This Q&A is part of a Century International series exploring a shared future for Palestine and Israel that guarantees the fundamental rights of both communities. The Gaza war has exposed the bankruptcy of the existing policy frameworks. Our “Shared Future” series intends to spur conversation and promote new, better options for security, rights, and governance—for Palestinians and Israelis.

There is no doubt that Palestine and Israel can only reach a just equilibrium through a political process. But Palestinians suffer from a debilitating institutional deficit in legitimacy and representation. Israelis, and sometimes the United States, have routinely said they want to negotiate only with their own preferred Palestinian interlocutors. Only legitimate representatives can undertake a genuine political negotiation that has any chance of success, but there’s no straightforward way to hold free and fair elections under occupation and war. Moien Odeh addresses some of the conundrums posed by the need to close the Palestinian leadership’s glaring representation and legitimacy gap.

Century International: Is it really the right time to be thinking about Palestinian elections, in the midst of a military campaign that has led to accusations that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza?

Moien Odeh: It’s true that talking to Palestinians about elections right now—especially Palestinians in Gaza—can seem like asking starving people about their favorite ice cream flavor. Still, the Palestinians’ great suffering is exactly why it is so important to end the political vacuum and to work for an elected legitimate Palestinian leadership, as soon as possible. Elections are the most urgent issue for Palestinians, now more than ever. The two de facto authorities—the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), in its role in the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank; and Hamas in Gaza—are making decisions based on their own interests. The interests of these groups aren’t aligned with those of the Palestinian public. The problem is not just that the PLO and Hamas don’t care about the public opinion or the public good. The problem is that there’s no democratic process to hold them accountable.

There will come a day, hopefully sooner than later, when the current phase of active war will end. There is no reason to think that a ceasefire will resolve the major long-term questions that affect Palestinians, including their economic and political sovereignty, national self-determination, and refugees’ right of return. But the day after should never go back to October 6—with Palestinians split under the rule of two unelected authorities in the West Bank and Gaza, all ultimately under Israeli control. There needs to be a totally new system that represents the hopes and desires of Palestinians.

Future Palestinian leadership will deal with all these very serious questions, and to do so, it must represent all Palestinians: those inside Israel, in East Jerusalem, in the West Bank, in the Gaza Strip, and in the diaspora (mainly the refugees in Lebanon and Syria). Now is the time to lay the groundwork for that representation, even as the war rages.

Century: It just seems like there are so many other pressing concerns for Palestine right now. Like a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, and an end to settlement expansion and settler violence in the West Bank. Not to mention the occupation.

Moien: I am totally aware that elections are not the magical solution for the Palestinian–Israeli conflict. Palestinians have lived under occupation for decades. For more than twenty years, they have been governed by two unelected authorities in the West Bank and Gaza, who are able to act like de facto dictators. Palestinians have no say in their lives. And now they’re suffering a brutal, months-long attack in Gaza.

I also know that democracy entails a lot more than voting on Election Day—it involves a network of robust and accountable institutions. Elections are not going to immediately solve any of these problems. But I still believe that only elected leaders can shepherd in the changes that need to happen to improve Palestinians’ lives. And only elected leaders will be able to achieve a political agreement with Israel and, ultimately, end the conflict.

Century: What do you make of bilateral or multilateral postwar plans for Palestine that the United States, Israel, and other world powers are currently discussing?

“There needs to be a totally new system that represents the hopes and desires of Palestinians.”

Moien: Frankly, all the plans and ideas for the day after the war in Gaza are useless if Palestinians don’t have legitimate elected representatives who can decide whether these ideas are real or can be accepted by the Palestinian people. Without this elected leadership, no one in the world should expect stability or peace in the region. We know about the concerns of Israel, the U.S. administration, the Palestinian Authority, and even Hamas. But the concerns of the Palestinian people have no outlet—in fact, the world can only speculate about or infer their priorities—because they don’t have legitimate elected representatives.

Century: It seems like Palestinian leaders have repeatedly failed to rise to the occasion and provide real democratic outlets for Palestinians.

Moien: That’s absolutely right. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas was elected in 2005. His term officially ended in 2009. In 2021, he announced a plan to have elections for parliament, president, and PLO institutions. But then he canceled, claiming that Israel would not allow elections to take place in East Jerusalem. We can’t know whether that would have been the case—and it’s of course worth noting that Israel has never made it easy for Palestinians to practice democracy. But a lot of people believe that the real reason Abbas canceled the elections was because he knew that his party and its allies would lose. Since then, the Palestinian Authority hasn’t announced any future elections or even a plan that would lead to future elections. The two de facto authorities in Gaza (Hamas) and in those parts of the West Bank not under full Israeli control (the PLO) have kept their grip on their areas.

