Western countries got it wrong when they believed that Hamas could not win the 2006 democratic elections they promoted in the Palestinian territories. Western leaders are getting it wrong again when they suggest that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is the only Palestinian player with democratic legitimacy and that he won elections in a “landslide, to quote the United Nations’ official Terje Roed-Larsen.
This is not supported by the facts. Abbas was elected in 2005 with some 60 percent of the votes, but those elections were not contested by Hamas. He received 500,000 votes in an electorate of some 1.2 million. A year later, in more competitive elections, Hamas gained 44 percent of the votes, amounting to 440,000 votes. Both elections were considered to have been genuinely democratic by many international observers.
The latest opinion poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research indicates that a meager 13 percent of respondents declared themselves satisfied with Abbas’ handling of the Palestinian crisis, and his overall approval rating fell to 36 percent. Abbas remains the legitimate president, but not more than Hamas was the legitimate government party. Contrary to perceptions that the West Bank is “Fatahland, last year Hamas won a higher proportion of seats there than in the Gaza Strip.
Legitimacy and perceptions of legitimacy are important. They are the only pillars against a complete breakdown of government in a context where “state security forces have degenerated into partisan actors. It is therefore vital to look for solutions to the crisis based on the Palestinians’ sense of legitimacy, not that imagined in some Western capitals.
Abbas’ legitimacy will wear thin if he cannot deliver stability quickly. Legally the authority of the emergency government expires after 30 days. According to the basic law, two-thirds of the Legislative Council would have to confirm the emergency, but that will not happen since Hamas dominates the council and many lawmakers are in Israeli prisons. The expiry of the 30-day period may pose a legal problem for donors, who need transparent and lawful accounting mechanisms.
However, it will first of all be a political problem. Some 75 percent of Palestinians want fresh presidential and legislative elections, which would overcome the legitimacy problem. This may look tempting for Fatah, as opinion polls point to a slump in support for Hamas (33 percent) and a lead for Abbas over Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh if there were a presidential election. However, elections could be risky for Fatah, because the election system favors disciplined candidates and voters, which is not Fatah’s forte. More importantly, it seems impossible that proper elections could be held under current conditions. The independent election commission did an admirable job in the last elections, but who could guarantee an independent vote today? And how could Fatah campaign in the Gaza Strip or Hamas in parts of the West Bank?
How then can further civil war be avoided and where should legitimacy flow from? One opinion poll result that is often drowned out by crisis reporting is that 70 percent of Palestinians favor negotiations with Israel on a Palestinian state in Gaza and most parts of the West Bank. Rapid negotiations on a final status could possibly maintain Abbas’ legitimacy, but such negotiations are unlikely. It may, therefore, be necessary to legitimize them up front. Last year Abbas toyed with the idea of holding a referendum on the “prisoners’ document, a declaration by Palestinians held in Israeli prisons, including the popular Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti. The document called for a unity government and peace negotiations with Israel to be carried out by Abbas and the Palestine Liberation Organization. At the time Abbas used the referendum idea to pressure Hamas into a more flexible position.
The referendum plan may still have merits when compared to rapid elections or no elections at all. Whether in reference to the prisoners document or not, Abbas could call for a referendum to give him a mandate to negotiate a peace agreement within a specific time frame, promising that any peace deal would again be put to a referendum.
Hamas may find it difficult to object to such a plan, which after all promises to go back to the Palestinians on the most important question to them, in the face of a collapse of the Palestinian Authority. However, Abbas would need to propose this in good-faith negotiations with Hamas, because there is no clear legal basis for holding a referendum and Hamas should not perceive this as a mere replay of last year’s initiative. Abbas would have to offer something in return, such as a government of technocrats to oversee internal affairs until the conclusion of peace negotiations and subsequent general elections.
The conditions for peace negotiations are worse than two years ago. However, they are unlikely to improve. The West should not support Fatah to fight it out with Hamas, which could turn the Palestinian territories into another Iraq. Fatah and Hamas have committed egregious crimes against each other that cannot be undone. The international community should force them to talk to each other and force Israel to negotiate. Most Israelis favor a two-state solution. Only a peace deal with agreed borders will allow the world to determine whether Israel’s use of force in the West Bank is aimed at defending borders or at providing cover for its ever-expanding towns and settlements.
But time seems to be running out for a two-state solution. By voting in favor of a mandate for peace negotiations by Abbas, Palestinians would not only extend the president’s political legitimacy, they could also generate political momentum for serious negotiations that nobody else has been able or willing to generate since 2001. Michael Meyer-Resende and Michel Paternotrework for Democracy Reporting International, a Berlin-based group promoting democracy. They wrote this commentary, which reflects their personal opinion, for THE DAILY STAR.