Abbas and Netanyahu Turn to Elections to Solidify Control

 

In systems of government, elections are supposed to be institutions that build the foundations of legitimacy as well as serve as vehicles for the peaceful handover of power. As a new year begins in Israel/Palestine, however, leaders there are seeking to use elections to sideline challenges and challengers, solidify their grip on power, and maintain the status quo.

Election Deception

It is easy to assume that because a political entity holds elections, its leaders are therefore democratic, legitimate, and accountable to those they govern. This does not necessarily follow in Israel and Palestine. In Israel, for example, the state controls the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea through a variety of arrangements. The territory in the West Bank and Gaza is under military occupation, and while it is not considered as sovereign Israeli soil under international law, Israel dominates the political and economic affairs within it. Similarly, in the municipality of Jerusalem, Israel claims sovereignty that is not recognized internationally, whereas it is acknowledged inside the pre-1967 borders of Israel.

In each of these spaces, consent of the governed varies. Inside pre-1967 Israel, Israeli citizens—including non-Jews—have the right to vote, even if they are treated as second-class citizens. In occupied Jerusalem, Palestinians who are residents but not citizens (the overwhelming majority) cannot vote in national elections. In the occupied territories, Jews—such as those living in Israeli settlements in the West Bank—get to vote while Palestinians do not. Indeed, several million Palestinians ruled by the Israeli state military in the West Bank and Gaza have no say in who rules them and cannot vote for the decision-makers who ultimately pass the laws that impact their lives. The Palestinian Authority (PA) creates a different deception by elections. While Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza (and sometimes Jerusalem) can vote for Palestinian leaders in the PA, the Palestinian Authority effectively has little authority because it is not the sovereign in the territory and is entirely subservient to the Israeli state. For these reasons, elections in both Israel and in the territory nominally under the purview of the PA are ineffective as institutions for fostering democratic legitimacy—despite periodically creating the appearance of it.

Elections in both Israel and in the territory nominally under the purview of the PA are ineffective as institutions for fostering democratic legitimacy—despite periodically creating the appearance of it.

Palestine Elections Background

The Palestinian Authority was created as part of the Oslo peace process in the early 1990s. The ostensible aim was for the PA to become a transitional vehicle that would evolve into the independent government of a state of Palestine. Its parliament, the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), was also established in the process. While many Palestinian political parties participated in the PLC, one important political player that did not take part early on was the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas).  The absence of one of the larger political parties in Palestinian politics meant that the PLC could never be truly representative and that its legitimacy would always be called into question. This changed in 2006, however. With the blessings of the George W. Bush Administration, PLC elections were called for January of 2006 with Hamas participating under a slate of candidates in the Change and Reform List. The Bush White House had advanced the idea of democratization in the Middle East as part of the so-called War on Terror.

When elections were held, the Change and Reform List managed to win a majority of the PLC seats. With Abbas’s faction, Fatah, declining to join a unity government, Hamas would essentially govern the Palestinian Authority’s parliament and a party member would serve as its speaker.

This created a massive problem for Abbas. If he cooperated with his fellow Palestinians in Hamas in government, he might be able to create a united Palestinian front—but he would lose the support of Washington. Abbas calculated that Washington’s support was his lifeline and therefore adopted a policy of marginalizing Hamas, in conjunction with Israel and the United States. This meant that Gaza would become further isolated and besieged as Israel and the United States worked to strangle Hamas through collective punishment. It also meant that the institutions of the Palestinian Authority would come to a standstill as the political division impacted them all. Despite many failed efforts at reconciliation between the parties, the divide has persisted. Abbas, who was 70 at the time of the elections in 2006, is now 83 and is not in very good health.

Along with the legitimacy problem for Abbas, the divisions between Fatah and Hamas created an additional and related challenge around the question of succession to the Palestinian president.

Along with the legitimacy problem for Abbas, this prolonged issue created an additional and related challenge around the question of succession. Based on the laws that are supposed to govern the Palestinian Authority, the PLC speaker would assume the presidency in the event that the president dies in office. The current PLC speaker is Aziz Dweik, a Hamas party member. This means that should Abbas die while in office, and he has had repeated health scares in recent years, Hamas would assume control of the Palestinian Authority.

Abbas has refused to step down, despite the vast majority of Palestinians favoring that, and he has also not called for new presidential elections. Afraid of challenges from within his own party, he has also hesitated to make clear a process for succession. In 2016, however, Abbas established a constitutional court, stacked with political loyalists and sympathizers, which would be empowered to resolve constitutional problems. At the time it was panned by critics, who saw it as a power grab and believed that the institution would merely work to ensure the PA remains controlled by Fatah should Dweik be eligible for the presidency when Abbas dies. Suspicions that the court serves as a political instrument for Abbas’s empowerment were strengthened when it authorized him to strip parliamentary immunity of opponents.

Heading to Elections?

The court established by Abbas, which critics feared would be used to interrupt the PLC speaker’s succession to power, announced a ruling in early December that the PLC will be dissolved and that new elections will be held in six months. The dissolution of the PLC means that there is now no sitting parliament and thus no speaker. The suspicion of critics, therefore, seems to be well founded.

The dissolution of the PLC means that there is now no sitting parliament and thus no speaker. The suspicion of critics, therefore, seems to be well founded.

