Palestinian Affairs: Abbas's big bluff

Palestinian Affairs Abb

November 6, 2009 01:51

Mahmoud Abbas's decision to hold new presidential and parliamentary elections at the beginning of next year is seen by some of his aides as one of the strangest moves he has made since he was elected to succeed Yasser Arafat five years ago. These aides are now trying to persuade Abbas to find an honorable way to come down from the high tree he climbed when he issued a "presidential decree" a few weeks ago calling for a vote on January 24. One aide in Ramallah said that Abbas was "actually digging his own grave" by insisting on holding the elections before reaching an agreement with Hamas. The Islamic movement has already made it clear that it won't participate in the elections. Moreover, Hamas has declared that it won't allow the vote to take place in the Gaza Strip and would punish any Palestinian there who is involved in the electoral process. Hamas's decision means that the elections, when and if they are held, would be confined to the West Bank, where Abbas is partially in control, and perhaps some areas in Jerusalem that are under Israeli sovereignty. Abbas's opponents can then argue that since the election was not held in the Gaza Strip, he does not represent the entire Palestinian people. As Hamas legislator Salah Bardaweel explained: "Abbas will then become the mayor or governor of the West Bank." As such, maintaining the status quo would be the best option for Abbas. Under the current circumstances, Abbas can always argue that he represents a majority of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip who voted for him in the 2005 presidential election. If Gaza is excluded from the planned elections, Abbas or whoever replaces him as head of Fatah will never be seen as a legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. This means that the new Palestinian leader would not have a mandate to negotiate or sign a peace agreement with Israel because he was not elected by a majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. ABBAS'S DECISION to call the new elections came after the Egyptians failed to reach an agreement between Hamas and Fatah on ending their power struggle. The two rival parties were supposed to sign an Egyptian-brokered "reconciliation" accord in Cairo last month. But the signing ceremony was called off indefinitely after Hamas announced that it would not reach any deal with a "traitor" like Abbas. Hamas was angry over Abbas's controversial decision to withdraw a resolution that would have required the UN Human Rights Council to endorse a report written by Judge Richard Goldstone report on Operation Cast Lead. Abbas believed that his unilateral call for new elections would embarrass Hamas and increase pressure on its leaders following their decision not to sign the "reconciliation" agreement. But so far it seems that Abbas has managed to embarrass only himself and his loyalists in Fatah by calling for an election when he knows that he does not have the tools to implement his decision on the ground. Hamas is not the only group that has declared its intention to boycott the January elections. So far, most of the other Palestinian factions, including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, have expressed their opposition to holding the vote due to the continued divisions in the Palestinian arena. Earlier this week it turned out that even some of Fatah's top operatives, such as jailed leader Marwan Barghouti, were also opposed to holding elections without the participation of voters from the Gaza Strip. In a message from his prison cell, Barghouti, who is serving five life terms for his role in terror attacks on Israelis, warned Abbas that it was unwise and harmful to hold the vote under the current circumstances. Barghouti also warned that the elections would only "solidify" divisions among the Palestinians and make the split between the West Bank and Gaza Strip a permanent phenomenon. The question of whether Abbas will run in the upcoming elections or not is no longer relevant. What is clear is that any Fatah candidate won't be challenged by any rival. This means that if an agreement is not reached with Hamas before next January, Fatah will find itself contesting the vote alone - a factor that would further undermine the credibility of the entire process. Even if the elections were to take place in all the Palestinian territories and in agreement with Hamas, there is no guarantee that Fatah would win. In fact, there's good reason to believe that Hamas might score another victory like the one it achieved in the January 2006 parliamentary vote. Ironically, Abbas called the new elections at a time when his credibility appears to have suffered a severe blow, especially in light of his decision to withdraw - under heavy US pressure - the motion from the UN Human Rights Council. Abbas is also facing growing criticism at home for his failure to reform Fatah and to get rid of icons of financial corruption that were responsible for the faction's defeat in 2006. In addition, Abbas's failure to reach an agreement with Hamas and his open alliance with the US has severely undermined his credibility among Palestinians and Arabs, who view him as a puppet in the hands of the Americans and Israelis. When US President Barack Obama forced him to meet with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York several weeks ago, many Palestinians saw the move as proof that Abbas was a weak leader who receives orders from the White House. Fatah's failure to come up with new faces is also seen by many Palestinians as evidence that the faction is not serious when it comes to implementing reforms. With candidates like Muhammad Dahlan, Jibril Rajoub and Nabil Sha'ath, Fatah is certain to lose the vote once again. Decision-makers in the US and the EU have clearly forgotten that these three men were part of the Fatah list that lost the elections to Hamas in 2006. And they appear to have forgotten that Barghouti, who is often described by mainstream media in the US as a popular and charismatic leader, was the head of that list. There's no reason why any Palestinian would vote again for the same Fatah list he voted out four years ago. The best way to undermine Hamas is by offering the Palestinians a better alternative and not by recycling the same Fatah faces and reintroducing them as "young and charismatic candidates." Abbas's only realistic option at this stage is to maintain the status quo which allows him at least to argue that he's a democratically-elected president. And he can always blame Hamas and its patrons in Teheran and Damascus for thwarting new elections in the Palestinian territories. Otherwise, Abbas would be taking a huge gamble by holding elections only in the West Bank and without the participation of other Palestinian factions.

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