“Palestinians will not accept dictatorship. People want to be free,” one Palestinian adviser on the conflict with Israel said in March.1 But since the last Palestinian parliamentary election in 2006, Palestine’s nascent democracy has been slowly squeezed by Israeli occupation and increasingly authoritarian Palestinian leaders. Now, fifteen years later, President Mahmoud Abbas has finally scheduled parliamentary and presidential elections. Rumors abound as to whether they will materialize. Ninety-three percent of eligible voters across Gaza and the West Bank have registered—of which roughly half (ages eighteen to thirty-three) have never voted. For some Palestinians, it is a moment of hope; for the EU, it is a moment of sobriety.
After thirty years of international funding for the Palestinians, a viable Palestinian state is no closer to emerging. The EU invested an estimated $254 million in Palestinian governance, institution building, and civil society from 2007 to 2019.2 But the union has failed to tackle the primary cause of this democratic deficit—Israel’s occupation—and too cautious in responding to rising authoritarianism from the Palestinian leadership.
Palestine is now an authoritarian regime, according to the Economist’s 2020 democracy index. Its score has declined year on year since 2006, when it was deemed a flawed democracy. Aside from the obvious lack of elections, the executive controls the judiciary, the president effectively suspended the parliament in 2007 and instead rules by decree, and Palestinian authorities have been cracking down on opposition and civil society. Since 2007, the Palestinian leadership has been divided between the internationally recognized government of Abbas and his Fatah party in the West Bank and the de facto Hamas government led by Yahya Sinwar in Gaza.
What Are the Elections?
Three elections have been announced for 2021. The first, on May 22, is for the Palestinian Authority Legislative Council (PLC), the parliament for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, last elected in 2006. The second, on July 31, is a Palestinian Authority (PA) presidential election, last held in 2005. The third, on August 31, is scheduled for the parliament of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), known as the Palestinian National Council (PNC), which represents Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and the diaspora. The international community recognizes the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian national movement and as the Palestinians’ negotiator in past peace talks—but its role has been eclipsed by an increasingly bloated and expansionist PA under Abbas.
It seems unlikely that the presidential or the PNC election will materialize. The PLC vote is uncertain, particularly now that Fatah has split into three lists, threatening Abbas’s grip on power. Abbas is coming under increasing pressure from Fatah factions, Hamas, and the public to hold elections. But promises to do so have disintegrated numerous times over the years. Abbas would not allow a presidential election to take place if he thought he would lose, which, judging by current polling, he would do so by a significant margin—to Fatah rival Marwan Barghouti. PNC elections have never been held: this would require voting by the Palestinian diaspora, which would be fraught with technical and political difficulties. Instead, PNC members will likely be allocated seats via a quota system.
There are also many other potential spoilers of the elections, including Israel, which is already trying to deter voting in annexed East Jerusalem by carrying out arrests—thereby providing a good cover for Abbas to postpone the contests, as seems increasingly likely.
Do the Elections Matter?
Although welcome, any eventual elections will be inadequate and flawed. They will, of course, take place in the context of Israeli occupation, under which the Palestinian government—even if properly elected—is deprived of the full authority to govern.
There is also limited genuine electoral competition. Hamas has said it will not put forward a presidential candidate, and Hamas and Fatah have agreed to form a government of national unity after the PLC election. Under this arrangement, they would hold onto their respective territories. Further, revisions to electoral laws by the PA have curtailed competition, setting an age threshold of twenty-eight for PLC candidates, charging them a fee of $20,000, and requiring that they resign from any public office.
Some voices from Palestinian civil society say that no meaningful democracy is possible under occupation and that the international community should not push for elections. There are indeed serious limitations, but elections could provide some democratic rejuvenation and lay the groundwork for a national reconciliation process. Most importantly, the majority of Palestinians—76 percent of them, according to a March 2021 poll—want elections.
Even if Abbas stays on as president and postpones the presidential election, a renewed PLC would at least provide some oversight and accountability for the executive. The new parliament would have to review fourteen years’ worth of new legislation passed by presidential decrees. Abbas would consult the new parliament when appointing his government and prime minister. An election would also provide for Abbas’s succession because—at least by law—the presidency of the PA should go to the speaker of the PLC if Abbas dies or becomes incapacitated.
Democratic advances, including elections, would give the Palestinian leadership a more coherent, credible voice. That could be useful in negotiating with Israel and the international community, offering some way out of the political deadlock. The peace process is moribund, primarily due to Israeli policy, particularly settlement expansion in the West Bank and the closure of Gaza. But some responsibility also lies with Abbas, who has deliberately weakened Palestinian national unity to protect his own position, notably by refusing to reconcile with Hamas.
The weakness of the Palestinian leadership has been a fundamental impediment that has further skewed the power dynamic in Israel’s favor. A return to peace talks remains fictional, but a longer-term ceasefire could be reached. Further still, if the EU wants to protect regional stability in the long run, elections and channels for democratic expression are essential. Some Palestinian analysts talk of an unhealthy quiet, which could shatter at any moment. “If the Israelis were smart enough, they would let Palestinians resurrect the national movement through elections, rather than a lot of blood,” said one adviser in an interview.3
The EU’s Flawed Involvement
The EU has supported the PA since the 1993 and 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords, using a variety of diplomatic instruments as well as bilateral aid and trade cooperation. It is time for Europeans to ask why, then, Palestinian democracy has declined.