With the PLC out of the way, the PA’s problem of Dweik assuming power seems to be put to rest—that is, if the constitutional court’s ruling is, in fact, constitutional. Many have argued otherwise and, most recently, a plethora of Palestinian civil society organizations slammed the decision, stating that it

…has no basis in the Palestinian Basic Law, which does not allow for the dissolution of the PLC under any circumstances, not even under a state of emergency (Article 113). The Decision further violates constitutional principles and values, notably the principle of the rule of law, the principle of the separation of powers, and of the independence of the judiciary as the foundations of good governance. The Decision is political and unconstitutional in nature and sets a dangerous precedent for the dissolution of any legislative council, which may be elected in future.

While that debate will continue and is unlikely to be resolved, the question of elections and how they can be implemented remains. Previous attempts at elections have faltered over the question of their practicality given the political and geographic division between Gaza, the West Bank, and the Jerusalem. Absent a serious and unified effort by all political parties, such an achievement is impossible. In addition, given the very political nature of the court’s decision to dissolve the PLC, it probably made the remote possibility of elections in six months even less likely. With the dissolution of the PLC now in effect—even though this is controversial—and with elections unlikely, Abbas will presumably argue he will have to rule over the status quo indefinitely, while blaming others for lack of progress and claiming the prospect of Hamas succession is resolved.

Israel Elections Background

In Israel as well, elections have been called. The current Israeli parliament, the Knesset, which was dissolved this week, was elected in March 2015 when the Israeli electorate had empowered a right-wing governing coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu, who would begin his fourth term as prime minister of Israel. Since then, the coalition has governed with relative stability and nearly completed its entire term, which was set to expire in November 2019. Elections have now been announced for this coming April. Originally the coalition had some 61 of 120 members of the Israeli parliament and would expand eventually to 68, after a controversy around an Israeli soldier’s killing of a wounded Palestinian forced a change in the defense ministry and the resignation of former General Moshe Yaalon. Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beteinu party joined at that time, resigned last month after an embarrassing disagreement over the handling of Gaza. His withdrawal brought the coalition back down to 61 and meant elections were likely due to the coalition’s instability. Still, it survived for nearly a month before the decision was made to go to elections.

Netanyahu’s Decision

Why did a coalition that probably could have served out its full term suddenly determine it needed to go to elections? The apparent reason for the dissolution was disagreement over a law regulating conscription of ultra-orthodox Jews into the military. This recurring controversy was ordered to be resolved by the court in Israel. Religious parties oppose their conscription while the more secular parties support it. Netanyahu’s coalition included both points of view, as did the larger parliament. On December 2, the court ordered the government to work to pass a bill to resolve this question within six weeks. Also at the same time, however, it was announced that the police in Israel have enough evidence to recommend the indictment of Netanyahu on bribery charges in one of the four different corruption investigations swirling around him.

Netanyahu’s political and legal fate are in the hands of one man: Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit. With elections in the offing, Netanyahu is hoping that Mandelblit will hold off on issuing any indictments against him.

Netanyahu’s political and legal fate are in the hands of one man: Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit. With elections in the offing, Netanyahu is hoping that Mandelblit will hold off on issuing any indictments because he would want to avoid the appearance of interfering in the electoral process. It was reported last week that Mandelblit was leaning toward indicting Netanyahu in February or March, with a hearing to follow six months later. Mandelbilt is also coming under heavy pressure, especially from allies of Netanyahu and his right-wing government, who see his decision to indict Netanyahu as possibly the only factor that could bring down a right-wing government. The mass circulated and free pro-Netanyahu tabloid Israel Hayom, which is financed by US billionaire and Trump backer Sheldon Adelson, published threats attributed to Netanyahu which said that Mandelblit “will become the target of a merciless attack” by party loyalists. The tabloid quickly edited the story to claim the threats had not come from Netanyahu but from party officials. On the same day it was revealed that Mandelblit’s father’s tombstone in a cemetery had been defaced.

The election might buy Netanyahu a sort of legal stay of execution—or it might not. Even if he is indicted, it is not clear if that prevents him from running.

The election might buy Netanyahu a sort of legal stay of execution—or it might not. Even if he is indicted, it is not clear if that prevents him from running. The stakes for the Israeli right seem higher today than ever before as Netanyahu’s dominance and marginalization of internal political rivals over the years have turned his Likud party into a one-man show. Increasingly, Israeli politics is transitioning from a competition between parties to a competition between personalities, and Netanyahu is the biggest personality on the Israeli political scene.

Subverting the True Purpose of Elections

It is apparent that neither Abbas nor Netanyahu is using elections to garner legitimacy through the polity’s consent; rather, the upcoming elections will serve as an attempt to quell internal legal challenges and predicaments, ones that could hinder the immediate and longer term prospects of their factions’ rule, respectively. Both leaders have managed to survive at the top for years, longer than most probably expected, and yet both are domestically besieged and up against ticking clocks. What the situations make clear is that neither side is capable of delivering anything of substance under these conditions and instead both are inclined to cling to the status quo for as long as they possibly can. In short, if change is going to come, it will not emerge from inside Israel or Palestine—it would need to be spurred by external forces of change.

Yousef Munayyer is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Yousef and read his previous publications click here