Abbas’ Election Bluff


After Israel tried and failed to prevent a third Knesset election, an upside-down version of the same political game is being played out in the Palestinian Authority (PA). In Israel, the people don’t want an election, whereas in the PA, they do — or at least a great many of them do. Israel couldn’t stop its election, whereas the PA can’t seem to get its electoral process started.

PA leader Mahmoud Abbas hasn’t run for office in 14 years. Now, at age 84, after recovering from some health issues, he is talking openly about holding an election soon, and reminding his associates that his father lived to be 100. Abbas’ problem is that many no longer believe he really wants elections at all. The series of conditions he says must be met before an election can be held raises serious questions regarding his sincerity. The net result so far is that Palestinians are now experiencing much the same political instability as the Israelis have been for several months already.

Until recently, it seemed that talk of an election while Abbas was still around was just empty words, not unlike the Likud and Blue and White’s talk of a unity government following Israel’s Sept. 17 election. Fatah and Hamas, long-standing opponents, have been bandying around the word “election” as part of their mutual blame game. But two weeks ago, something supposedly changed. Abbas announced that he intends to hold elections for the Palestinian parliament and presidency.

His announcement came on the heels of pressure from European Union nations, especially Germany, which included a threat that European aid to the Palestinians would be halted if the PA did not hold elections. Abbas began talking with Hamas about the possibility, and even sent the head of the PA Elections Committee, Hanna Nasser, to the Gaza Strip a few times. The Fatah-Hamas talks led to a surprising development — one Abbas may not have expected or even wanted: Hamas, which thinks it can win control of the West Bank in parliamentary elections, gave Abbas its assent. Twice. The first time, Hamas agreed to Abbas’ plan to hold the elections in two stages: a general election, to be followed by a presidential election three months later. The second time, Hamas agreed that voting would be held for party lists, not regional districts.

Many are now asking what Abbas will do, and whether he was serious about the elections. Pinhas Inbari, an expert on Palestinian affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, characterizes Abbas’ election talk as “empty.”

“Abbas relaunched the discussion about an election for two main reasons. One, in an attempt to make the Palestinians relevant again and put the Palestinian issue back on the [international] agenda. Today, the Middle East discussion is focused mainly on Iran, Syria, and Lebanon, not on the Palestinian issue,” said Inbari.

“Second, there was massive external pressure on Abbas, especially from the EU — on which the PA is financially dependent — to allow democratic processes to take place in the PA,” he added.

A Problem Named Barghouti

Two main pieces of evidence would appear to support Inbari’s assessment. Abbas reached out to Israel via one of his ministers with a request that Palestinian residents of eastern Jerusalem be allowed to vote in a Palestinian election. In 2006 Israel allowed them to, but Abbas is well aware that this time, with the Likud in power, there is little chance that Israel will assent to a move that could look like an attack on its sovereignty over Jerusalem.

Moreover, in the past few months, Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan has blocked a number of PA activities in Jerusalem and ordered the arrests of a few major PA figures in the city, including Adnan Gheith, who holds the title “Governor of
Jerusalem” in the PA.

Abbas’ appeal to Israel, which is almost certain to be refused, looks like an attempt to throw the hot potato into Israel’s lap. Abbas has tried to make it clear that if eastern Jerusalem Palestinians are unable to vote, there will be no elections anywhere in the PA.

Other circumstantial evidence, having to do with arch-murderer Marwan Barghouti, also appears to support Inbari’s opinion. Barghouti is serving five life sentences for terrorist acts during the second intifada that killed and wounded numerous Israelis. He has stated several times that he intends to run for PA president while still in prison. Barghouti’s supporters are still furious that Abbas left him out of the prisoner exchange deal to free captive soldier Gilad Schalit, and said recently that they see him as a strong candidate.

Abbas tried to mollify Barghouti with the role of chairman of Fatah in the PA parliament, but the offer was spurned. Abbas is aware that Barghouti is much more popular in the Palestinian street than he himself is, and the prevailing belief is that Abbas won’t take the risk of running in an election unless he can guarantee his rival is out of the picture. Therefore, he is dawdling over signing the presidential order needed to hold an election. For now, it’s all talk.

