Palestinian election train rolls out, but will Abbas let it reach its destination?

The head of the Palestinian Authority is undoubtedly aware of the risks he is taking enabling Hamas to participate in the democratic game, knowing Hamas could take over operations from the inside.

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas during a tour in the West Bank city of Ramallah on May 15, 2020. Photo by Flash90.
Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas during a tour in the West Bank city of Ramallah on May 15, 2020. Photo by Flash90.
David Hacham
David Hacham

Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas has fired the opening shot marking the start of the race to Palestinian elections—some 15 years after the last time a ballot was held—but multiple obstacles remain, as well as considerable risks for Fatah.

In mid-January, Abbas signed a presidential decree announcing elections in three stages to the Palestinian Legislative Council, the Palestinian presidency and the Palestinian Liberation Organization parliament.

The last time that elections were held in January 2006, Hamas won a majority of 76 of the Legislative Council’s 132 seats. (Abbas won presidential elections the year before.).

There are many good reasons to remain doubtful that the current elections train will reach its final destination.

Hamas rushed to embrace Abbas’s decree, claiming that it would prepare the ground for free and fair elections to reflect the genuine will of the voters, though it remains far from clear whether this indeed would be the case in Gaza.

Major gaps remain between the two groups, driven by their opposing strategic objectives, and these differences could still thwart elections entirely.

A sign of Fatah’s true feelings about elections could be found in Abbas’s insistence that they be held in stages, in contrast to Hamas’s desire to hold all three elections (legislative, presidential and the PLO) in one swoop.

For Fatah, each stage represents a possible exit ramp, which could abort the process in the event of a Hamas victory. Yet Hamas agreed to Fatah’s conditions due to its ongoing distress in Gaza, where the regime is facing deep economic and health crises compounded by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, accompanied by regional isolation that is only growing following normalization agreements between Sunni Arab countries and Israel.

Hamas is seeking rapid economic relief for the Gaza Strip and acknowledgment from the international community that it is a legitimate actor. It views elections as a path to those goals, as well as a stepping stone to expanding its power in the West Bank and taking over Palestinian government institutions.

For Israel, merely allowing Hamas—a hostile enemy entity it designates as a terror organization—to take part in elections in eastern Jerusalem presents enormous problems.

Yet it’s not just Israel that faces serious dilemmas.

Fatah itself senses some level of discomfort. Within the organization, Abbas’s real intentions in moving forward on the elections are unclear, and the question of whether he is prepared to pay the price of a Hamas victory remains open.

Behind closed doors, claims have emerged that Abbas received a promise from Hamas that it will not run a candidate for the presidential elections and may even support him—or at least not interfere. If true, this could help explain Abbas’s consent for holding elections. Under such a deal, Abbas would give Hamas a chance to be present in the P.A.’s parliament, and Hamas would enable him to continue as P.A. president.

A far more popular candidate is imprisoned senior Fatah member Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences, plus 40 years, for a string of deadly terror attacks on Israelis. Barghouti has hinted at his intention to run in the elections.

Abbas’s renewed interests in elections are primarily timed to coincide with the arrival of the Biden administration in Washington.

He is clearly seeking to signal the P.A.’s democratic credentials and to consolidate it as a legal, legitimate and elected entity after years without elections.

Abbas is undoubtedly aware of the risks he is taking enabling Hamas to participate in the democratic game. Hamas could take over the P.A. and the PLO from the inside. This would be tantamount to allowing a wolf into a sheep’s pen and hoping that things go peacefully.

In light of the above, the multiple exit ramps that Abbas has built into the process are critical, and it should surprise no one if in the near future, divisions arise between Fatah and Hamas that derail the elections.

One possibility is that talks between the factions in Cairo will end with failure, while an escalation of the coronavirus outbreak could also lead to the cancellation of the process. On the other hand, the possibility of the election’s dynamic gaining its own momentum also exists, and both sides could find themselves unable to pull the brakes on the process.

IDF Col. David Hacham (Ret.) is a former adviser on Arab affairs to seven Israeli Ministers of Defense, including Moshe Arens and Moshe Ya’alon. He is a publishing expert at: www.MirYamInstitute.org.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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