, at present, unclear. 

Finally, various independent actors not affiliated with Fatah, like former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, have also been mooted as potential candidates (either separately on their own lists or in some combination). Such urbane lists could draw from the same demographic of secular/non-Islamist voters and hold the potential of denting Fatah’s prospects.

Hamas, in contrast, will almost certainly come to the election unified and cohesive. Yet unlike 2006 it appears to be playing a more nuanced game. 

The movement is likely to field more technocratic candidates, and not senior members, in a bid to allay international concerns. Moreover, unconfirmed reports stipulate that even were Hamas to win, it would not seek to form – or even control – the subsequent PA government. A February 2021 letter by senior PA official Hussein al-Sheikh sent to U.S. State Department official Hady Amr also indicated that Hamas had committed itself to “peaceful popular resistance,” a Palestinian state on the 1967 border lines with East Jerusalem as its capital, and the PLO Basic Law (which ostensibly recognizes Israel). 

The above were all reportedly requirements laid out by Abbas, and agreed to by Hamas, as preconditions for elections – and, in a nod to the Quartet conditions, as protection against an outcome like that stemming from the 2006 vote. 

In the near term, the true indication of whether the PLC election will take place and the state of the overall race will be dictated by two distinct periods:

Registration of electoral lists from March 20-31, wherein the various internal divides within Fatah will have to be resolved (or not). Multiple conditions laid out in the electoral decree could prevent many candidates/lists from competing, such as allegations of foreign funding (e.g. Dahlan’s close ties with the UAE), non-permanent residency in the Palestinian Territories (e.g. Fayyad, exiled Dahlanists), or employment by the PA in whatever capacity (resignation may not be enough if it is not officially accepted). 

There have also been persistent reports that Fatah and Hamas intend to field a joint list, in a bid to decide the election a priori, although such a move is likely to face fierce internal opposition in both parties given their deep ideological divide. 

Campaigning period from April 30-May 20, wherein Hamas-Fatah reconciliation (in the context of the election) will be truly tested. As part of the agreements reached, both movements committed to releasing political detainees, which has already begun, and to allow free and open campaigning in the other’s territory. The specter of Hamas being allowed to hold mass rallies in the West Bank, or Abbas’s mainstream Fatah faction doing the same in Gaza, would be a major signal that both sides are genuine in their intentions – despite the political risks involved. 


Presidential & PNC Elections:

Most observers believe that Abbas will wait to see the results of the PLC elections before allowing the next two votes to move ahead; in other words, as go the PLC elections, so go the elections for PA President and the Palestinian National Council (PNC). 

The Presidential Election is arguably the most consequential since it directly touches on the position and role of President Mahmoud Abbas. Elected in 2005 to a four-year term, Abbas has been ruling by presidential decree for over a decade (and especially after the split from Gaza and the suspension of the previous PLC). In the Palestinian system the president/executive has outsized powers, which Abbas has used to both re-establish security in the areas of the West Bank he controls (e.g. fighting terrorism, coordinating with Israel) and to sideline opponents and rivals, whether real or imagined (e.g. Hamas, Dahlan, civil society NGOs). 

Now sixteen years in power, Abbas is well past the reign of his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, who ruled the PA from its creation in 1994 until his death in 2004. 

Abbas, 85, has previously said he would not seek another term, yet sources within Fatah always shaded it by saying that he may run if “asked” by the party. And indeed, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh indicated that Abbas would be Fatah’s candidate for president in the upcoming election – although this is as yet unofficial. 

As part of its purported agreement with Fatah, Hamas is believed to have promised not to field its own candidate for president. Yet it remains unclear whether other Fatah candidates, especially the jailed Marwan Barghouti, will refrain as well. There is also the possibility, however remote, that Abbas uses the opportunity of a presidential election to hand-off power to a chosen successor from within the party, a move long delayed

The Palestinian National Council Election is the most complicated of the three polls because as yet it remains unclear whether it will indeed be a popular vote or, as in the past, simply appointments via a quota system. Meetings between various faction heads in late March are meant to decide on the process by which the PNC will be chosen – ostensibly via “elections where possible and consensus where it is not possible.” 