First, the EU has not been willing to invest political capital in challenging the primary cause of democratic decline: Israel’s occupation and restrictions on Palestinians’ movement, which have fragmented Palestine’s territory, body politic, and political leadership.
Second, the union has prioritized stability over democratization. The EU has not been effective in attaching conditions to its funding to the PA to ensure democratic progress. It has been too afraid of causing Abbas and the PA to decline further, unleashing instability. In addition, the union opted to marginalize Hamas rather than respect the democratic process, again fearing instability as well as bowing to political pressure from Israel.
Initially after the Oslo Accords, EU financial aid to the Palestinians was not conditional on democratic progress or financial transparency. But by 2001, the EU had begun to introduce strict conditions to its funds—helping to achieve greater transparency in Palestinian public finances, a law on the independence of the judiciary, and the Basic Law, the legal and constitutional framework for the Palestinian governing system.
However, Europe’s reform agenda came to an abrupt end in 2006, when Hamas won the Palestinian legislative election. The Quartet that comprised the UN, the EU, the United States, and Russia demanded several conditions for recognizing the new government. These conditions, known as the Quartet principles, included recognition of Israel—which Hamas refused. The EU had already designated Hamas a terrorist organization in 2003, mirroring the United States’ decision in 1997. Election observers deemed the 2006 election free and fair, but the EU, the United States, and others boycotted the results, severed contact with the new government, and cut off funding.
That helped to ignite a civil war in 2007, the violent takeover of Gaza by Hamas, and the enduring, paralyzing Fatah-Hamas split. In the haste to expunge Hamas from the political landscape, the EU was quick to recognize the emergency PA government that Abbas established under Salam Fayyad in 2007, even in the absence of parliamentary approval, as required by Palestinian law. EU funds continued to flow as, all the while, Abbas began to roll back the democratic frontiers.
How the EU Can Support Palestinian Democracy
EU foreign policy has a poor reputation. Decisions require consensus from all twenty-seven member states in the Foreign Affairs Council, resulting in lowest-common-denominator policymaking and a preference for statements rather than action. National interests often prevail over EU values, such as human rights and democracy.
On the Israel-Palestine issue, ruptures and vetoes among the twenty-seven have increased in recent years, paralyzing decisionmaking. Traditionally, the EU has hidden behind U.S. policy positions on the conflict. Europeans should be modest in their ambitions, but there is certainly more that they can do with their existing leverage—specifically, EU funds—and in response to the international recognition sought by Hamas.
The EU can take several steps to support Palestinian democracy during elections and beyond. To start with, the union should push Israel to allow elections to be held in illegally annexed East Jerusalem. This is nonnegotiable for Fatah and Hamas and is stipulated in the 1995 Oslo II Accord. As of this writing, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not yet formally responded to Abbas’s election decree.
Equally, the PA should be ready to find technical solutions, following the imperfect model of the 2005 and 2006 elections, in which most East Jerusalemites voted in eastern municipal areas on the outskirts of Jerusalem and around 6,000 residents of the old city voted in Israeli post offices. Israel is blocking the entry into Palestinian territory of the EU’s election observation mission, which needs permission to enter via Israel under current coronavirus restrictions. The union should continue to press for the mission’s entry and look at alternative solutions, including the use of staff in the EU’s local delegation.
Next, and more difficult, are the election results. Naturally, the fewer demands imposed by international actors, the more democratic the outcome. The EU must not repeat the mistake it made in 2006 and should clearly commit now to respect the results of free and fair elections. It should push the United States to take the same position. Shifting regional dynamics may also create an opening: in March, the EU welcomed Libya’s new government of national accord, which includes Islamists and representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood; and as coalition negotiations unfold in Israel, Netanyahu may have to rely on the support of the conservative Islamic party the United Arab List (also known as Ra’am) to form yet another fragile Israeli government.
EU diplomats are rightly exploring alternative ways of recognizing a unity Fatah-Hamas government. Hamas does not intend to take key, front-facing ministerial positions, instead installing technocrats in lower-profile departments, which should make recognition easier. Rather than rely on the Quartet principles, which were political and designed to exclude Hamas, the EU should be more flexible.
Broadly, member states are moving toward this more flexible position, with France and Ireland leading the way and Hungary and the Czech Republic the most hostile. For instance, the EU could accept a formulation similar to a two-state solution along the 1967 borders without explicit Palestinian recognition of Israel. And so long as the government as a whole agrees to certain principles, the EU could draw a distinction with the factions within the government and not insist that they sign up. Of course, if there were escalations from Gaza militants under a national unity government, this could jeopardize international engagement.
