To break the deadlock, Palestine needs democratic elections

To break the deadlock, Palestine needs democratic elections
Opinion: After the failure of the Oslo Accords, Trump's 'Deal of the Century', and the recent wave of aggression in East Jerusalem and Gaza, democratic elections are the only way out, writes Hicham Alaoui.
9 min read
23 Jun, 2021
Both the Oslo Accords (1993-1995) and Trump's 'Deal of the Century' have been unable to break the stalemate in Israel-Palestine. [Getty]

The traumatic violence that shook Palestine and Israel in May marked the terminal collapse of nearly three decades of flawed peacemaking. 

It began with the Oslo Accords. The Accords did not create a viable framework for long-term coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians, instead, they rallied tentative confidence for a two-state solution. One consequence of this was that the international community granted powers of governance to the Palestinian Authority, whose formal role became one of policing Palestine in the context of an unending occupation.

"In the 'Deal of the Century,' the US surrendered any pretence of moral stature and respect for international law"

Repeated failures to resuscitate negotiations for a two-state solution have culminated in the so-called "Deal of the Century". In this hegemonic project by the Trump administration, the US surrendered any pretence of moral stature and respect for international law. It granted Israel an open license to formalise its annexation through land grabs and colonial settlement. 

The Arab states involved in the Abraham Accords supported the Deal for strategic reasons. Israel represented a convenient ally against Iran in the context of America's geopolitical retreat from the region. The Deal of the Century liquidated Oslo's shaky foundation for peace. It turned the retail concession of Palestinian rights into the wholesale abandonment of Palestinian statehood.

The recent violence is the inevitable result of this, accentuating the failure of normalisation. It echoes the past 2008 and 2014 conflicts centred on Gaza, waged between Hamas and Israel.

"Both Hamas and the Netanyahu government feared what Sheikh Jarrah represented, namely the genesis of a new civil movement for Palestinian rights"

The perverse game of Hamas and Israel

Yet upon closer examination, this new crisis does not simply repeat recent history. It exposes a new development - the convergence of interest between Hamas and Israel in suppressing popular mobilisation. 

Both Hamas and the Netanyahu government feared what Sheikh Jarrah represented, namely the genesis of a new civil movement for Palestinian rights. Like many other social movements, it emphasised peaceful disobedience rather than armed struggle. It emerged independently of both Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, providing a new frame of political reference for many Palestinians.

This situation presents a historical paradox. Until recently, the region expected the occupation of Palestine to invoke something like the Arab Spring. Yet, instead, it has been the spirit of civil resistance from the Arab Spring that has transformed the Palestinian equation. 

The defiance of Palestinian residents in East Jerusalem against Israeli displacement centred upon networks of horizontal solidarity that incorporated new languages of resistance. They were bolstered as well by transnational activism and global support, with solidarity protests in much of the Arab world as well as the West.

"It has been the spirit of civil resistance from the Arab Spring that has transformed the Palestinian equation"

It was the nonviolence of this movement that engendered Israeli violence, which in turn begot Hamas' entry into conflict with Israel. 

Until the events of Sheikh Jarrah, Hamas was the only Palestinian political force determined to resist Israel. The situation in the West Bank is most telling. There, 25 Palestinians were killed in the recent conflict - the highest death toll in a single episode since the Second Intifada two decades ago. 

Yet protests across Palestine and Israel continue. We have not witnessed this scale of popular mobilisation since 1936. We have also not seen this degree of Israeli incarceration since the Second Intifada, with security forces detaining thousands of Palestinian demonstrators since April.

It is fear of this popular mobilisation that gives Hamas and the Israeli government an overlapping interest, despite each desiring to annihilate the other. They align by accident, not mutual respect. Israel is accustomed to waging violent conflict and is completely disoriented by the moral vocabulary of civil rights. Likewise, the ideological vision of Hamas is built upon armed struggle, not democratic grassroots power rooted in the historic cradle of Palestine, Jerusalem.

The Oslo Accords turned the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) into a governing body, removing its previous designation as a "terrorist actor." The irony of the historic peace process is that Hamas, too, may well see its terrorist label diluted by Israel, which needs Hamas as an interlocutor.

Both Hamas and Israel have gained from the violence.

The Israeli government has entrenched its strategy of militarising the Palestinian issue by referencing its right to self-defence. Even the political alternatives to Netanyahu, like Benny Gantz, supported the bombardment of Gaza. Hamas, meanwhile, risks turning into a Palestinian version of Hezbollah. It has used the conflict to further evolve from a national resistance organisation to a military power, one whose armed capabilities give it an "end of days" mentality with an international self-perception, with little regard to the interests of its people.

Neither actor cares much for any peaceful solution. The two perversely feed off one another in a ritualised enactment of continuous representation, within well-defined red lines.

Who profits from the crime?