The PNC currently comprises 747 members, representing the different factions that make up the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) along with trade unions, student groups, intellectuals, and diaspora communities. It is considered the parliament of the PLO, which itself is the umbrella group – and “sole legitimate representative” – of the Palestinian national movement, not just in the Palestinian Territories but internationally. 

Crucially, Hamas and the other key Islamist faction, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, are not members in the PLO, which has been dominated since its early days by Fatah. The upcoming “vote” is meant to rectify this state of affairs. 

More than the Palestinian Authority legislative and presidential elections, membership in the PLO is believed to be Hamas’s main strategic objective. 

In legal and diplomatic terms, the PLO supersedes the PA – Israel entered into peace talks with the PLO, which as a consequence of the agreements reached created the PA as a self-rule entity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (indeed, the Trump administration in 2018 shuttered the PLO mission in Washington, DC). Membership in the PLO would give Hamas an entre to take over the entire Palestinian national movement in the future.  

In practical terms, however, the PLO at present is a shell of its former self, devoid of any real political power and overtaken by the PA (and the Fatah Central Committee) as the main arena for the decisions impacting Palestinian political life. The PNC has met sporadically over the past three decades – most recently in 2018, where various decisions were taken, most of which were ignored by Abbas.

Any move to hold elections for the PNC, especially on the one day decreed, will run up against the geographic and political impediments of a scattered Palestinian population and unclear criteria for eligibility. A quota system, for its part, would have to be agreed to between Fatah, Hamas, and the various other factions, a key stumbling block in the past. 

But it does hold the prospect, as some Palestinian activists point out, of reviving the entire Palestinian national movement and reorienting decision-making away from the Palestinian Authority. At present though, as one report stated, “it seems to be more a wish than a promise.”   


Key Questions & Policy Recommendations:

While there is much that has yet to be determined regarding the exact details and contours of the upcoming Palestinian elections, there are several key questions that, even at present and especially ahead of time, require the attention of all relevant actors.

Hamas Intentions & the Quartet Conditions: Despite the promises ostensibly made by Hamas regarding the composition and policies of any future PA government (as detailed above), it remains unclear whether the movement is truly committed to abiding by democratic principles and international law, including non-violence. Hamas officials, for their part, have stated that they will not give up the armed struggle nor will they be satisfied with just a Palestinian state on the 1967 lines. 

Any PA government that arises should not, as a matter of both law and principle, be controlled by Hamas – a distinctly difficult proposition if the group wins a parliamentary majority or, alternatively, holds a majority in coalition with other non-Fatah parties. 

Gaza Reunification: Elections effectively reversed the order of previous Hamas-Fatah reconciliation bids, with popular votes now pushed to the beginning of the process. Yet the core split between the two groups, manifested in the form of a breakaway Gaza, will ultimately have to be addressed – likely via a newly empowered (by both sides) PA government. 

Deep differences likely remain, however, in how a PA government would reclaim civil and security control over the territory. The fate of tens of thousands of Hamas-affiliated civil servants and similar numbers of (pre-2007) Fatah-affiliated civil servants will have to be managed, as will an internal security apparatus (Gaza’s Interior Ministry) wholly controlled by Hamas’s Qassam Brigades. Similarly, the redeployment of PA Security Forces back into the territory will have to be addressed, as will the future response if – but more likely when – militant factions launch armed attacks against Israel from Gaza. 

In the past Abbas himself has said he would not countenance a “Hezbollah model” for the governance of Gaza – that is, a political movement that maintains an armed militia outside the control of the central authority (similar to Hezbollah in Lebanon). The Qassam Brigades, however, will not be disarming, even after any elections. 