Greater inclusion of Hamas will be important, and that means an end to the damaging policy of no contact. The EU should tie contact to achievable benchmarks, with development—not humanitarian—funding for Gaza made conditional on reaching each stage. However unpalatable the movement may be, it remains a dominant political force, and by cutting off contact with Hamas, the EU misses the opportunity to influence it. Neither international isolation nor Israel’s closure of Gaza has weakened Hamas’s influence. The movement has become much more pragmatic and has made concessions, such as accepting a new system of proportional representation that gives Fatah an advantage and provisionally agreeing not to run a presidential candidate of its own. Engagement should invite further moderation. Hamas has realized that international credibility is the way to achieve its goals; for example, through inclusion in the PNC, Hamas could finally achieve PLO membership.
For now, change to the no-contact policy is not on the table. There is support in the European External Action Service (EEAS)—the EU’s foreign policy arm—for ending the policy, but the member states are driving it, particularly those in Central and Eastern Europe and Germany. Engagement with a national unity government that contains Hamas, even if not formally with Hamas itself, could build confidence among European states.
Fears that Hamas could sweep to power in the West Bank are unfounded: the new national list system of proportional representation in the PLC will most likely mean no list can obtain a majority. Given the power-sharing agreement already reached between Hamas and Fatah, there will be no change to territorial control. In fact, Hamas will likely seek a deal with Fatah to allow the PA to return to Gaza to resume administrative control, while Hamas maintains a political role and, of course, security control and its arms.
The union has been working to tie funds to conditions within its own borders, with a new mechanism to make EU funds for member states conditional on respect for the rule of law. The next move is to link democratic values and funds in the union’s foreign policy. The EU should use the democracy clauses in its bilateral agreements with the Palestinians to make its support contingent on elections and meaningful democratic progress. If Abbas chooses to postpone or cancel the PLC or presidential election without proper grounds, the EU must not hide behind excuses such as the coronavirus pandemic or the situation in East Jerusalem. The union could suspend or cut funding—a measure that has already been falsely reported and is a far cry from reality. EEAS officials said in interviews that there are no contingency plans in place.4
The same goes if the PLC election materializes but Abbas does not allow the council to function properly. He could, for instance, perform a government reshuffle away from national unity without consulting the parliament, as he did in 2014. Going forward, a broad rule could be that the EU imposes conditionality on those actions for which the PA can meaningfully be held responsible, without excessive Israeli or international involvement.
The EU should mirror any stick approach it uses with the Palestinians in its bilateral relations with Israel. The union should push back strongly against Israel if it chooses to inhibit the PLC by blocking travel of delegates between Gaza and the West Bank. More broadly, the EU should refrain from deepening bilateral ties with Israel in view of violations of Palestinian human rights—also covered by bilateral agreements—so as not to heighten the asymmetry further. Yet that would require political will, which is scarce.
Democracy building went hand in hand with the peace process. That process is dying, and if Palestinian democracy continues to decay, that should merit a fundamental rethink of EU support to the Palestinians. EU officials are skeptical about the chances of reconfiguring the “donor machine,” as one put it in an interview, citing a lack of energy or interest as well as often-mentioned concerns about instability.5
Member states are in a collective inertia, and a move to revamp EU support is a sensitive political decision that would require consensus in the Foreign Affairs Council. It would need a group of member states or the union’s foreign policy high representative to run with the issue to gradually build agreement—the former option being more likely. The EU could redirect funding away from defunct PA institutions and toward a broad range of grassroots political movements and civil society organizations. Even without a peace process or Palestinian statehood on the horizon, elections are still significant and worth supporting to ensure accountability for decisionmaking and oversight of services provided by the PA.
Civil Society Support
Finally, support to civil society means pushing back on attacks not only by the Palestinian authorities but also by Israel. The Israeli government has sought to delegitimize anti-occupation nongovernmental organizations, especially those working on human rights, in the Palestinian territories as well as in Israel and to put pressure on international donors to cut off funding. The EU should not succumb to political pressures to placate Israel and should proactively respond to false claims—for instance, that the EU funds Palestinian organizations with links to terrorism—as the head of the EU delegation to the Palestinians did in an open letter in March 2020.
Democracy is rarely immaculate—and no Palestinian elections will be. But this is an opportunity for the EU to enable a meaningful Palestinian national conversation and interrupt the political stasis that has enveloped the territory at such great cost to the Palestinians.
This article is part of the European Democracy Hub initiative run by Carnegie Europe and the European Partnership for Democracy.
Beth Oppenheim is the director of international relations at Gisha, an Israeli human rights nongovernmental organization that seeks to protect the free movement of Palestinians, based in Tel Aviv. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect Gisha’s positions.
The author would like to thank the diplomats, officials, and experts who shared their insights with her for this article.
1 Author communication with an independent adviser on the conflict, formerly to the Palestinian government, March 19, 2021.
2 Data provided to the author by the Office of the European Union Representative (West Bank and Gaza Strip, UNRWA), April 13, 2021. The total amount does not include direct and indirect support to the Palestinian Authority, for instance the payment of civil servant salaries.
4 Author communication with EU officials and an adviser, March 19, 2021, and March 26, 2021.
5 Author communication with an EU official, March 19, 2021.