Full of unknowns

With the scheduled Palestinian parliamentary elections approaching very soon and the deadline for the end of the ceasefire agreed in Cairo last year having expired with the turn of the new year, the internal Palestinian political scene as well as Palestinian-Israeli relations are full of unknowns.

Fateh–Palestine’s ruling movement, the dominant party in the Palestinian Authority and the leader of the peace camp–appears seriously divided over several issues, including whether or not to proceed with elections at the appointed time. There are three reasons for this hesitancy. First, Fateh has struggled to identify who should be its candidates for the elections, partly a result of the movement’s fluid membership structure that rendered primaries an ineffective means of choosing an appropriate list.

Second, Fateh leaders fear the results of elections and are generally lacking in self-confidence. Poll after poll attest to the fact that, for the first time, Fateh is facing serious competition, and recent local elections in a few major cities and towns were evidence of the current impressive strength of Hamas.

Third, Israeli measures are blocking efforts to hold free and fair elections. These measures include restrictions on voter registration, running and campaigning in East Jerusalem, and restrictions on the movement of candidates and election activists between the different parts of the Palestinian territory, especially between Gaza and the West Bank as well as within the West Bank.

Those who are arguing that elections should be postponed are doing so for one or more of the above reasons. But some of the elements with an interest in postponing elections seem also to be instigating internal violence and using that as an additional fourth reason to argue against holding elections.

This tendency toward postponing Palestinian elections has been directly or indirectly aided by a recent Israeli escalation in it own practices, an escalation that in turn appears to be influenced by upcoming Israeli elections. Since the recent political upheaval in Israel that led to an earlier-than-planned March date for elections, Israeli military violence against Palestinians has increased, with frequent Israeli raids in the West Bank, ostensibly to arrest wanted Palestinians, often turning deadly, and almost nightly shelling of targets in Gaza. Accelerated too is the pace of settlement expansion, while restrictions on the movement of Palestinians have become more stringent.

The escalation also includes not implementing new Israeli obligations under the Gaza crossings agreement. Since the opening of the Rafah border, two deadlines have been missed by Israel: the first was the implementation, due December 15, of the agreement to allow convoys of passengers to travel between the West Bank and Gaza; the second was the agreement to increase the number of containers passing through the Karni crossing to 150. That agreement should have come into effect on January 1. Both these deadlines were missed deliberately and without good cause.

In addition, Israeli politicians have stepped up their rhetoric, no doubt in order to pander to an electorate these politicians believe will respond well to more extreme and antagonistic positions vis-a-vis the Palestinian side.

In the last year, we witnessed significant developments on the Palestinian side that were conducive to a renewal of negotiations and the creation of an atmosphere for peace, not least of which was the election of Mahmoud Abbas and his obvious commitment to political negotiations as the way to solving the conflict. His most notable achievement was to reach and maintain a ceasefire, both through dialogue and security efforts, which dramatically reduced the level of violence and consequently casualties on both sides.

These developments, however, were not encouraged by Israel nor supported enough by the international community. This, predictably, has played into the hands of elements on both sides, in whose interest it is to keep fighting.

Palestinians have no choice but to go to elections. Without such elections, the PA will have little legitimacy, either internally or externally, and there will be an increase of lawlessness and internal violence. That may be in the interest of some Israeli circles, but it is in the interest of no one else. In order to go to elections, however, the PA and the peace camp in Palestine need to be encouraged by the parties that have influence in and around Palestine.

On both sides, the common denominator at the moment is that internal politics is leading to external escalation. This could be very dangerous. These are very crucial and sensitive days that require the close and hands-on attention of the international community, particularly the Quartet. The kind of American diplomacy displayed during the Gaza crossings agreement is again required.