RAMALLAH, Feb. 10, 2019 - Attempting to diagnose and treat the growing number of problems consuming the Palestinian public in the occupied Palestinian territory has become pointless, primarily because those problems are just too numerous. One crisis is quickly overtaken by the next, but also, these ailments are really only symptoms. There can be no proper treatment for our condition without a real cure.
What is sickening the body politic is the ongoing imbalance between the three branches of authority in the Palestinian system – legislative, judicial and executive. The lack of a counterweight for an unhealthy increase in the executive authority’s power has elicited both anger and protest, with the public taking to the streets or expressing its anger in conventional and social media.
This imbalance between authorities is the source of our ills. It has led to a lack of transparency and hence, mutual mistrust and suspicion between government and the governed. Accountability has left the room, resulting in underestimations of the public impact of policies and positions. For example, the enactment of the social services law has been under consideration for years, but somehow its failings were never addressed, the public’s view was pushed aside, and the fierceness of the resulting revolt unpredicted. Basic services are also deteriorating, and public participation is in retreat. Imbalance creates a political system that is isolated, and a widening gap between official institutions and the public.
Part and parcel of this sickness is the erosion of legitimacy. Because if we dig deeper, we find that political imbalance and weakening legitimacy have increased in the absence of elections. Palestinian elections have been periodically cancelled since 2006. Without elections – or rather in the absence of their reaffirming results – the legislative establishment has been negated, the judicial branch weakened, and the executive authority made heir apparent.
The precursor to the Palestinian interim government, the PLO, derived its legitimacy by carrying the mantle of the Palestinian people’s struggle and their sacrifices in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The Palestinian people adopted the PLO as their sole and legitimate representative, which led to Arab and international recognition. Later, this same leadership based its legitimacy on presidential and legislative elections held twice consecutively in 1996 and 2005-6. The occupation promoted internal conflict, but the diminishing role of struggle, coupled with long periods without elections, also eroded PLO stewardship. Its main authorities became off kilter.
What is the path to wellness for the Palestinian political system as it exists today? There are three main ideas for getting out of this crisis. Some politicians and observers are interested in renewing the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority through elections. They say that the interim government’s creation and the many tasks and services it carries out in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip form a nascent state achievement, without which the public would be deeply and adversely impacted.
A second position is that the Palestinian Authority was created by transitional agreements that Israel has since reneged on, or that have otherwise expired. Proponents of this view call for replacing the Palestinian government with state institutions and a “constituent council” or something similar. Meanwhile, a third idea calls for revising the old PLO institutions because they form the source of the Palestinian government’s legitimacy and thus represent the unity of the Palestinian people everywhere, including the millions of refugees that remain in exile.
The central similarity that unites these ideas is the need for electoral legitimacy – and that its absence will bring about ongoing grappling for power until the government finally collapses. This leads to another question, however. Is our political system and leadership still capable of shouldering the responsibilities and challenges of free and fair elections, or do the problems in the system, especially the lack of legitimacy, render passé any plans for a vote?
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
is considered the last vestige of recognized legitimacy, both internationally and by Palestinians. No doubt, this will not last forever. The recent initiative by the president to hold elections for the Legislative Council is really a last-ditch effort. This vote (or any other kind of election) is badly needed to restore the public trust and legitimacy required to maintain a political system, and thus prolong the unity of the Palestinian people. This unity is vital to achieving the Palestinian people’s legitimate objectives of freedom, self-determination, and statehood.
It goes without saying that holding elections – any elections – will require preparation. And the effort must be made as part of a holistic therapy for our current crisis. Elections alone will not constitute a cure for our maladies – but no remedy will succeed unless holding elections is also written on the prescription.