'Fatah asked Sharon to prevent voting in J’lem in 2006'

Former top White House aide Elliott Abrams tells ‘Post’ that former PM refused request made by PA who were fearful of losing election to Hamas.

Elliott Abrams 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
Elliott Abrams 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
Several weeks before Hamas changed the regional equation by beating Fatah in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections, the PA asked prime minister Ariel Sharon to cancel the elections in Jerusalem so Fatah – which belatedly realized it was going to lose – could have a pretext for calling off the balloting, former top White House aide Elliott Abrams has told The Jerusalem Post.
According to Abrams, in the country last week to take part in the Israeli Presidential Conference, Sharon emphatically said “no” to the idea.
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Sharon suffered his debilitating second stroke on January 4, and the elections were held three weeks later – on January 25, 2006.
“If you look at what all the polls were saying, [Palestinian pollster Khalil] Shikaki, BBC polls, our own polls, they were all saying Fatah would win. The Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) was saying that, until the last few weeks. And then people began to say, ‘Uh oh.’ So at the very end the Palestinians got scared, and some of them said to Israel and the US that they might lose, so let’s call off the election,” Abrams said.
According to Abrams, the Palestinians seized on the voting in Jerusalem as a possible pretext to cancel the elections, since this issue has been debated amid questions of how and where Palestinians would vote.
“The Palestinians said to Sharon, ‘Why don’t you say no voting in Jerusalem. Zero. Not in the post offices [where voting was allowed in 1995]. Zero. And this will be a reason to call off the election.’”
Sharon, according to Abrams, “said he was not going to take the blame for this. He said, ‘If you want to call off the elections, call off the election, I don’t care. If you want to have an election, great; if you want to call off the election, great. But you do it – I’m not taking the blame for it.’” The Palestinians, Abrams said, then came to the Americans with a request that they call off the elections.
The American reaction was that the US doesn’t call off elections just a few days before they are scheduled, “because it looks like you’re not going to win anymore. That’s ridiculous.
Your job is to win the election, go out and work, and get your people to the polls and win the damn election. So the election was held, and Hamas won.”
Abrams, at the time a special assistant to president George W. Bush and the National Security Council’s senior director for Near East and North African Affairs, said that in retrospect the US position on allowing those elections was mistaken.
“People are always asking how we could let the 2006 elections happen,” Abrams said. “Well, the answer to that is that neither the Palestinians, nor the Israelis, nor anybody else, said Hamas was going to win.”
Abrams, recalling the events that led to the elections – a vote that started the eventual division of the Palestinian Authority into the Gaza Strip, controlled by Hamas, and the West Bank, controlled by Fatah – said that after Yasser Arafat died in 2004, a presidential election was held that Mahmoud Abbas won with some 62 percent of the votes. The PA legislative elections scheduled for the summer were then postponed until January. There was a debate at the time, Abrams said, about whether the Hamas party – which he said was ironically named the Hope and Change party, ironic because that slogan later became Barack Obama’s campaign slogan – should be allowed to participate.
Abbas, Abrams said, was in favor of their participation, saying that if Hamas was not allowed to take part, it would delegitimize the whole election and create an impression that it was a vote where opponents could not run, like in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Libya.
“Abbas insisted, not just said, but insisted to us and to the Quartet that Hamas take part,” Abrams said. “He was confident he would win.”
Abbas also argued in the beginning, Abrams remembered, that it was likely Hamas would win around 25% in the PA legislature, which the PA president said was “good” because once the organization became involved in politics, “then you can create splits inside Hamas between the guys who want to be part of it, and the guys who were only terrorists.”
Sharon, Abrams said, was opposed to the elections “from the beginning to the end, as were Tzipi Livni and some Americans on the grounds of principle.”
Abrams said the opposition of some in the US administration was not because of a fear that Hamas would win – “they thought Hamas would lose” – but rather because they said that “terrorists have to lay down their arms before they can participate in elections.
They said this was an important principle in Northern Ireland, and for Kosovo.”
In the end, Abrams said, both the US and the EU accepted Abbas’s argument.
In September 2005, thensecretary of state Condoleezza Rice moved the American position on Hamas participation in the elections, saying that the US stand was no longer that the organization could not take part in the elections until it laid down its arms, but rather that it couldn’t participate in the government until it had set aside its weapons.
“Until then, she said you can’t run, now she said you can run but you can’t participate,” Abrams said. “Then Hamas won, and she said in January what she said in September, that they couldn’t participate in the government until they laid down their arms.”
As a result of that policy, the US and other countries boycotted the Hamas government, Abrams said.
“In retrospect I think we made a mistake, obviously,” he said. “The initial principle was correct: that people should not be allowed to compete in an election with guns in their hands, because it gives them an unfair advantage in the elections.”
The full interview with Abrams will appear in Friday’s Post.