Elections in the PA: Not a magic wand

Does Israel really want Abbas to hold an election? Because what happens if he does, and the bad guys — Hamas — wins? Then what?

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends a virtual meeting with Palestinian factions over Israel and the United Arab Emirates' deal to normalise ties, in Ramallah in the West Bank September 3, 2020. (photo credit: ALAA BADARNEH/POOL VIA REUTERS)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends a virtual meeting with Palestinian factions over Israel and the United Arab Emirates' deal to normalise ties, in Ramallah in the West Bank September 3, 2020.
(photo credit: ALAA BADARNEH/POOL VIA REUTERS)
Sixteen years ago on Saturday, Mahmoud Abbas won the second PA presidential elections, meaning — as the saying goes — that he is currently in the 17th year of a four-year term.
That line, about the longevity of Abbas’s reign, is used often by Israeli spokespeople and advocates to underline the point that Israel’s ostensible partner on the other side is an autocrat, and that Israel cannot realistically be expected to cut a deal with a man whose legitimacy as the Palestinian leader has not been put to the test for 16 years.
The unstated message in the “17 years of a four-year term” line is that it would be good and desirable for the PA to hold both a presidential and legislative election (while the last PA presidential election was held in 2005, the last legislative election was held in 2006).
But is it? Does Israel really want Abbas to hold an election? Because what happens if he does, and the bad guys — Hamas — wins? Then what? Does Jerusalem really want Hamas’s Ismail Haniyeh or Yahya Sinwar sitting in the Muqata in Ramallah, rather than Abbas?
Obviously not. On the contrary, that would be a disaster, and it is a disaster that should be kept in mind amid increasing talk of a Hamas-Fatah agreement to hold separate elections for the PA presidency, the Palestinian Legislative Council, and the PLO’s national council.
While there has been talk for years of imminent elections, a step that would signify a reconciliation between Fatah — which governs the West Bank — and Hamas, which rules Gaza, it has always led to naught.
This time, however, there are a couple of developments that may make such talk more serious. The first is the Abraham Accords —  as well as the recent rapprochement between Qatar and the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates — and the second is the dawn of a new administration in Washington.
The accords between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and, most lately, Morocco have put the Palestinians on notice that their “veto” over the relations between states in the Arab world and Israel has expired, and that the Arab world is not waiting anymore for them to get their act together — to determine who represents them and begin negotiations with Israel — before moving forward with the Jewish state. That itself may serve as an incentive for the Palestinians to get their political “act together.”
Furthermore, if the Saudis and the UAE — which over the years have been instrumental in propping up Fatah — can reconcile with Qatar, one of Hamas’s key backers, then Fatah and Hamas should be able to do so. Tamping down the rivalry between Qatar and the other Gulf states could also get them to get Fatah and Hamas to tamp down their own deadly rivalry.
And the other factor to keep in mind when asking whether talk of Palestinian Authority elections this time is more serious than in the past is the new incoming administration in Washington.
Since Joe Biden’s election in November, Abbas took a number of steps aimed at setting the PA’s relationship with the new administration on the right footing. This includes renewing cooperation with Israel, and accepting once again the tax transfers from Israel, even with money paid to convicted terrorists in Israeli jails and their families subtracted from the total.
When Biden comes into office, the Israeli-Palestinian issue is expected to be way down on his list of priorities, a stark contrast to when Barack Obama took office on January 20, 2009, and the very next day appointed George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy.
Biden has a deeply divided America to heal, the coronavirus pandemic to wrestle with, an economy to try to put on the right track, Iran to consider, and the difficult relationships with China and Russia to navigate. The Palestinians are not going to be high up on his to-do list, especially if they are as divided and fractionalized as ever, and unable to speak in one voice even if – somehow – negotiations with Israel were to restart.
An announcement of elections in the PA could, however, put the issue back on Biden’s radar screen.
If it then becomes clear that this time things really are different, that this time the Palestinians are inching toward reconciliation and heading toward elections, Israel must say loudly that Hamas should not be allowed to participate unless it is disarmed.
Allowing Hamas to participate in the last Palestinian legislative elections of 2006, even though the terrorist organization did not lay down its arms, was a huge mistake, and one that came about because of intense pressure from then-president George W. Bush and his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who believed — erroneously — that democracy and elections would be a panacea for the area’s problems. The result: Hamas won the legislative elections and then violently took control over Gaza a year later.

ONLY BELATEDLY did Rice admit that pushing for the elections might have been a mistake and a misreading of the Palestinian political map. The Bush administration was so married to the idea of bringing democracy to the region that it failed to give enough weight to the fact that Hamas was popular, Fatah was viewed as incorrigibly corrupt, and that the democratic institutions in the PA were weak, fragile and unable to withstand an assault.
If new elections are held now, and Hamas again is not forced to disarm as an entry card into those elections, then there is no reason to believe that things will turn out any better this time than the last time around.
Last week’s events in Washington showed what can happen even in the world’s strongest democracy when people, in this case unarmed, don’t accept the results of the elections. So what might happen if a group of people — who are actually armed to the teeth – don’t accept the results of the elections in a territory where there are not strong democratic institutions?
Saying that Abbas is in the 17th year of a four-year term may be a good debating point in illustrating that Israel is not dealing with a democracy on the other side of the fence or negotiating table, but those using that line are subtly hinting that new elections in the Palestinian Authority is the desirable result. And that brings to mind another saying: “Be careful what you wish for.”