Israel’s elections – for the time being, at least – are over. Now it’s the Palestinians’ turn. All eyes are on Ramallah – and Gaza – as the Palestinian Authority is scheduled to hold its first elections in 15 years.
The PA, like much of the world, has suffered an enormous economic hit as a result of the COVID pandemic. But the Palestinian economy wasn’t in terrific shape before the coronavirus, and their impasse on the peace front and a governing structure rife with corruption have left many Palestinians looking for a radical change.
Exacerbating the woes of the old guard of the Fatah movement that has been in power since the PA’s inception, Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is 85-years-old, in failing health. Even though he has been in power since January 2005, he lacks the gravitas – personal and political – to motivate the Palestinian street in any way other than a grudging acceptance of the status quo and the fear that if he’s replaced, it’ll be by the terrorist Hamas organization or some other radical element that will lead to turmoil.
The peace process is on life support. It’s no longer the most pressing issue for the Israeli electorate. Palestinian aspirations have been marginalized in the wake of four years of president Donald Trump and the sidestepping of the Palestinian issue altogether by the Abraham Accords. The facts on the ground have created an interesting assortment of ambitious individuals and rogue players who want to reshape how the Palestinians govern – and that’s the concern for Israel.
Elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council are first. They’ll take place in May. Palestinians in the West Bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza will get the chance to vote for their next president in July. The choice encompasses many of the same usual suspects that have stunted the advancement of Palestinian national aspirations. Hamas is running candidates under the banner “Jerusalem is our Banner.” Candidates from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the terrorist group responsible for countless hijackings and murders, are running, as well. Not to be outdone, candidates from the North Korean-supported Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the terrorist faction responsible for the 1974 Ma’alot school massacre among many other crimes, are making campaign promises and seeking votes as well.
The PLO’s Fatah is, of course, the dominant secular party, and Abbas, the party head, is running for reelection as the head of the ticket. But there are defectors from the party founded by Yasser Arafat, and there are breakaways eager to end his reign. Some of these candidates are known commodities to Israel and the West. Former Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad is running on the “Together We Can” slate, and Mohammed Dahlan – Arafat’s former security chief for Gaza who had a falling out with Abbas and was convicted in absentia of corruption – has returned from his luxurious exile in the United Arab Emirates to run on the “The Future” list.
ABBAS HAS only himself to blame for the political hubris within his camp. He runs a corrupt government that resembles a mafia fiefdom. His security services are oppressive, and when it comes to the peace process, Abbas has, to paraphrase former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban, never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Moreover, he has praised the lone-wolf killers who have stabbed, shot and run over Israelis and Americans.
Abbas has taken no initiative, placed his head in the sand to the new realities of the region, and has done nothing to make the lives of his people better or promise them a brighter future. No wonder he faces fierce internal opposition. But it’s the candidacy of long-time Fatah murderer Marwan Barghouti that threatens to throw the election into a full-scale frenzy and, possibly, hand the election to Hamas.
The 61-year-old Barghouti is popular and media-savvy. He speaks fluent Hebrew – something he picked up in prison when he was a teenager. He was deported to Jordan in the 1980s for his terrorist activities during the First Intifada, and allowed to return when the Oslo Accords came into effect. He entered politics and campaigned as an anti-corruption reformer, but when the Second Intifada erupted in 2000, he led the Tanzim, a street gang of armed Fatah supporters who embarked on a lethal campaign against Israeli security forces and civilians. The bloodier their operations, the better.
Barghouti later went on the found al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade – a secretive fundamentalist Islamic terrorist faction operating under Fatah auspices with Arafat’s cash – that perpetrated some of the most heinous suicide bombings and shooting attacks of the Second Intifada, including the murder of six people at a bat mitzvah celebration in Hadera in 2002. Most law-abiding nations, led by the United States, have designated al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade as a terrorist organization. Barghouti was captured by Israeli forces in 2002, indicted for 26 murders, and convicted on five counts. He is serving five life sentences, and Israel has no intention of ever releasing him. His political campaign is run from a prison cell.
Nothing makes Barghouti happier than when journalists refer to him as the “Palestinian Mandela.” The comparison is, of course, obscene. Barghouti is a mass murderer who meticulously and psycho-pathologically calculated the amount of pain each one of his attacks on innocent civilians would inflict before dispatching his gunmen and suicide bombers on murderous missions inside Israel’s towns and cities. Many of the Jewish families his terrorist attacks targeted remain devastated until today.
Barghouti is running on a ticket called al-Mustaqbal, or Freedom, alongside Nasser al-Kidwa, Yasser Arafat’s nephew. According to a poll in 2012, Barghouti, if he ran then, would have collected over 60% of the vote. That was before COVID and before Trump. Polling data isn’t available yet, but many believe that Barghouti is an acceptable counterbalance to the popularity of Hamas, especially in the more “moderate” and secular West Bank. And that’s the absurdity of his candidacy: that one killer is more acceptable than another.
Barghouti’s quest for the presidency is nothing more than an abhorrent stunt that spits in the face of decency in a despicable gesture designed to legitimize terrorism. His candidacy is meant to incite the Palestinian street and remind them that the gun and an explosive vest, even in a so-called democracy, are how things get done. That, of course, is the Hamas campaign platform – one that the Islamic fundamentalist group hopes will march it to an electoral victory.
The fact that the parties likely to win the elections are killers and hijackers is not good for the region – not for Israel, the United States, the European Union, and especially not for the Palestinian people. No one denies that politics is a dirty business, but it must never be an enterprise that welcomes – let alone elects – cold-blooded killers.
The writer is a civil rights lawyer and the President of the Shurat HaDin Law Center.