Opinion: Why did Abbas call municipal elections?

In the meantime, Hamas are Bonaparte- esque in their quiet. Not wanting to interrupt their political rival before they can announce, “checkmate.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses UN General Assembly (photo credit: REUTERS)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses UN General Assembly
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake,” Napoleon Bonaparte once famously said. The Hamas leadership might not know the above quote, but will certainly be rubbing their collective blood-soaked hands with glee at the frankly mind-boggling decision by Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas to call municipal elections for October 8 in the West Bank.
It’s one of the strangest political moves that political geeks like us have witnessed in a long time, and judging on the number of conversations we have had with European Parliament offices, staffers and policy makers here in Brussels since the end of the summer recess last week, you might think that all the EU’s Middle East watchers are suffering an epidemic of head lice.
You see, despite the recent fiasco over Britain’s exit from the EU, it’s a commonly held and observed maxim here at the heart of the EU that most politicians call elections when they are reasonably certain of winning, and furthermore that you never ask the electorate a question unless you already know the answer. And it’s blindingly obvious to any observer of the conflict that Abbas’ popularity is at an all-time low and that Palestinian opinion is deeply divided.
Of course, one could make the claim that this division is entirely of the president’s own making, having delivered next to nothing for the Palestinian population since the previous elections 10 years ago.
Using the crudest of political tactics, Abbas’s strategy seems to have been covering up widespread corruption and mismanagement of Palestinian government resources while focusing on fabricated stories of Israeli plans to take over the Temple Mount and a multitude of other conspiracies (remember the one before the summer when he told the European Parliament that rabbis had called for the Palestinian water supply to be poisoned?). All this was designed to incite the population and move their gaze away from Ramallah’s failures, laying blame for all Palestinian woes at the door of the Knesset.
Let’s also recap: the last time elections were called, in 2006, Abbas was leaned on to hold them by the US president George W. Bush and secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.
Hamas’ decisive victory led to Abbas’ and Fatah’s eviction from Gaza, not to mention the ongoing stalling of peace talks between Israel and the PA leadership, despite repeated offers from Israel for unconditional dialogue at a time and place of Abbas’s choosing.
So why call elections now? And without pressure? Abbas keeps repeating that the Palestinian people need democracy, but democracy and the violent fundamentalist Islam espoused by Hamas (and also from his own side) don’t seem very compatible.
We all know a Hamas victory in the West Bank would effectively end Palestinian hopes of statehood among international opinion makers. It’s also a reasonable bet that the Palestinians may also lose international support as well as from their traditional allies in Jordan, Egypt and even Saudi Arabia.
It’s either a deeply worrying move with no sense behind it at all, or Abbas is a strategic genius who knows something that his own people in Fatah – who stand to lose key positions – and the rest of the world don’t know.
The Machiavellians among us may be entertaining the possibility that this bizarre fit of pique is designed to extract maximum concessions from the EU and others in a bid to bolster his position. Already we are getting reports that the EU is seeking to work alongside the UN and the PA in bringing a case to the International Criminal Court in a bid to pressure Israel to end it’s “occupation.”
But then we also hear that there are no concrete plans from the EU to properly engage on the conflict until after the Paris initiative (widely perceived by many to be more for the optics than anything meaningful or tangible), and of course after the US elections in November.
In short, if this is Abbas’s thinking, then it’s a hugely risky strategy.
The EU institutions have previously welcomed Abbas to Brussels with open arms. They gave him free reign to make his ludicrous anti-Israel assertions on the floor of the European Parliament Chamber and at joint, no-questions-please press conferences.
But many within them are now openly beginning to question the logic of continuing to do business with a man apparently hell-bent on taking himself and those around him in Fatah over the edge of a political cliff.
In the meantime, Hamas are Bonaparte- esque in their quiet. Not wanting to interrupt their political rival before they can announce, “checkmate.”
You will have to excuse me now, I’m off to get some scalp treatment.
Alex Benjamin is the director of EIPA: Europe Israel Public Affais, a multi-disciplinary pro-Israel advocacy group based in Brussels, with offices in Paris and Berlin.