In a recently leaked recording, Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas was heard hurling a slew of insults at the world: “[obscenity] China, [obscenity] Russia, [obscenity] America and [obscenity] all the Arabs.” Surprisingly, Israel was absent from the inclusive lineup. Abbas was also reported in early April to have refused a call from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, asking for it to come instead from the Oval Office. Such incidences, coupled with the rising tension in Jerusalem and the indefinite delay of the Palestinian elections, expose a simmering frustration among the Palestinians and are alarming signs for a brewing storm.
Throughout the last year, a series of regional developments, coupled with a lack of realistic expectations and traditional Palestinian intransigence, caused deep frustration among Palestinian politicians and the general population. The “Peace to Prosperity” Mideast plan, the Abraham Accords and a deep financial crisis have all created further embitterment and resentment. The ill-conceived announcement of the Palestinian elections last January was largely an attempt to bypass what seemed to be a domestic, regional and international Palestinian stalemate.
Yet since the very beginning, heavy shadows of doubt already haunted the promise of Palestinian elections. Rightfully cynical Palestinians and external observers doubted that the Palestinian elections would actually take place due to the unresolved conflict between Fatah and Hamas. Moreover, with the aggressive regional effort aiming for the complete political immobilization of the Muslim Brotherhood headed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, it was clear that major regional backers did not look favorably at elections that had a high likelihood of giving Hamas more power. This serious consideration was even voiced by the White House, which also expressed its understanding in advance if the P.A. decided not to hold elections. In other words, soon after Abbas announced the elections and his aim at uniting Palestinian ranks, many agreed that he was setting himself a trap.
Abbas’s decision to effectively cancel elections while saving himself from a risky gamble only aggravates the situation, as once again the P.A. sets expectations it has no way of meeting. Hamas already condemned the decision and declared it a “coup.” The only way that the P.A. can avoid popular discontent and lack of support is, yet again, through channeling the built-up anger against Israel and claiming that Israel’s refusal to allow Arab residents in eastern Jerusalem to vote is the reason for the cancellation. “No elections without Jerusalem!” cried Abbas. The fact that this entire episode is taking place during the holy month of Ramadan, and its amplifying effect of religious and national sentiments, has only made the situation worse, resulting in Palestinian anger and violence in Jerusalem.
Abbas made a series of mistakes. He announced elections at an impossible timing, failed to create the necessary political atmosphere for such elections to actually happen, then canceled the elections and is mistaken in not preparing a new generation of the young Palestinian leadership to take control. In doing so, he is further risking whatever remained of the Palestinian cause that is no longer a wider Arab priority. His way to challenge his anger against “China, Russia, America and all the Arabs” shows an old and embittered leadership that holds no political agenda, no vision and no tools but the reliance on inflamed mass anger and protests. This risk is heightened by the devastating economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Since the outbreak last year, income from tourism, trade and transformers plummeted to its lowest levels since the Second Intifada. The United Nations reported that COVID-19 has cost the Palestinians 7 percent to 35 percent of their GDP, and unemployment has risen about 30 percent. The economic effects are mostly felt in the large informal economy.
The growing popularity of the Palestinian cause and increase of anti-Israel bias in international human-rights organizations, in addition to the foreign-policy establishment in Washington, does not make things any better. The growing Western voices singing odes to Palestinian victimhood may only empower the most negative and destructive tendencies among Palestinian society. Such irresponsible behavior from the supposed guardians of the international order is not expected to change any time soon; as a matter of fact, it is only likely to get worse.
Israel must not underestimate the rising volatility of the situation in the West Bank and Gaza. A continued rise in anger under COVID conditions and continued political failure of the P.A. pose a serious security risk. Hamas leadership and their Iranian patrons are no doubt aware of the potential for violent actions. On the other hand, the UAE already expressed a clear interest in keeping the flames low during the latest episode of unrest in Jerusalem, and Egypt is keen on keeping Muslim Brotherhood groups away from power. Israel cannot solve domestic political problems for the Palestinians—perhaps no one can—but it should note that the conditions are becoming increasingly fertile for a popular explosion of Palestinian anger.
Hussein Aboubakr Mansour is director of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET) Program for Emerging Democratic Voices from the Middle East and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.