For its part, Hamas’s Gaza leadership has indicated it is open to a long-term truce with Israel, and if the election preconditions are to be believed, Hamas is also open to following the PLO/PA directive of “peaceful popular resistance.” But questions remain about the sincerity of such pledges, how such a complex reality would work in practice, and what role any “spoiler” factions (Palestinian Islamic Jihad, breakaway Hamas cells) may play in scuttling such an arrangement.

The Israeli Role & East Jerusalem: Israel has so far taken a “wait and see” approach to the prospect of Palestinian elections, with concrete policy decisions not yet rising to senior governmental levels. However, reports indicate that Israeli security forces have begun issuing warnings to Hamas political activists and making targeted arrests, in a likely bid to undermine the group’s West Bank organizational capacity ahead of the poll. 

It remains unclear whether Israel will allow voting in East Jerusalem post offices, as it did in all previous Palestinian general elections (in 2006, it has to be said, only after a last-minute intervention by the Bush administration). Palestinian officials make clear that East Jerusalem has to be part of the process, and in the past have used it as an excuse to delay elections. This time, though, election officials indicate that there are contingency plans in place if Israel were to scuttle a Jerusalem vote. Yet it is far from certain that Israel will provide the PA with such a ready excuse to postpone elections. 

Like with much else, Israeli policy will depend on the makeup of the government in power after its own March 23 election (even if only a transition government) and the positions taken by the Biden administration. 

The U.S. Role: The positive resolution of most of the above questions will depend on the active engagement of the Biden administration – in dialogue with the Palestinian Authority, Israel, the European Union, Russia, Jordan, Egypt, and other key international stakeholders. 

The Palestinian election requires high-level and immediate engagement by the U.S., for the simple reason that all other policy objectives on this issue – including the renewal of ties with the Palestinians, the resumption of U.S. assistance, and keeping open the possibility of a negotiated two-state solution – are, to one extent or another, dependent on the future make-up and leadership of the PA. 

To this end, the U.S. should move ahead quickly on the reopening of the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem (shuttered under the Trump administration) and the appointment of a full-time Consul General to better liaise with the PA, convey concerns, and assess intentions. At present U.S.-Palestinian relations are managed by a small handful of individuals based in Ramallah and Washington. From its end, the PA needs to fully re-engage with the existing U.S. diplomatic team in Jerusalem to better convey its goals and assuage international concerns. 

The U.S. Security Coordinator mission in Jerusalem, led by a 3-star U.S. general, should also begin contingency plans with its Israeli and PA security colleagues to better assess the impact in the West Bank of any Hamas renewal coming out of the election period. The CIA mission in Israel-Palestine should also do the same vis-à-vis Israel’s Shin Bet and PA intelligence services.

Stemming from the above, thought should be given in Washington to publicly messaging the Palestinian public the positive benefits that may come from electing moderates, as opposed to extremists. Statements of intent by the Biden administration regarding renewing U.S. financial assistance, increasing economic activity in the West Bank, and restoring diplomatic recognition could all be positive campaign messages for non-Hamas parties. While this may strike some as undue election interference, other states – UAE, Qatar, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Israel, and the EU – are all already involved in the Palestinian campaign to one extent or another. 

At the very least, the U.S. and its Quartet partners should coordinate positions, and speak with one voice, about upholding the Quartet conditions.

Finally, if elections were to move ahead, the U.S. and Europe need to coordinate – along with Israel and the PA – how international election observers can safely arrive to monitor the vote, given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In all prior elections, hundreds of election observers deployed in the West Bank and Gaza certified that the vote met international standards. Hamas and Fatah have so far only agreed that uniformed police would secure polling stations on election day, and not their respective intelligence services or militias, a distinction with the potential for very little difference.  

If the Palestinians are in fact sincere about holding elections for the first time in fifteen years, then the vote should at the very least be free and fair.