Palestinians and Israelis Both Vote Soon. The Differences Are Stark.

4 weeks ago

Many Israelis feel numbed by their endless election cycle. Many Palestinians are excited about a rare chance to vote — but others expect little change without statehood.

JERUSALEM — When Yona Schnitzer, a 32-year-old Israeli content editor, heard about the latest Israeli election — Israel’s fourth in two years — he felt a surge of anger at how the government had collapsed yet again, and questioned the point of taking part. “My initial reaction was,” Mr. Schnitzer said, “‘I can’t believe this is happening again.’”

When Sobhi al-Khazendar, a 27-year-old Palestinian lawyer, heard about the latest Palestinian election — the first since 2006 — he felt a wave of exhilaration and quickly registered to vote. “All my life,” Mr. Khazendar said, “I have never been represented by someone whom I helped choose.”

In a rare alignment, Israelis and Palestinians are preparing for near-simultaneous elections and, at least on the surface, their moods could not be more different.

The Israeli vote on Tuesday feels to many voters like Groundhog Day, the latest in a seemingly unending series of elections in which no party has been able to win enough support to form a stable majority. It is the embodiment of the profound political paralysis that has been partly caused by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to remain in office while standing trial for corruption.

The Palestinian election, scheduled for May 22, will be the first since a violent rift in 2007 between the Palestinian faction that controls the Gaza Strip, the Islamist militant group Hamas, and its rival that exerts limited autonomy over parts of the West Bank, the mainstream Fatah.

“Young Palestinians want change, they want a different life,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political-science professor at Al Azhar University in Gaza. “The Israelis are sick and tired of going to elections four times in two years — but we haven’t had elections in 15 years.”

In the occupied territories, many of those eager to vote in May were too young to vote in the last election, and dream of a new and more competent Palestinian leadership with a clearer idea of how to achieve statehood. More than 93 percent of Palestinians have already registered to vote, a fact that analysts say illustrates an initial enthusiasm for the process.

An electoral roll sheet at a school in Gaza City. The Palestinian election is scheduled for May 22.
Mohammed Abed/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mahmoud Abbas, the 85-year-old president of the Palestinian Authority, has canceled scheduled elections in the past. He may yet do the same this year, fearing a loss for his party, Fatah. But if they go ahead, the May 22 elections would elect a Palestinian legislative council that might — in a best-case scenario — pave the way for a reunification of Gaza and parts of the West Bank — which have been run separately since the 2007 split — under one governing body.

That would allow Palestinian lawmakers to propose laws and debate and scrutinize key issues in the council, which has not met in a regular session since 2007, ending Mr. Abbas’s ability to rule by decree and without oversight.

“It brings me a lot of excitement,” said Mr. Khazendar, the young lawyer. “I always read in the press about all these people speaking in the name of the Palestinian people or the Palestinian youth. But we didn’t pick any of them.”

Many Palestinians and international rights campaigners warn that the Palestinian elections are no game changer for Palestinian rights. Palestinians in the occupied territories cannot vote in the election that will have the greatest effect on their lives — the Israeli one.

While Hamas controls the internal affairs of Gaza and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority governs parts of the West Bank, many crucial aspects of Palestinian life are still decided by Israel.

In the West Bank, Israel still fully governs more than 60 percent of the territory, controls access between most Palestinian-run towns and frequently conducts military raids even within places nominally under Mr. Abbas’s control.

In Gaza, the Israeli and Egyptian governments control what and who can come in and out, as well as most of the electricity and fuel supply. Israel also controls Gaza’s airspace, birth registry, access to the sea and access to cellular data, and restricts the access of Gazan farmers to their fields at the edge of the strip.

“Millions of Palestinians living under occupation can’t vote for the people who effectively rule and control their daily lives,” said Inès Abdel Razek, advocacy director at the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy, an independent campaign group in Ramallah. “This is no democracy.”

Menahem Kahana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Israeli leaders have paid almost no public attention to the Palestinian election — even though it might conceivably produce a united Palestinian leadership that could present a joint front in peace negotiations with Israel. Conversely, if the vote gives Hamas a bigger role within Palestinian governance, that could also affect Israel’s ability to coordinate with the Palestinian Authority — since Hamas does not recognize Israel and is considered a terrorist group by Israel and much of the international community.

By contrast, many Palestinians keep a close eye on Israeli politics, said Professor Abusada, who said it was “a sad thing” to see Israeli elections stuck in such a repetitive loop. But at least Israelis had the opportunity to vote so often, he said. “We haven’t been able to for a long time,” he added. “It makes us feel cynical about our own political system that we are not able to make any change.”

Within the confines of Palestinian politics, the prospect of an election has nevertheless shaken up some of the alliances and assumptions of the previously moribund Palestinian polity. For the first time in years, Palestinians can imagine the dormant Parliament buildings in Ramallah and Gaza City coming back to life. And Fatah, long the engine of the Palestinian national movement, now faces challenges not just from Hamas but from other parts of secular Palestinian society.

Confirmed or potential challengers include Salam Fayyad, a former prime minister of the Palestinian Authority; Mohammed Dahlan, a former Fatah security chief who now lives in exile in the United Arab Emirates; and Nasser al-Kidwa, a former Palestinian envoy to the United Nations, and the nephew of Yasir Arafat, Mr. Abbas’s predecessor.

All three said they wanted to help found new alliances to compete against Fatah and Hamas, while allies of Marwan Barghouti, an influential Fatah militant jailed in Israel for five counts of murder, said he was considering it.

In Gaza, Hamas faces a threat from a generation of young Palestinians struggling to find work. The unemployment rate in Gaza hovers around 50 percent, largely because of the blockade that Israel has placed on the enclave in order to undermine Hamas’s military activity and rocket production. If Hamas were replaced by a unity government, some Gazans hope, the new leadership might defuse at least some of the tensions with Israel and improve living conditions.

“We want jobs more than rockets,” said Amr al-Shaer, a jobless 21-year-old in Rafah, southern Gaza.

Khalil Hamra/Associated Press

But beneath the initial enthusiasm for Palestinian elections, there is also a growing cynicism about whether the process will lead to meaningful change.

Fatah and Hamas have not agreed on the details of how they would unify their two administrations and security departments following the election. Critics fear that unless they achieve a clear consensus in advance, the two groups will never get around to an agreement, allowing them to retain their respective monopolies on power in Gaza and the West Bank.

Candidates must be over 28 and each party list must provide a $ 20,000 deposit, restrictions that rule out most potential participants. And Mr. Abbas has recently issued presidential decrees that critics say restrict judicial independence and civil society.

“It looks like an effort to bring legitimacy to the people who have been there all along,” said Daoud Ghannam, a 29-year-old founder of a co-working space in Ramallah.

“At the beginning we were like: ‘Wow, we have elections finally,’” said Mr. Ghannam. “Then we read the details.”

Now, Mr. Ghannam said, “We don’t see anything changing. It will be just like a show.”

Iyad Abuheweila contributed reporting.

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