Another major factor on which a Palestinian election hinges is, of course, Israel. Jerusalem is following developments in the PA and is not overly enthused about Palestinian parliamentary elections, due to concern that Hamas might see a repeat of its 2006 electoral victory. That year, Hamas won 74 of the 132 seats in the PA parliament, while Fatah secured a mere 45.

Israel is willing to see an election in the West Bank only if Hamas does not take part, and on the condition that Palestinians in eastern Jerusalem do not vote. If the PA and Hamas reach a deal to hold an election that violates these terms, Israel will likely bar representatives of the PA Elections Committee from moving between the West Bank and Gaza, arrest Hamas leaders and candidates, and take action against the group.

As of now, Israel — which was badly burned by the 2006 Palestinian elections — is willing to take international criticism for thwarting an election in which Hamas might participate, as long as doing so prevents a situation in which the West Bank, like Gaza, falls to the terrorist group.

IDF Col. (res.) Michael Milshtein, head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, and who until 2018 advised Israel’s Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) on Palestinian issues, thinks that Abbas will now do one of two things.

“He’ll either announce that for now he is freezing his [election] idea, or he’ll hold elections in the West Bank only,” said Milshtein.

Milshtein said that after Hamas surprised Abbas by agreeing to his terms, Abbas set down two additional pre-conditions, which Hamas has already rejected: “Recognition of all existing agreements with Israel, including Oslo, and oversight of election funding.”

Milshtein says that Abbas found himself in a situation he hadn’t foreseen and is now trying to worm his way out. The idea of holding an election in the West Bank only plays very badly with Fatah activists and most Palestinians, as it is seen as agreeing to a division between Gaza and the West Bank, a diplomatic bifurcation many Palestinians find hard to swallow.

Abbas Needs Legitimacy at Home

In a paper he recently wrote for the Institute of National Security Studies, Milshtein mentions another possible reason why Abbas has suddenly started talking about elections: as a way of stopping a potential Palestinian “Arab Spring.”

“The current popular protests in Lebanon, Egypt, and Iraq, which focus on economic issues and government corruption, are making things uncomfortable in Ramallah,” he said.

“Abbas needs legitimacy at home, especially given the criticism about corruption in the PA. An election could give him that legitimacy,” Milshtein added.

Milshtein discussed the heavy European Union pressure on Abbas over the PA’s failure to hold an election. He also mentioned attempts by Qatar to persuade Abbas to hold elections. The Qatari proposal included the suggestion that Hamas be allowed to run in an election using the “Tunisian model” — in other words, that it be represented by candidates who are “identified” with the movement but not active members of it.

There is still another reason why Abbas has changed his stance on elections.

According to Milshtein: “Abbas is aware that there is increasing chatter about ousting him, and he wants to shore up his foundations for the future, one of which is an elected parliament. According to Palestinian law, the speaker of the PA parliament is the successor to the president — if he is ousted — until an election can be held. Since 2006, the speaker of parliament has been a member of Hamas, and it could be that Abbas wants to establish a new parliament and ensure that its speaker is from Fatah.”

What has prompted Hamas to demonstrate such flexibility in discussing an election? Milshtein says it’s possible that Hamas is worried about a Palestinian uprising spreading to the Gaza Strip, which he says is already “much more volatile than the West Bank.”

Milshtein says that the Hamas leadership hesitated about whether or not to allow an

“The position that was accepted, led by [Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip] Yahya Sinwar, is that an election must be held in Gaza, even if only to elect a parliament, without a target date for a presidential election. If the idea of an election starts becoming an actuality, conditions might become ripe to form a unity government that will take on the responsibility for managing Gaza’s civil affairs, thereby relieving Hamas of the burden without the organization having to give up its military power,” he said.

Officials in Jerusalem think it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Abbas, who has already reached out to European countries to press Israel to allow Palestinian elections, might soon issue the presidential order to hold them, but only on the condition that they include the Palestinian residents of eastern Jerusalem. For now, and until a permanent government is in place in Israel, there is no chance of that happening.

This article was originally published in Israel HaYom.

Nadav Shragai is a veteran Israeli journalist.

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