Saturday, July 17, was the day Palestinians were slated to hold a municipal election in the West Bank. But the elections were scrapped. Initially, only groups like Hamas rejected the vote. Then, last month, the Palestinian Authority (PA) opted to postpone the elections entirely. The legislative process came to a screeching halt. The ongoing civil war between Hamas (which controls Gaza Strip) and Fatah (which controls the West Bank) puts the Palestinians in a state of limbo, with no new elections planned.
What does this mean for Palestinian democracy?
Palestinian intellectuals and activists have long argued that democracy is a natural fit for the Palestinians. After the Israelis conquered the Palestinian territories in the 1967 Six Day War, they ensured that the Palestinians elected their own leaders through municipal elections in 1972 and 1976. Two decades later, during the first intifada, Palestinians built upon this tradition by electing uprising leaders.
Academics and advocates argue that decades of Israeli “occupation” makes Palestinians hungry for an accountable government. Others argue that the corrupt Fatah-dominated PA has exacerbated that hunger. Finally, advocates for the Palestinian cause will say that the Palestinian Diaspora, given its exposure to university educations and Western political systems, is ready and able to embrace democracy.
Prompted by the Oslo peace process, Palestinians put these theories to test. Indeed, throughout the 1990s, the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) resembled a Western-style parliament. The Palestinians cast ballots in legislative and presidential elections. By 2000, as the Oslo process came to a head, a Washington Institute for Near East Policy monograph projected that "the PA [Palestinian Authority] could become a democracy."
All bets were off, however, after PA chairman Yasir Arafat launched the al-Aqsa Intifada later that year. First, the rule of law disintegrated as Palestinians turned to terror. Then, after a spate of suicide bombings in 2001 and 2002, Israel retaliated against the PA, which was a partner on several attacks. Israel's military destroyed key PA governmental targets and other infrastructure.
As the PA became increasingly feeble, Islamist groups like Hamas grew in power. Indeed, when Arafat died in 2004, few analysts knew who really controlled the Palestinian streets.
Amidst this chaos, in January 2005, the Palestinians went back to the polls. They officially elected Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah’s second-in-command, as head of the PA. But Abbas could not control the streets. Nor could he beat back Hamas, which continued to amass power through municipal elections held between December 2004 and December 2005.
Finally, in January 2006, the Palestinians held what were widely seen as free and fair legislative elections. It was touted as a testament to their political sophistication, supposedly confirming what so many analysts had posited over the decades. However, the election was also the undoing of the Palestinians.
Hamas won the election, claiming 76 of the 132 parliamentary seats. Fatah was humiliated. But with support from the West, Fatah refused to hand over power, and further refused to join a coalition with Hamas.
A bitter deadlock kept the Palestinians paralyzed until the civil war of June 2007. Hamas conquered Gaza in a battle that killed 161 Palestinians and wounded some 700. The political fallout was also considerable: Hamas controlled Gaza, while the West Bank remained in Fatah hands.
Repeated attempts by the Saudis, Egyptians, Yemenis, Turks, Mauritanians and others have failed to foster reconciliation since the 2007 war, while the two sides (from their two different territories) continue to trade barbs.
Given this context, the decision to hold municipal elections this month was questionable from the start. Indeed, little could have been accomplished under these circumstances.
But this was not the reason the West Bank leaders cancelled the vote. The real reason was that Fatah could not agree on the candidates they would stand up for election. More importantly, as journalist Khaled Abu Toameh notes, Fatah feared another electoral humiliation.
How can the U.S., in good faith, sponsor a state that would not be a functioning democracy? If the Obama administration wants to continue to hold out hope for Palestinian statehood, it must find a way to revive the flat-lining Palestinian political system. The odds of success grow increasingly dim.
Jonathan Schanzer is vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Asaf Romirowsky is a visiting fellow at the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET).