Foreign interference in the Palestinian elections

Several foreign players are seeking to influence the outcome of the Palestinian elections.

Palestinian policemen guard the Palestinian legislative council in Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on January 16, 2021 [Mohamad Torokman/Reuters]

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.

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 have 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 destabilising 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 – in order 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 own 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 Israel 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 members in the West Bank, arresting some of their leaders and harassing others to discourage them from running in the elections.

Pressure diplomacy

The first indication that Palestinian elections will not be an internal affair came on January 17, less than 48 hours after Abbas issued his presidential decree announcing the dates of the elections, as the Egyptian and Jordanian heads of intelligence, Abbas Kamel and Ahmed Hosni, travelled to Ramallah.

I learned from Palestinian sources familiar with the first visit that Kamel and Hosni discussed with Abbas the procedural details of the elections, including the political situation in Fatah, which has struggled with internal divisions and might potentially face defections ahead of the vote.

Currently, there is no consensus within the party over the re-election of Abbas and there is a possibility that challengers will emerge. There is already growing support for the candidacy of Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah leader who is serving several life sentences in an Israeli prison.

Furthermore, there is also no consensus within Fatah on candidates for the Legislative Council. Currently, a few different electoral lists are being prepared that will seek to attract Fatah’s traditional electorate: one by Abbas’s circle; one by Nasser al-Qudwa, nephew of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat; and one by Mohammed Dahlan, the former security chief in Gaza, who was expelled from Fatah in 2011.

These disagreements within Fatah ahead of the elections will certainly benefit Hamas, which has managed to establish internal cohesion and will find it easy to beat its weakened and divided opponent.

It is for this reason that Egypt and Jordan want to ensure that Fatah has a unified electoral list and have a consensus candidate for the presidential vote. And it is for the same reason that they are putting pressure on Abbas to reconcile with Dahlan.

The former Fatah functionary has been a close ally of the UAE, which over the past decade has taken care of him, has sponsored him, and supported him in every way. Some observers believe Abu Dhabi has been grooming Dahlan as a future leader of the Palestinian Authority. This has caused Abbas much anxiety and he has so far refused to allow Dahlan back into the party.

Dahlan and his supporters do not hide the Emirati political, media and financial support they receive so that they can return to Palestinian politics. This backing has enabled them to forge alliances with Palestinian political forces, including Fatah figures, who are discontented with Abbas.

Hamas, which was opposed to the return of members of Dahlan’s faction to the Gaza Strip because of their role in the armed conflict of 2007, finally agreed to allow them to return after it was pressured by Egypt. This has enabled Dahlan to announce several humanitarian projects for the Palestinians, including the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, without coordinating with the Palestinian Authority.

The ultimate goal of all these activities is to ensure a new Palestinian leadership is elected that would be easily swayed by these foreign powers and pressured into agreeing to whatever new demands Israel comes up with. Each of these actors wants to play a major role in the Palestinian issue, hoping to ingratiate itself to the US and receive its backing.

But what this meddling will do is undermine the democratic process in Palestine and once again sabotage the authority of the will of its people.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.