Ahead of Palestinian elections, Abbas stays wary of rivals Dahlan, Hamas

PALESTINIAN AFFAIRS: Despite announcing new elections, Abbas seems to have no intentions of stepping down.

PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY President Mahmoud Abbas hands an election decree to chairman of the Palestinian Central Election Committee, Hana Naser, in Ramallah, January 2021 (photo credit: PALESTINIAN PRESIDENT OFFICE/REUTERS)
PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY President Mahmoud Abbas hands an election decree to chairman of the Palestinian Central Election Committee, Hana Naser, in Ramallah, January 2021
On November 23, 2009, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas issued a “presidential decree” for holding presidential and parliamentary elections on January 24, 2010.
A few weeks later, Abbas said that he was determined to hold the elections on the date he announced and accused his rivals in Hamas of foiling Egyptian efforts to end the dispute with his ruling Fatah faction.
“The decree for Palestinian elections is very serious and we are determined to implement it,” Abbas told a meeting of the Palestinian Central Council in Ramallah.
Then, Hamas leaders dismissed Abbas’s decision as “illegitimate and unconstitutional,” arguing that he was not authorized to announce elections, because his four-year term in office had expired in January 2009.
Abbas was elected in the second presidential election for the PA presidency, held on January 9, 2005. His plan to hold the elections in 2010 never materialized, due to the dispute between Fatah and Hamas.
In October 2011, Abbas decided to try again. This time, he sent a proposal to Hamas suggesting that the general elections be held at the beginning of 2012.
He was hoping that Hamas would accept his offer, which came as the Islamist movement was celebrating the release of 1,027 Palestinian security prisoners as part of the Gilad Schalit prisoner exchange agreement with Israel. But as tensions between Fatah and Hamas escalated, the two parties again failed to reach agreement on the proposed elections.
In April 2014, Fatah and Hamas announced yet another reconciliation agreement to end their rivalry. The deal called for the formation of a Palestinian unity government and holding general elections within six months. Again, the agreement was never implemented, reflecting the two parties’ deep mutual mistrust.
In the past few years, Abbas has come under pressure from Palestinians and various international parties, especially the European Union, to set a date for general elections, notwithstanding the ongoing dispute between Fatah and Hamas.
Rebuffing the pressure, Abbas constantly cited Hamas’s refusal to cede control of the Gaza Strip as the main reason the Palestinians cannot hold free elections.
In 2019, Abbas, during a speech at the United Nations General Assembly, again pledged to call for general elections upon his return to Ramallah.
A few days later, however, he found another excuse to avoid fulfilling his promise. This time, he blamed Israel for obstructing the proposed elections by refusing to allow the vote to take place in Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem. Abbas’s allegation came despite the fact that he had never set a date for the elections or even made a formal request to Israel regarding the participation of Jerusalem Arabs in the vote.
“When you’re not serious about elections, you can always find a good excuse not to hold them,” said an east Jerusalem columnist and political analyst.
Last week, Abbas announced new dates for the parliamentary and presidential elections: May 22 and July 31, respectively. He also announced that elections for the PLO’s legislative body, the Palestinian National Council, would take place at the end of August.
The PNC serves as the parliament that represents all Palestinians, inside and outside the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as several Palestinian political parties.
The 132-member Palestinian Legislative Council, on the other hand, is a parliament that represents only Palestinians from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. (Israel had allowed residents of east Jerusalem to run in previous PLC elections.)
Abbas’s latest announcement came after months of negotiations between Fatah and Hamas leaders in Turkey, Qatar and Egypt.
He explained that he made the decision after receiving a written letter from Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, who is currently based in Qatar, affirming the Islamist movement’s desire to end the dispute with Fatah and work toward achieving national and political partnership. In the letter, Haniyeh backtracked on Hamas’s previous demand that the elections for the three Palestinian governing bodies be held simultaneously.
Hamas officials, who this time were quick to welcome Abbas’s announcement, said that their movement was ready to participate in the upcoming elections.
At this stage, it’s not clear whether Hamas has plans to participate in the presidential election.
What is certain, however, is that Hamas has its eyes set on the parliamentary election, hoping to repeat its 2006 victory. Back then, Hamas candidates who ran under the banner of “Change and Reform” easily succeeded in persuading Palestinians that they were a better alternative to what Hamas and many Palestinians perceived as Fatah’s corrupt and inept representatives.
YET, AS many Palestinians continue to express skepticism about the likelihood of the long-awaited elections actually being held, others have begun wondering about the identities of the candidates who may run in the presidential election, if and when it takes place. The No. 1 question: Will Abbas present his candidacy?
On Wednesday, PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh announced that Fatah had unanimously nominated Abbas as its candidate for the presidency.
Shtayyeh’s announcement, made during an interview with a London-based Arabic TV channel, surprised many Palestinians, including members of Fatah who said that they were hoping that the upcoming elections would provide an opportunity for new and young leaders to rise to power.
“I see no reason why we should waste our time and effort on new elections if President Abbas is going to run for another term,” remarked a resentful Fatah official from Ramallah. “Under the current circumstances, we all know that anyone who runs against President Abbas has no chance of winning.”
