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The US should help Palestinians vote regardless of potential outcomes

The US should help Palestinians vote regardless of potential outcomes
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The ghost of 2006 hangs heavy over the heads of United States policymakers anticipating Palestinian elections scheduled for May 22. Hamas’s surprise victory over a divided Fatah in 2006 upended the plans of those within the Bush administration who had advocated for allowing the elections to proceed, notwithstanding the participation of a group designated as a foreign terrorist organization. When the results became evident, the United States and its Quartet partners adopted a series of conditions for future engagement, which Hamas has never come close to meeting.   

Today, the United States attitude toward the upcoming elections can best be described as ambivalent. The Biden administration has not issued any statements welcoming the elections as a much-needed expression of the democratic will of Palestinian population. Indeed, many believe that the United States would prefer a postponement of the elections to avoid an anticipated Hamas victory, which would inevitably complicate efforts to revive a diplomatic dialogue that ruptured during four years of Trump administration hostility toward the Palestinians.  

While the dilemma posed by a potential Hamas electoral victory is real, the administration’s current posture is a mistake. First, 2006 should not be the sole reference point for projecting the outcome. Forty percent plus of the registered Palestinian electorate have never voted according to an analysis by the National Democratic Institute and providing this group a "voice" could change Palestinian political dynamics in a dramatic fashion.  

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Second, the new election system is now similar to Israel — based on proportional representation within a single national constituency. This system is much more forgiving of a now even more divided Fatah.  Thus, unlike 2006, where the multi-member district election system severely impacted Fatah’s electoral prospects, the current system will place an emphasis, again much like in Israel, on post-election negotiations among Fatah factions, as well as with Hamas and others.  

Third, the Israeli election results, with the inclusion of a far-right party in the Knesset and potentially in a new coalition, may provide political maneuverability for the United States in terms of engaging with a government that includes Hamas. Specifically, the United States can remain adamant about not interacting with Hamas officials in or outside a new government, while maintaining constructive relations with the non-Hamas ministers in the Palestinian Authority.  This model has been used by the United States in Lebanon, where Hezbollah has participated in several recent governments, and a variant is being contemplated in the context of a prospective role for the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Finally, as in all peace process contexts, the United States should consider mechanisms for encouraging the most radical outliers to join negotiations. A revised framework for engagement might recognize that Hamas is unlikely to change their charter in the short term, but that their presence at the negotiating table is essential to improve prospects for a longer-term peace. In applying this new framework, the United States would insist that Hamas refrains from committing acts of violence and permits negotiations based on the framework established by the Palestinian Liberation Organization agreements with the United States and Israel.  

No doubt, a dramatic Hamas electoral victory would upend prospects for serious reengagement, but at least then the United States could justifiably explain a posture of "disengagement" until the political dynamics change. But a postponement of the elections also would have negative consequences:  increased Palestinian population frustration and retention of the same leaders as primary interlocutors.   

Even without encouragement from the United States, Palestinians have a ready excuse for postponing the elections. Based on prior precedents, they are insisting that Israel allow a certain number of Jerusalemites to physically cast their ballots at post offices within Jerusalem’s municipal borders. To date, Israel has shown no inclination to authorize such a procedure and the international community is unlikely to exert pressure on Israel to do so.  

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Given current political realities, the Palestinian leadership should accept, even while duly contesting the political implications, that interested Palestinian residents of Jerusalem will have to vote outside the municipal borders or to postpone the election. Indeed, during the 2006 elections, just over 3000 Palestinians voted in Jerusalem post offices as compared to 15,000 who voted outside the municipal boundary; thus, the preclusion of voting at post offices will have limited substantive impact on the outcome. Moreover, in this pandemic year, many countries have adopted creative approaches to extend voting rights when in-person voting at a nearby polling site proves impractical.  

The current divided governance structure creates real hardship for ordinary Palestinians and the next generation deserves an electoral voice. Postponing the elections now, which would accelerate the continued drifting apart of Gaza and the West Bank, would compromise the Palestinian cause and would be detrimental to the prospects for peace. The United States and other international actors should encourage the Palestinians to proceed.

Larry Garber is an international election expert and the former USAID West Bank/Gaza Mission Director.