AIPAC wants to decide who runs in Palestinian elections

AIPAC wants to decide who can run in Palestinian elections
7 min read
16 Feb, 2021
Comment: America's Israel lobby has no right to dictate who is or is not eligible and legitimate to run in Palestinian elections. Doing so is profoundly anti-democratic, writes Mitchell Plitnick.
AIPAC says the US should not accept the 'participation of an unreformed Hamas' [Getty]
In May, July, and August, Palestinians are scheduled to have their first national elections in 15 years. This is an important event, even though it must be stressed that Palestinians are not actually voting for representatives of the body that governs them.

Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza continue to be ruled by Israel under its occupation, and have no say in the makeup of the government that ultimately controls their lives.

Still, the elections are not without consequence. The Palestinian Authority president is a key Palestinian leader, the Legislative Council (PLC) does impact the lives of Palestinians under occupation, and the Palestinian National Committee (PNC) is the governing body of the PLO, the only globally recognised representative of the Palestinian people.

So, while the elections are much less than what we normally associate with national votes, they are still a rare opportunity for Palestinians under occupation to make their voices heard, and to have some input on the leadership of their stateless community. That should be an event that those of us in western democracies should call to expand.

But some don't see it that way.

The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has voiced their concern that Hamas, one of the two largest parties in the Palestinian political arena, would run in the elections, and called on the United States and international community to ensure that they are barred from the ballot.

The bill is an attempt to control Palestinian politics in a way that is anathema to democracy

In a policy memo on 8 February, AIPAC wrote, "As the Palestinians organise elections, the United States and the international community must make clear that they will not accept the participation of an unreformed Hamas. The world can only accept as legitimate a Palestinian government that renounces violence, accepts Israel, and abides by previous agreements."

AIPAC makes it clear that they want the United States and anyone else who will go along to ensure that a major Palestinian party cannot run for office.

This stands in stark contrast to AIPAC's silence about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently saying that the Otzma Yehudit party - a far-right, racist party and which has been roundly denounced by Israelis and Jews all over the world - would be welcome in his government, although he would not offer its leader, Itamar Ben-Gvir a seat in his cabinet.

It is worth asking by what logic AIPAC, or even the United States government, believes it can dictate who is or is not eligible and legitimate to run in Palestinian elections.

The argument that AIPAC makes - that Hamas is a designated terrorist group - is impossible to take seriously when we are talking about an American government that sanctioned the military takeover by General Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi in Egypt not so long ago. We might look at the many similar instances of support for dictatorships and violent usurpers around the world.

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Just a little further back into history, we see the formation of the first Israeli Knesset in 1949, which included the Herut party, led by Menachem Begin and included former members of the Irgun Z'vai Leumi and the LEHI, both of which had been branded terrorist groups.

Despite intense rivalry, even enmity, with the majority Labor party and its coalition partners, it was deemed crucial for the health of the nation that Herut - which would later form the nucleus of today's Likud coalition - be included and fully participate in the elections and the Knesset.

Would AIPAC have voiced similar objections back then? Hardly, no more than they would about the far more criminal and dangerous Republican party in the US today.

More important than the hypocrisy, however, is the paradox this strategy creates.

One of the clearest problems facing Palestinians and those who hope for a better future in the region is the division among Palestinian factions, primarily between Hamas and Fatah. AIPAC's call, if heeded, would make this problem insoluble.

Hamas is a major political force in Palestinian politics, and it cannot be sidelined in elections without silencing a significant chunk of the Palestinian people. More to the point, if we want to imagine some sort of agreement between the Palestinian and Israeli people down the road, it cannot possibly be valid or sustainable if it is arrived at by excluding a large portion of the populace.

The tragedy of this call is that AIPAC has not learned the lesson of the last Palestinian election in 2006. In that election, the party created by Hamas won a majority of the seats in the PLC, although Mahmoud Abbas remained president.

Hamas is a major political force in Palestinian politics, and it cannot be sidelined in elections without silencing a significant chunk of the Palestinian people

Yet when the results were tallied, and crucially, which were certified as free and fair, neither Israel nor the United States was prepared to accept the results. They immediately shunned the new Palestinian Authority, with many European countries following suit.

The United States and Israel at first tried to starve the new PA into submission and force Abbas to call new elections. When this failed and Abbas tried to negotiate a solution with Hamas, the US worked with Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan to foment a conflict in Gaza between Fatah forces and Hamas. But when that conflict erupted sooner than the US intended, Fatah was routed and the split between Gaza and the West Bank became institutionalised.

This should have sufficed to prove that attempts to manipulate and coerce political outcomes in the West Bank and Gaza were ill-advised. Clearly, AIPAC did not draw that lesson.

But AIPAC is not coming up with these ideas only in response to potential elections this spring and summer.

They point out in their memo, "In 2006, the US Congress passed the bipartisan Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, sponsored by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE). The law states that it shall be US policy to refrain from engaging in diplomacy with or providing financial support to a Palestinian government that involves Hamas, until the organisation disarms and abides by the Quartet Principles."

The wording of the bill is a little different, but AIPAC's reading is essentially correct. The fact that Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell were the sponsors, and the bill had a total of 90 co-sponsors in the Senate magnifies the power this point will have with the new US administration.

That law is contrary to professed democratic values, and AIPAC's call to bar Hamas takes it one abhorrent step further

The Quartet Principles are notoriously one-sided. The call for abandoning violence is made only to the Palestinians and ignores the far greater violence carried out by Israel, including the collective punishment of the siege on Gaza and the daily restrictions of Palestinian life in the West Bank.

The demand for recognition is made only on Palestinians, despite the fact that the PLO has long since recognised Israel and that Israel has never recognised the Palestinians as having equal national rights to themselves. Indeed, Israel's largest party, Likud, denies any such rights to Palestinians and opposes any sort of Palestinian independence or civil rights.

Crucially, however, the bill is directed at a "Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority" and Hamas itself. It does not prescribe any penalties for Hamas standing in an election, nor being a minority member in a Palestinian government.

Still, the bill is an attempt to control Palestinian politics in a way that is anathema to democracy. That law is contrary to professed democratic values, and AIPAC's call to bar Hamas from participation in Palestinian politics takes it one abhorrent step further.

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. He is the former vice president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and former director of the US Office of B'Tselem.

Follow him on Twitter: @MJPlitnick

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.