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Foreign diplomacy in the Palestinian elections

As Palestinians begin the countdown to their general legislative and presidential elections in May and July of this year, there seems to be growing interest among foreign actors in shaping their outcome. This has started to worry the Palestinian leadership.
A large number of competing lists for the Palestinian elections is being seen as an indication of the people’s “thirst” for change. Election officials have announced that 36 candidate lists have been approved to run in legislative elections set for next month. The vote, which precedes a presidential election called for July 31, is part of efforts by the dominant Palestinian movements — Fatah and Hamas — to boost international support for Palestinian governance.

On February 16, Major General Jibril Rajoub, secretary-general of the Central Committee of Fatah, said on Palestinian TV that some Arab countries have been trying hard to interfere in the Palestinian elections and the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation talks.

Three days later, Bassam al-Salhi, secretary-general of the Palestinian People’s Party and member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, noted in an interview for the website Arabi21 that: “Many countries will pump huge sums of money because they want to influence in the Legislative Council. We are facing interference from many countries, Arab and foreign.”

Although these Palestinian officials have not named the foreign players they are referring to, it seems they are particularly worried about pressure from Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). All of them have various stakes in the elections and are pursuing certain outcomes in line with their regional and domestic interests.

Foreign interests

It is no secret that President Mahmoud Abbas’s call for elections was not a voluntary decision or due to Arab efforts, but came as a result of American and European pressure. The European Union even threatened to end the financial support it provides to Ramallah if the elections get cancelled. Brussels and Washington both want the Palestinian Authority to regain legitimacy before moving forward in their dealings with the Palestinians. The elections are also supported by two other important regional players – Turkey and Qatar.

The announcement of the vote, however, was not well received in some Arab capitals, especially Cairo and Amman. Both fear a repeat of the 2006 elections, when Hamas won decisively in Gaza, which led to an armed conflict with Fatah. If this happens again, it could have a destabilizing effect on both Egyptian and Jordanian domestic affairs.

The Egyptian regime, in particular, sees Hamas as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which it has been trying to eradicate since the coup against the government of President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. A Hamas victory could make it more immune to Cairo’s pressure, as it would gain electoral legitimacy. It could also reinvigorate the Brotherhood in Egypt.

Jordan also fears a stronger Hamas, but it is also worried about any kind of post-election instability, which could provoke disturbances within the large Palestinian population it is home to.

The UAE is also showing keen interest in the Palestinian elections. By leading the efforts for Arab normalisation with Israel, it has sought to take over the Palestinian issue from its traditional patrons – Egypt and Jordan – to further solidify its relations with Israel and ensure US support.

Israel was also not happy about the announcement of the new Palestinian elections. Although it has held four elections in two years for its citizens, it prefers that the Palestinians do not go to the polls at all because it wants to preserve the status quo. Israel wants Abbas to stay in power and continue his cooperation with the Israeli security services, which would enable the Israeli occupation and apartheid to expand unabated. For this reason, whoever forms the next Israeli government after the March 23 elections will likely seek a Fatah win (specifically Abbas’s wing) and try to undermine Hamas.

Already, Israeli forces have been trying to intimidate Hamas’s members in the West Bank, arresting some of their leaders and harassing others to discourage them from running in the elections.

Meanwhile, Fatah is facing challenges from dissident factions including the Freedom list, led by Nasser Al-Qidwa, a nephew of the late Palestinian icon, Yasser Arafat. Before electoral campaigning officially begins at the end of April, unofficial indications have emerged signalling that the Palestinian street will see a heated battle. During the past few days, social media platforms and local news sites have witnessed a state of sharp polarization. Those interactions have brought out signs of hostility among the competitors’ programs and their political and intellectual orientations.

By Jumana Jabeer

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