It’s sobering to consider that more than half of Palestinians are under twenty, and 30 percent are between twenty and thirty-five years old. Which means that more than three quarters of the entire population of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have never had the opportunity to participate in an election. And with participation in elections low even when they were held, the reality is that the vast majority of Palestinians alive today have never cast a vote in any election. It’s no surprise that Palestinians, and especially young Palestinians, welcomed Abbas’s 2021 elections’ announcement of general elections—and were bitterly disappointed when they were canceled.

Century: The PLO claims to be “the only legitimate representative” of the Palestinian people. It sounds like you don’t think that’s an accurate claim—that, in fact, there are no legitimate representatives at the moment.

Moien: For decades, the PLO has claimed a monopoly over Palestinian representation—despite the fact that Palestinians never elected the PLO to this role, and despite the fact that there are many very popular Palestinian factions (such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad) that are not part of the PLO. Even in 2006, when Hamas decided to participate in parliamentary elections and won the majority, the PLO leadership insisted that their organization was the only representative of the Palestinian people, and that it was the only entity that could negotiate on behalf of the Palestinian people or represent them internationally.

The PLO’s bodies were never elected by the Palestinian people. The bodies’ members were always selected by PLO leadership based on loyalty. The PLO has claimed that their methods give them legitimacy through other channels, and the bodies argue that they represent the whole of Palestinians inside historic Palestine and in the diaspora. But they also admit that those Palestinians never directly elected them. Between 1996 and 2018, the Palestinian National Council (the PLO parliament) never even met. Most council members have held their positions for forty years or more. And the Palestinian Authority fully controls the PLO.

The last Palestinian presidential elections were held in 2005, and the last parliamentary elections were held in 2006. The mandates of both the Palestinian Authority and the parliament expired more than a decade ago. Yet the de facto authorities in the West Bank and Gaza still cling to power based solely on the strength of their security forces—with no democratic legitimacy.

Century: What about Hamas and Islamic Jihad?

Moien: I know it will be hard for Hamas and Islamic Jihad to participate in any future elections because Israel, the United States, and many Western donors completely reject them. Equally so, I understand the aversion to these groups. But elections will not have real popular legitimacy if these groups are excluded.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announced aim of annihilating Hamas and Islamic Jihad with the assault on Gaza is totally out of touch with reality. Hamas cannot be eliminated with military might right now, because of the popularity it enjoys. It will only regenerate. Of course, Islamic Jihad and Hamas also have to understand that they can’t expect to be allowed to participate in elections while clinging to the slogan of destroying Israel. But banning the groups from elections will do nothing to weaken them, and will only weaken the legitimacy of the elections, further deferring the essential goal of a Palestinian leadership that the Palestinian people accept as representative. The international community and Israel must understand that “appointing” Palestinian leadership, or simply excising those potential leaders they don’t approve of, will just create more radical parties that Israel or the international community will need to deal with in the future.

In the same vein, elections will be undermined at their foundations if candidates fear for their safety or their freedom—Israel has repeatedly killed or arrested politicians it doesn’t like—just because of their party membership or because they represent popular Palestinian hopes.

Of course, to make any progress for the Palestinian people, Hamas and Islamic Jihad will ultimately have to make some changes and to agree to the two-state solution, and to clearly announce their intention to live in peace side by side with Israel. But Israel cannot force those changes by banning them until they agree, as it did in 2006. Israel must allow anyone who so desires to stand as a candidate; allow all Palestinians to vote or to be candidates; accept and respect the election results; and deal fairly with the elected leadership. If those candidates include individuals connected to the parties that Israel despises, it will, admittedly, be a bitter pill to swallow. Ultimately, however, accepting and working with elected Palestinian leaders, whatever their ideology, is the only path to a fair political agreement to end the conflict.

Century: How does your view that elections are a priority mesh with the urgency of stopping the war in Gaza and allowing humanitarian aid to reach the 2.2 million people in the territory? These issues seem to be the main priorities of the international community right now, which is quite understandable.

“The concerns of the Palestinian people have no outlet—in fact, the world can only speculate about their priorities—because they don’t have legitimate elected representatives.”

Moien: There’s no doubt that those humanitarian needs are priorities, and should be. But general Palestinian elections are an essential component of the solution to this crisis, alongside institutional, economic, and security reform processes. Consider that, even as both Israel and Hamas are in the midst of tough, intensive negotiations, Hamas doesn’t even represent the Palestinian people. It only represents itself. So there’s no guarantee that the Palestinian public will even accept whatever resolution Hamas eventually agrees to—and all that energy spent on negotiating won’t be worth much. We’ll just be primed for the next crisis.

Think about it this way: if Israel and the international community had accepted the 2006 Palestinian elections, Hamas would have been democratically representing the Palestinian people, and thus accountable to them. It might have been much more responsible for its actions, or it might have been pushed, democratically, to the opposition, and supported only by a minority. Maybe the October 7 attacks would have never happened.

The current Palestinian regimes in Gaza and the West Bank are obstacles that must be removed, via democratic processes, in order for there to be any meaningful negotiations on a final status agreement. And elections should take place after a period of transition at the end of the active fighting.

