Abbas's Palestinian election theatre
By Dalal Yassine*
Last week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addressed the Fatah Central Committee in Ramallah about the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections planned for next month.
He declared that Jerusalem is a "red line" and that elections could not be held if Israel prevented Palestinian residents from participating. All indications are that those elections - the first in 15 years - will be postponed, likely indefinitely.
When Abbas announced the elections in January he expected to reproduce the status quo. Abbas was elected to a four-year term in 2005. After extending his presidency by one year through an emergency decree, Abbas remained in office for the next decade and consolidated power against potential rivals.
He believed that his Fatah movement would handily defeat Hamas in the PLC and presidential elections. However, those hopes have faded, as Abbas has faced a challenge from within his Fatah party, Israel's intransigence on East Jerusalem, and Washington's rejection of Hamas's participation in the election.
Over the past two months, Nasser al-Kidwa and Marwan Barghouti have openly feuded with Abbas. Al-Kidwa is a former Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister and Yasser Arafat's nephew. Barghouti is a popular Fatah leader who has spent the past 19 years in Israeli prison.
After al-Kidwa refused to join Fatah's list of PLC candidates, he was expelled from the movement and criticized by Abbas's allies. His "Freedom List" of candidates includes Marwan Barghouti's wife, Fadwa, and is a direct threat to Abbas.
While the internal rift within Fatah is one impediment to the elections, Israel is another. About 60 Jerusalem residents declared their intent to run for the PLC elections, and roughly 156,000 Jerusalemites are eligible to vote.
However, Israel has ignored the Palestinian Authority's request to hold elections in East Jerusalem. In a recent statement, the different factions of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) reaffirmed that like the other occupied territories, Israel did not have the legal authority to prevent elections from being held in East Jerusalem.
But as it has demonstrated for more than five decades, Israel relies on brute force when it lacks legal authority.
In the three previous elections held since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, Israel permitted Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem to participate. Yet it still interfered in the elections and launched a campaign to intimidate Palestinian candidates and voters.
A more aggressive campaign was adopted after Hamas's victory in the 2006 PLC elections. Israel arrested a third of the elected legislators, and six remain in prison today. And it's not just Hamas legislators who have been jailed. Khalida Jarrar, a PLC representative from the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, has been in Israeli prison since 2015. Nevertheless, Jarrar was a candidate in the planned PLC elections.
This election, though, is different, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to prevent one from being held at all. Netanyahu is determined to capitalise on Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and the "Abraham Accord" normalisation agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco.
To that end, Israel has not granted permission to international observer missions or to the European Union mission to enter the occupied Palestinian territories. The EU mission supports the work of the Palestinian Central Elections Commission. In addition, some EU members have demanded that Israel allow East Jerusalem residents to participate in the elections.
But Netanyahu has emphasised the possibility of a Hamas victory in order to obtain American and European support for his policies. If Hamas wins, Israel contends that it will re-legitimise the movement, threaten its control over the West Bank, and undermine the normalisation agreements.
Hamas, more than Fatah and Abbas, needs the elections and legitimacy they would provide. Although the movement remains in control of Gaza, support for it around the region has never been weaker. This is unlikely to change in the near future, and an electoral victory over a split Fatah movement will only strengthen Netanyahu's position.
Although the Biden administration recently announced a comprehensive reengagement with the Palestinians, it has been less enthusiastic about the prospect of PLC elections. In a statement to the UN Security Council on April 22, Rodney Hunter, the US Political Coordinator to the US mission to the UN explained that Washington and its key partners "have long been clear that participants in the democratic process must accept previous agreements, renounce violence and terrorism, and recognise Israel's right to exist." Hunter's statement was a reminder to Hamas and Abbas of Washington's conditions.
His comments came a day after State Department Spokesman Ned Price expressed tepid support for the Palestinian elections. "Our position vis-a-vis Hamas is well known," he said. "I'm not going to entertain a hypothetical when it comes to elections for the Palestinian people. That's up to them to decide," Price added. As in the 2006 elections, Hamas would need to meet Washington's demands or face renewed sanctions and a deadlocked political process.
While Abbas is publicly focusing on East Jerusalem, behind the scenes his main concerns are splits in Fatah and fear of a Hamas victory. And President Biden appears content to continue the policies of his predecessors and prevent a resolution to the political divide between Fatah and Hamas. His administration has little incentive to invest political capital in renewing the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians through meaningful negotiations. Instead, Palestinians can expect a repeat of the past 15 years with promises of elections and national unity programmes that remain forever unfulfilled.
• Dalal Yassine is a Non-Resident Fellow with the Jerusalem Fund/Palestine Center in Washington, D.C.
Follow her on Twitter: @Dalal_yassine
The views in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center.