By Arab News
By Hafed Al-Ghwell*
As Washington ramps up for a comprehensive re-engagement with the world, its Middle East portfolio will undoubtedly be affected by the aftermath of what promise to be consequential elections in Palestine, Israel and Iran .
The usual policy deliberations and maneuvering in Washington, often based on the traditional geopolitical calculus of maintaining fragile alliances in a volatile part of the world, will be sidelined, since these elections will be more a reflection of domestic attitudes toward vastly changed dynamics.
Palestinians, going to the polls for the first time in 15 years, seek renewed political engagement in a less auspicious regional and international context with regard to a final settlement of the Palestinian question. On the other hand, Israeli parliamentary elections last week have only deepened the political crisis instead of delivering a decisive referendum on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, reflecting the depth of the political morass that has entangled Israel’s domestic landscape. In Iran, the reformist camp, headed by the outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, will probably not survive an expected anemic turnout, all but guaranteeing fundamentalists a swath of victories given the lack of sanctions relief and a deepening economic crisis.
All three contexts exude a familiar refrain of the impossible political stalemates of deeply bifurcated societies, where one side seeks to maintain the status quo, while the other demands wholehearted commitment to much-needed transformations — driven by younger generations exasperated by woeful circumstances. If the results of the Israeli elections are any sort of bellwether for what awaits post-election Palestine or Iran, then the stalemates will probably persist even if new faces dominate key leadership positions.
Meanwhile, what awaits Israel is the same sort of political wrangling that has resulted in the country holding four elections in two years. The results of last week’s election will be presented to President Reuven Rivlin, who must now formally consult with leaders of the 13 political parties elected to parliament before asking either Netanyahu or opposition leader Yair Lapid to form a coalition. But any coalition that emerges from this latest round of elections will be so fragile and fraught with divisions that it is unlikely to survive.
Cynicism aside, President Mahmoud Abbas’s calls for parliamentary and presidential elections in May and July are a welcome development after political stagnation and divisions only incensed a dissatisfied Palestinian public. The unwillingness of the West Bank’s Fatah-led Palestinian Authority and Hamas in the Gaza Strip to cooperate after a 2007 rift has not only exacerbated the catastrophe of poor governance, it has also frustrated the goal shared by 13 million Palestinians across the globe — national liberation. It is hoped the elections spark critical changes, including broad institutional reform of not just the now mostly defunct Palestine Liberation Organization but the concept of Palestinian self-governance. So far, Palestinian forays into self-governance have resulted only in the troubled Abbas/Hamas era, with institutional power monopolized and opposition suppressed — sparking doubts about whether elections will actually repair democracy or become a vehicle to entrench the status quo.
Worryingly, Abbas’s decree for elections was soon followed by further maneuvering via politically motivated arrests designed to undermine rival candidates and even the judiciary’s independence, given its adjudication role in contested electoral matters. This kind of interference is not new, nor will it be the last, regardless of whether it is perpetrated by Palestinian leader, Israel, or the international community. However, elections are a chance for Palestinians to rally at the ballot box and deliver a decisive reckoning against a leadership loathed by nearly two thirds of the population, fed up with political division and bleak economic prospects; 40 percent of Palestinians are unemployed.
There is also an unlikely convergence, which guarantees elections will actually take place. Abbas hopes for a political revival both within Palestine and with the international community, particularly the Biden White House — which itself hopes to re-engage on Palestine with a human rights-centered foreign policy outreach. For Hamas, favorable election results could mean greater legitimacy and securing permanent roles in Palestinian leadership. Unfortunately, both Fatah and Hamas will probably be entangled in yet another stalemate as the former will continue to resist the latter vetoing its decisions, while Hamas will continue to reject demands for it to relinquish its weapons.
In Iran, the reformist camp has little chance of obtaining a reprieve from the Biden White House in the form of sanctions relief, and most Iranians are hard-pressed to give moderates a second chance amid a 5 percent economic contraction, falling oil exports and a trade deficit of more than $4 billion. What makes “maximum pressure” sanctions especially painful is that after Iran signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, its Iran’s economy grew by 12.5 percent and generated a trade surplus of over $6 billion. The whiplash between exponential growth and the dismal current reality of rising unemployment, worsening inflation, a weak currency and an ever-widening fiscal deficit is what dooms any chances of the moderates remaining in power.
The reformist-moderate camp will blame the stagnation and related socioeconomic problems on US sanctions, while the hardliners will appeal to vague populist criticisms of the reformist-dominated government’s inefficiency and mismanagement. No formidable moderate names have emerged as possible candidates, given the unlikelihood of a victory and the notable absence of enduring support for a group far more likely to reach a new nuclear deal and secure much-needed sanctions relief. There are discussions, however, pointing to Mohsen Hashemi, son of the late President Hashem Rafsanjani, and Ali Larijani, a former speaker of parliament. Unfortunately, even if they did choose to run for the presidency, they would not be able to attract sufficient national support, let alone the approval of the Guardian Council or Ayatollah Khamenei himself.
Unsurprisingly, it is the hardliners who appear well positioned to win the elections as powerful names with broad support in conservative circles weigh their candidacy, such as Ebrahim Raisi, the chief justice and a close ally of Khamenei, and Saeed Jalili, Khamenei’s representative on the Supreme Council of National Security. Other well known figures include, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the Speaker of Parliament, and Gen. Saeed Mohammad, a commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in charge of its construction conglomerate, Khatam Al-Anbiya. The latter appears to tick all the boxes for the sort of candidate Khamenei has urged Iranians to support — young, technocratic and a “revolutionary,” a gamble to make hard-line conservatism more appealing to largely disaffected Iranian youth.
The results of all these elections will definitely interest Washington. In Israel, it was not just the public’s attitude toward Netanyahu’s decision to persist with his candidacy despite being on trial for fraud, bribery and breach of trust. It was also a referendum on normalization and the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations, which are of great interest to the White House.
In Palestine, the renewed push for democracy may not mend existing divisions but could unlock more donor aid while also centering the resolution of the Palestinian question in regional and international normalization deliberations.
For Iran, while a hard-line president is concerning, Washington has demonstrated its resolve on not granting sanctions relief as an opening offer to future negotiations. Thus, even if Khamenei’s preferred candidate is chosen based on how tough they promise to be with the US, far more pressing internal socioeconomic issues and Tehran’s shrinking capacity to fix them will force their acquiescence to re-negotiated terms in a new JCPOA.
• Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell