Israel must set conditions for Hamas over Palestinian elections

Israel should agree to the Palestinian demand of enabling elections also in East Jerusalem, but it should not agree for terror group Hamas to participate in the electoral process.

al-monitor A Palestinian man shows his ink-stained finger after casting his ballot at a polling station during municipal elections, Yatta, West Bank, May 13, 2017. Photo by REUTERS/Ammar Awad.

Topics covered

east jerusalem, hamas, plc, palestinian elections, palestinian authority, oslo accord, plo, mahmoud abbas

Dec 16, 2019

After many long months of negotiations between Fatah and Hamas, the parties finally agreed Dec. 10 to hold elections — first for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), and then, three months later, for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority. Current President Mahmoud Abbas demanded that Israel once again allow Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem to vote — a controversial issue that was resolved in all sorts of creative ways in the past. Minister of Civil Affairs Hussein al-Sheikh has already approached the relevant parties in Israel to request their approval for this.

With all due respect to internal Palestinian agreements, Israel has no right to be satisfied with them alone. It must insist that no Palestinian individual or group that expects to achieve its goals through undemocratic means is allowed to participate in these elections, as stated in the interim agreement of September 1995. The fact that Hamas already participated in previous Palestinian elections cannot be used to justify repeating that terrible mistake.

Back in 2005, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made a dramatic decision to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip. US President George W. Bush then came to the conclusion that only democracy could save the Arab world, and somehow convinced Sharon to allow Hamas to participate in the election for the PLC. Bush believed that if Hamas, which had boycotted the previous election, did decide to participate, it would grant legitimacy to the process and to the Oslo Accord, which gave birth to it. Furthermore, it was thought that if Hamas would win about 25% of the vote, it could become a constructive force in the emerging Palestinian democracy.

For some reason, there was no revolt against the decision made by the leader of the Likud and prime minister, even among parties on the right. I could not understand why Sharon agreed to this without arguing against Bush’s demand. I therefore went to see him about it with the explicit clause in the agreement in hand. The 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement (Annex 2, Article 3.2: Nominations) states, "The nomination of any candidates, parties or coalitions will be refused, and such nomination or registration will be canceled, if such candidates, parties or coalitions: (1) commit or advocate racism, or (2) pursue the implementation of their aims by unlawful or non-democratic means."

Sharon told me that he saw no difference between Hamas and Fatah. As far as he was concerned, they both want to destroy Israel. In that case, if other Palestinian parties were allowed to participate in the election, he saw no reason to oppose the participation of Hamas. According to him, the only difference between the other parties and Hamas is that Hamas says what it plans to do, while the other parties engage in wordplay.

The outcome was very problematic. The regional election system resulted in a Hamas victory. While it ran just a single candidate in each constituency, Fatah was unable to force its representatives to join forces. Once Fatah’s representatives started splitting the vote by running against each other, the third candidate, representing Hamas, would win.

The Hamas victory caught everyone off guard, including Hamas itself. No one ever took the possibility that Hamas might win into consideration. Bush had no idea how to respond, or whether he should recognize the winner at all. The European Union immediately set four conditions for Hamas, focused mainly on it denouncing terrorism and recognizing international agreements signed by the PLO. Hamas was unwilling to meet any of these conditions whatsoever, resulting in a situation that has persisted for the past 13 years. Though most nations do not recognize Hamas, they are nonetheless forced to engage with it. This is true of Israel’s current right-wing government as well.

For its part, Hamas still claims repeatedly that the world was hypocritical. No one asked it for anything before the election. They were simply allowed to run on their own platform. Then, when the democratic system gave them a victory, the world tried to impose conditions, and was even willing to boycott Hamas if it failed to meet those conditions. Meanwhile, various self-righteous individuals reacted to the international boycott by adopting the Hamas position and demanded that the Hamas government be recognized because it was elected democratically.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who regards Hamas as his mortal enemy, also faced a crisis. In the end, he was forced to swear in a government headed by Hamas member Ismail Haniyeh, with the ministers committing themselves to follow principles that Abbas dictated. This included the intention to use political means only to advance Palestinian objectives. Israel was unwilling to engage with the government that was formed, even though Abbas argued that Israel must realize that its partner in dialogue is not Hamas but the government. Just as the Israeli government includes members who oppose the Oslo Accord but are committed to the basic guidelines of the government, the Palestinian government also includes members who are opposed to the agreement. Yet even so, their commitment is not to their platforms but to the common guidelines of the government. This supposedly logical argument was rejected by Israel, and rightly so.

In June 2007, 1½ years after the election, a violent conflict between Fatah and Hamas broke out in Gaza. By the time it was over, Hamas had seized control of the entire Gaza Strip, and the artificial connection between these two movements was ripped apart. It has yet to be mended. Today, it is hard to believe that the current agreement for elections really rectifies the situation. Having signed the Oslo interim agreement, however, we have no reason to follow Sharon’s example. Today, everyone seems to understand the difference between Hamas, which is totally unwilling to recognize Israel or renounce the use of violence, and Fatah under Mahmoud Abbas, which opposes the use of force and coordinates with Israel on security matters in a way that benefits both sides.

With Hamas about to compete in the upcoming election, its positions are not just some internal Palestinian issue. They are our business, too. Just like the government of Israel must enable Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem to vote — by mail or some other roundabout way — it must, at the very least, insist that Hamas denounce terrorism. If Hamas is unwilling to do so, Israel must do everything it can to oppose its repeat participation in the Palestinian elections. As long as Hamas insists on its right to engage in resistance by force and to participate in the election, it continues to be a terrorist organization and, according to Israel’s agreement with the PLO, barred from participating in the democratic process.

Israel must show interest in Fatah and Hamas reaching a comprehensive understanding. Without an understanding between the two groups, any Israeli government hoping to achieve peace will need to have separate channels to communicate with the Palestinians: One channel would involve negotiations with the PLO in the West Bank in an effort to reach a permanent agreement, while the other channel would link with Hamas in Gaza, in an effort to reach a long-term cease-fire. On the other hand, the fact that the two groups have reached an agreement between themselves for the elections must not lead Israel to abandon a core principle yet again. Individuals and groups committed to terrorism must be prevented from participating in the Palestinian election.

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