As much as the Palestinians yearn to end the schism, achieve national unity, and rebuild the Palestinian representative official institutions on sound bases, as much as they have fears and doubts about the viability and reliability of the electoral process, launched by Mahmud ‘Abbas in mid-January 2021 to elect the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), the Palestinian Authority (PA) president, and the Palestinian National Council (PNC). The latter being the supervisory and legislative authority of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
The author of these lines initially doubts that the PLC elections will happen, and sees that the PA and the PLO leadership are not serious in moving forward with putting the Palestinian political house in order and completing it. For the current leadership is more concerned with the renewal of its “legitimacies” than with putting the Palestinian political house in order on sound bases. Nevertheless, if we assume for the sake of argument that the PNC elections will be held, there are at least seven major challenges facing the representation of the Palestinians abroad in the PNC, in a way that reflects their aspirations, and accurately and transparently express their true representation, as well as the weights of political forces and actors.
First Challenge: Achieving Legitimacy. The Palestinians are dealing with the PLO after it had lost its compass, disrupted or canceled its national charter, and adhered to the Oslo Accords that are fundamentally inconsistent with its initial objectives. Furthermore, the Palestinian forces have not yet agreed on a national program, and it is not clear on what basis will the current PLO leadership deal after the formation of the new PNC; Will it complete the formation of the organization’s institutions if the resistance forces win, hence return to the national charter and abolish the Oslo Accords and their requirements, or will it disrupt the new PNC as it did with the PLC for 14 years? And what if the pro-peace process constituency got the majority, will the pro-resistance parties respect the Palestinian “democracy,” and act as a minority that would adhere to the PLO peace commitments, hence provide a cover for the “legitimization” of this process, consequently giving the pro-Oslo parties a new spirit and a great impetus to make further concessions.
Therefore, to face this challenge, it becomes necessary, before the formation of the PNC, to agree on the fundamentals, commit to a political program that puts Oslo Accords and their annexes behind it, and begin a new phase. Otherwise, another schism would emerge, perhaps more massive and violent.
Second Challenge: The extreme difficulty in providing an accurate census of the Palestinians abroad, and hence the difficulty to determine the percentage of their PNC participation compared to the Palestinians inside Palestine or the distribution of their representatives by the same regions abroad. For the PLO and its institutions have been weak and ineffective, unable to keep up with the affairs of the Palestinians abroad. Moreover, most of the countries abroad do not provide statistical information on the Palestinians there, while some of them, even if they have the potential to provide statistics, they deal with the issue very sensitively like Jordan, which has the largest gathering of Palestinians abroad.
According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) the number of Palestinians worldwide in late 2020 (early 2021) reached 13.682 million, where Palestinians in historic Palestine are estimated at 6.798 million, constituting 49.7% of Palestinians worldwide, while Palestinians abroad are estimated at 6.884 million. There is a high degree of accuracy in the numbers of the Palestinians in historic Palestine, as it is not difficult to provide statistical information (3.087 million in the West Bank (WB), 2.077 million in Gaza Strip (GS) and 1.634 million in Palestinian territories occupied in 1948). As for the numbers of Palestinians abroad, there is large estimation error due to their movement between countries, and the possibilities of count repetition.
This challenge can be overcome if the concerned Palestinian authorities communicate with the countries and the representatives of the Palestinian communities, unions and federations, to update the data and determine the more accurate numbers.
Since there is difficulty in determining the numbers of Palestinians abroad in different countries, it would be also difficult to determine the numbers of their representatives in the PNC.
Third Challenge: Fair Representation. For the factions agreed on the fully proportional representation, and this practically eliminates the ability of independents, professional and student unions, and the communities to represent themselves except within the lists of the factions.Therefore, if we bear in mind that the elections will be bypassed in most of the communities abroad, then the factional consensus may impose lists that do not necessarily express the will of the Palestinians abroad.
Fair representation includes also a second issue related to the ratio of representation of the Palestinians abroad to the Palestinians inside Palestine, if the numerical criterion is the only criterion; especially with the absence of the Palestinians of the 1948 occupied territories from the PNC membership. In this case, the number of Palestinians inside Palestine (of the WB and GS), who would be represented in the PNC, becomes 5.164 million, i.e., 42.9% compared to 57.1% for the Palestinians abroad (6.884 million). This means that in a 400-member council, Palestinians abroad would have 228 members while WB and GS would have 172 members. This issue is among the matters that must be settled before the elections, at a time some are discussing parity, with complete disregard for the 1948 Palestinians.
Fourth Challenge: Co-Managing the Elections. Fatah, the main competitor in the elections, dominates the leadership positions in the PLO, its institutions, departments and embassies, whereas elections like these, require an agreed upon leadership framework that manages the electoral process and ensures its integrity, like the Interim Leadership Framework as well as representatives of major communities and unions.
Fifth Challenge: Partnership in Holding the Elections. All the “official” election tools abroad are linked to the Fatah movement, which makes them ineligible to hold the elections. Therefore, an independent body must be established in which the Palestinians abroad and their representatives participate effectively. It would register voter lists, carry out all voting procedures, count the votes and issue the election results.
Sixth Challenge: The Difficulty of Holding Free and Fair Elections for the Palestinians Abroad, especially in the Arab countries (more than 80% of Palestinians abroad), except for a possible opportunity in Lebanon, which needs great efforts to make it succeed. For the Arab countries do not provide such opportunities to their own citizens, let alone the Palestinians. Furthermore, Jordan considers this issue very sensitive. As for the Palestinians in the Gulf, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who exceed 600 thousand, they will most probably distance themselves from registration as well as participation, election and representation, due to the nature of the political regimes, their positions and the conditions they live in there.
The severity of this challenge increases by the fact that the PLO and its departments have not taken yet any serious measure, whether in communicating with Arab states to facilitate the registration and participation of Palestinians or in announcing any practical measures to count the Palestinian people abroad and register them in the voters list.
It seems that the Palestinian factions are considering it a “fait accompli” that the representation would be based on factional quotas, and consensus that goes beyond holding elections.
Seventh Challenge: Dealing with Outside Interferences. If, for the sake of argument, we assume that the elections or the selection process will take place, some Arab states will not leave the matter solely to factional competition or consensus. They will seek to include their “candidates” in the PNC, using methods they usually use with their peoples, especially in the countries surrounding Israel. Since the number of members supposed to represent the Palestinians of these countries is large (even very large), those in charge of elections must take all necessary precautions and steps to prevent these people from being imposed on the council, reflecting the will of the regimes, and not that of the Palestinian people.
To be overcome, the previous challenges need tremendous efforts, day and night workshops, credibility, seriousness and high efficiency by the PLO leadership, and concerted efforts between the Palestinian factions and the active forces in the Palestinian trade unions and communities and the various PLO departments. All of this is in order to reach the entitlement of 31/8/2021, and there are many unanswered questions about achieving it.