In the last presidential election, Abbas was challenged by six other candidates: Mustafa Barghouti, Taysir Khaled, Abdelhaleem Ashqar, Bassam al-Salhi, Sayyid Barakeh and Abdel Karim Shubeir. Abbas won 62.52% of the votes, while Barghouti came in second, with 19.48%.
In the first presidential election, which took place in 1996, only one candidate ran against Yasser Arafat. Her name was Samiha Khalil, a prominent female politician and charity worker from a small village near the northern West Bank city of Tulkarm, who was believed to be affiliated with the PLO’s Marxist-Leninist secular organization, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. She received more than 82,000 votes, while Arafat got more than 630,000.
By Thursday, no Palestinian had announced his or her intention to run in the presidential election.
Despite Shtayyeh’s announcement, Abbas has not spelled out his plans for the future. Many of his aides are convinced that he will ultimately participate in the presidential election.
“The president is very happy with the job,” said one of the aides. “He’s just waiting for Fatah leaders to officially endorse him as their candidate.”
Yet if he decides to seek reelection, Abbas could face a mutiny in Fatah, where a number of senior officials with political ambitions say that the time has come for a changing of the guard.
The two names in Fatah that seem to worry Abbas most are Mohammad Dahlan and Marwan Barghouti.
Dahlan, an archrival of Abbas based in the United Arab Emirates, has for the past 10 years been waging a well-financed campaign to discredit Abbas and other representatives of the old guard in Fatah.
Barghouti, another Abbas critic who is serving five life sentences in Israeli prison for his involvement in terrorism during the Second Intifada, has previously indicated his desire to run in a presidential election.
Barghouti appears to be more popular among the Palestinians than Dahlan, who was born in Khan Yunis refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, most likely because he is being held in Israeli prison.
Dahlan, who previously served as a PA security commander in the Gaza Strip, is seen by many Palestinians as a corrupt opportunist and wheeler-dealer whose only goal is to replace Abbas. Barghouti, on the other hand, is widely respected as a Palestinian “fighter” who played an important role in the “national struggle” against Israel.
A recent public opinion poll conducted by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research showed that if Dahlan forms his own independent list, it would receive only 7% of the vote. But if Barghouti forms a list, it would receive 25% of the vote, while the official Fatah list would garner only 19%, according to the poll.
If Fatah nominates Abbas as its candidate for the presidential election, a majority of the Palestinians would view him as the wrong choice, the poll concluded. Only 25% of the public think he is the best Fatah candidate. When asked to name a better candidate, 42% of those polled mentioned Barghouti, while Dahlan was mentioned by only 10% of the public.
Although Dahlan’s chances of winning a presidential election are slim, his followers may still score some kind of a victory in the parliamentary election.
Dahlan loyalists said this week that if they are excluded from Fatah’s official list, they will run separately, also under the name of Fatah. Abbas and the Fatah leadership will do their utmost to prevent Dahlan from running in the presidential election. It would be more difficult for them, however, to stop thousands of Dahlan loyalists from participating in the parliamentary election.
There’s only one party that stands to benefit from the widening schism in Fatah: Hamas.
In the unlikely event that Haniyeh runs in the presidential election, the poll indicated that he would defeat Abbas by gaining 50% of the vote, as opposed to 43% for the PA president. More disturbing news for Abbas: 66% of the Palestinian public is demanding his resignation.
With such low approval ratings, Abbas would be taking an enormous risk if he decided to present his candidacy for the presidential election. Moreover, there is a strong possibility that Hamas or Fatah dissidents led by Dahlan and Barghouti will win a majority of seats in the PLC election.
Some Palestinians believe that Dahlan and Barghouti have made a secret alliance to undermine Abbas and the current Fatah leadership. The two may be joined by more disgruntled Fatah leaders in the coming weeks, creating more trouble for Abbas.
All that, of course, if the elections ever take place. Abbas announced the elections before resolving his dispute with Hamas. At the beginning of next month, Fatah and Hamas leaders are scheduled to meet in Cairo to discuss ways of ensuring the success of the proposed elections. This shows that the two parties remain at odds about the elections.
Although Hamas has welcomed Abbas’s announcement, its leaders want assurances that the elections in the West Bank would be held in a free and democratic atmosphere.
Hamas is worried that Abbas and Israel may try to block some of its candidates by arresting them or imposing restrictions on them. Abbas, for his part, is seeking assurances that his loyalists in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip would be allowed to campaign and participate in the elections without being subjected to intimidation and threats.
Now that Trump is gone, Abbas is saying that he wants to renew his relations with the US administration and return to the negotiating table with Israel. Hamas will undoubtedly use this as an excuse to thwart the process of reconciliation with Fatah on the pretext that Abbas is once again aligning himself with the US and Israel.
The Palestinian public, meanwhile, seems less concerned about the elections than about the health and economic repercussions of COVID-19. From decades of experience, they know that even if the elections take place, they will wind up with the same familiar faces.