Several regional voices use the conflict to reinforce their own stature. Qatar and Turkey, who constitute a geopolitical axis that postures against the UAE-Saudi-Israeli axis, emerged early on as defenders of Palestine. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in particular, garnered acclaim across the Muslim world for his combative rhetoric against Israel, and his religious call to protect the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem from further assaults. The Emir of Qatar has also stepped into the role of protector of the Palestinian people.

Egypt and Jordan, as well, have gained visibility from the crisis, due to their efforts to broker a ceasefire. Jordan's actions were inevitable, given the difficult position of the Hashemite Kingdom. Its monarchy retains custodianship over the holy sites of Jerusalem, but the country also fears that it will be turned into a substitute Palestine. For his part, Egypt's President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi alternated between pro-Palestinian militancy and the non-partisan mediation reminiscent of the Mubarak regime.

"The Biden administration made clear that the US's diplomatic leverage has hard limits, and, above all, still abides by Israeli exceptionalism"

International actors have failed in addressing the crisis. The US marginalised itself, unable to reclaim the mantle of arbiter for peace. The Biden administration's repeated interventions to halt UN Security Council discussions calling for a ceasefire made clear that the US's diplomatic leverage has hard limits, and, above all, still abides by Israeli exceptionalism.

The EU did not fare better. It coordinated collective action among its member states only after a week of violence and even so could do no better than issue a meek call for peace. The bloc remains in the shadow of the US.

In the Arab world, the United Arab Emirates has also been unnerved, for it had assumed the disappearance of any possibility of Palestinian mobilisation. By leading efforts to sign the Abraham Accords last year, the UAE garnered praise for inaugurating a new era of multilateral peace. 

However, the recent crisis has shown that the UAE's agreement with Israel was a strategic tool for bilateral cooperation, not a fulcrum for advancing the Palestinian issue. While semi-official voices on social media adopted the Israeli narrative of self-defence, the Emirati government also offered to mediate between Hamas and Israel, although these efforts were overtaken by Egyptian and Jordanian actions.

infographic - World reacts to UAE-Israel normalisation

The UAE does have one important card to play, namely Mohammed Dahlan. Dahlan retains a fierce rivalry against Mahmoud Abbas, making him a target of Fatah. Hamas similarly remains wary of Dahlan, who has criticised the Islamist organisation in the past but also maintains a popular base in Gaza. He could well have a role to play, with Emirati support.

Saudi Arabia and Iran remained on the sidelines of the violence, which reflected their insecurities in distinctive ways.

Saudi Arabia will become more prudent in balancing its domestic and regional interests. The outpouring of pro-Palestinian sentiment was enough to halt, at least temporarily, its discreet impulse towards normalisation with Israel.

Iran faces a different dilemma. In effect, it has become too successful for its own good and now must pivot against its overexposure. The Iranian regime transferred missile technologies to Hamas, which has created its own rockets for attacking Israel.

Yet Hamas did not join Iran's Shia coalition and has chosen to remain in the Arab Sunni camp. After all, Hamas began as a branch of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Therefore, Iran did not exploit the conflict for geopolitical purposes. There was no military reaction from Hezbollah to the bombardment of Gaza, which would have been the surest sign of Iranian escalation. Instead, Tehran remains focused more upon regrouping its forces in Iraq and negotiating a renewed nuclear deal with the West.

Legislative elections are the only solution

This shifting regional landscape, as well as the Hamas-Israel convergence, leaves Palestinians in dire straits. 

The best pathway out of the crisis is to hold elections, which have been indefinitely delayed by Hamas and Fatah. Neither group wishes to hold elections for fear of losing their territorial domains: Hamas fears losing Gaza to Fatah, and Fatah fears losing the West Bank to Hamas.

"No degree of diplomatic condemnation of Israel will halt its occupation and annexation, and no amount of sanctions and threats will deter Hamas from its military posture"

However, elections would give the Palestinian people a crucial opportunity to connect with other major human rights struggles around the world, from Nelson Mandela to Black Lives Matter. Elections could provide a legitimate government, which could serve as a representative to the world and reactivate the possibility of a two-state solution or any other credible alternative.

Elections could empower new voices on the Palestinian street, such as the youth activists and social movements that mobilised around Sheikh Jarrah, to replace the ageing elites that have ruled since Oslo. They could provide an indigenous alternative to future governance under a Hamas organisation that is turning into a Palestinian Hezbollah, or under a Fatah that remains a prisoner of its rent-seeking behaviour derived from its role as a proxy policeman for Palestine.

This is where the international community can do the most good. No degree of diplomatic condemnation of Israel will halt its occupation and annexation, and no amount of sanctions and threats will deter Hamas from its military posture. Rather, the international community must promote democratic elections to give voice to the silent Palestinian majority. Only this can break the political impasse and offer a new pathway to ensuring the rights of the Palestinian people.

Hicham Alaoui is an Associate Researcher at Harvard University's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. He has authored, along with Robert Springborg, the forthcoming book, The Political Economy of Arab Education.

Follow him on Twitter: @HichamAlaouiSW

This article was originally published by our friends at Orient XXI.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff, or the author's employer.