The elections will also revitalize the Palestinian political system, which has been paralyzed for more than fifteen years, and end the ideological and geographical split between the West Bank and Gaza. Whatever leadership the elections form will apply its rule and authority in the civilian and security spheres in both regions.

​​No one can predict the elections’ outcome, but I see it as unlikely that Palestinians would select a new leadership that would take them into another war with Israel, after all the suffering they are seeing in Gaza. On the other hand, without a political solution and without a political plan for the day after war, elections will be useless, and radicals will have a chance to triumph.

Century: How is it possible, in practice, to organize elections under current conditions?

Moien: It’s not going to be easy. But Palestinians don’t have any other options. Since the Oslo Accords, there have been other Palestinian elections, in 1996, 2005, and 2006. And Oslo provides a framework for fresh elections, with some modifications. For instance, provisions need to be made for the participation of refugees in Lebanon and Syria, and so that Palestinian citizens of Israel can vote. According to UNRWA, there are some 580,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria and 490,000 in Lebanon. There are nearly 2.1 million Palestinian citizens of Israel. None of these individuals has been able to vote in past elections.

It’s easy to list the obstacles to elections. Most Palestinians understand that they cannot continue with Hamas and the PLO in authority. These groups aren’t looking out for the well-being of Palestinians. But there is no doubt that Hamas and the PLO will do everything they can to retain power, and the two groups will be the main obstacles to future elections. They will only want to allow elections if they are assured of winning. And their chances of winning elections depend a lot on the result of the Gaza war. Hamas will want to put off elections until the war is over—if it can claim victory in the war, whatever that means, it believes it will have a better chance of retaining power. The amount of Palestinian suffering that happens in the meantime doesn’t really factor into Hamas’s decisions.

Israel and the international community, for their part, must push for elections. Of course, Israel will need to recognize the fact that such elections are ultimately in its own interest, because they are the only path to long-term peace and stability. And if Israel doesn’t allow elections, it will face huge challenges from different Palestinian factions that claim to represent the Palestinians. The ceasefire agreement, whenever it comes, should talk about the day after and future elections. It will be much easier for the United States to push for elections as part of the ceasefire agreement, rather than after the agreement has been made.

There are, of course, many technical details related to administering elections that will need to be sorted out. Figuring out these details is the responsibility of Israel and the United States—because they control the situation. And these technical challenges are not insurmountable. Elections have been organized in far less stable circumstances, such as the three national elections that Iraq held in 2005.

Century: Does ushering in a new model of governance mean getting rid of the Palestinian Authority completely, and replacing it with something else?

Moien: I don’t think the elections need to replace the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority is an administrative body that needs to continue to exist. At the same time, the elections must be general elections, for the PLO and all of its bodies. Palestinians inside Israel, in East Jerusalem, and in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have to be part of the elections and elect their own representatives, simply because any future deal and agreement will affect them directly.

It’s also important to remember that the Palestinian Authority has transferred almost all governance responsibilities from the PLO to itself. All the PLO bodies receive their funds from the Palestinian Authority and not the opposite. The PLO bodies meet only rarely, and only when the Palestinian Authority leadership needs them to fight against their opponents. They met in 1996 to recognize Israel, and to support PLO chairman Yasser Arafat against all of those who opposed the Oslo Accords. Then, they met twenty-two years later, in 2018, this time to stand with Abbas against Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and others, and to send a message to Donald Trump, the American president at the time, that the PLO bodies were the only real negotiating partner.

Since the elected leadership needs to deal with the right of return question, Palestinian refugees in areas with significant refugee populations should also be able to participate in the elections. Refugees in the West Bank and Gaza will of course need to participate, but Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon and Syria should also be able to vote, since their futures depend so much on the Palestinian leadership. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Syria are living in very hard circumstances, which is what makes their participation so important. Further, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon do not have Lebanese citizenship. (Most of the Arab world and other countries around the globe have offered citizenship or a path to citizenship for Palestinian refugees.) And in Lebanon, Palestinian refugees are not allowed to own property or to work in many positions, especially in high-level professions.

Many other members of the Palestinian diaspora (such as in Jordan, the United States, Europe, and elsewhere) will also argue that they should also be able to participate in the next elections. In my view, however, the logistics are too complicated, and the need is not as pressing as it is for Palestinians in Lebanon and Syria. But the next elections will only be the first step toward Palestinian democratic participation. In the future, all members of the Palestinian diaspora should be able to participate.

Tough times call for tough decisions. I know how difficult the logistics of the elections will be, especially in Gaza. And I understand how hard it is to request that Gazans think about elections. But it’s precisely because of their suffering that they need to elect a leadership that actually represents them and makes decisions on their behalf, and on behalf of all Palestinians.

Header Image: Palestinian shop owners survey the destroyed pavement of the road on front of the shop following an Israeli raid in the Nur Shams camp near Tulkarem on March 4, 2024, in the West Bank. Source: Sergey Ponomarev/Getty Images