Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas has now “postponed” parliamentary elections scheduled for May 22. As I noted in a previous blog post and in an article in Fathom, this was no real surprise. Since the elections were announced, divisions within the Fatah party had emerged, there were dozens of tickets to vote for, and Hamas was likely to do well. So Abbas pulled the plug, blaming Israel for his decision on the ground that it would not permit voting in Jerusalem. This is an old ruse, useful whenever Fatah leaders decide to call an election off.
Now what? There were to be three elections this Spring and Summer: after the parliamentary elections in the Palestinian Authority were supposed to come a presidential election and an election for the PLO’s own sort-of parliament. One has to assume that these will be “postponed” as well. Presumably Abbas has no desire to give up his post, and polls suggest clearly that he would lose to the convicted and imprisoned terrorist and popular Fatah figure Marwan Barghouti.
The continuing lack of elections since 2006 will create real unhappiness among many Palestinians. Ghaith al-Omari analyzes the effect of “postponement” in an astute article for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He notes that Abbas thought holding an election would increase his own legitimacy, but as the event got closer internal divisions showed that elections could undermine his grip. Moreover, as al-Omari puts it, “Abbas seems to have underestimated the depth of the legal and political obstacles to U.S. engagement with the PA if Hamas is brought back into its structures.”
Al-Omari concludes that the Palestinian Authority and Fatah face a “severe legitimacy crisis:”
Fatah…will be in deep political crisis. Abbas will inevitably be blamed for the cancellation, further eroding his already abysmal standing (68 percent of the public wants Abbas to resign). He will also face unprecedented challenges within Fatah. The call for elections exposed and operationalized long-simmering fissures within the movement, and those will not return to dormancy once the elections are canceled….
At the national level, a failure to hold elections highlights the difficulty—even impossibility—of achieving intra-Palestinian reconciliation. Various approaches—including attempts to reach comprehensive reconciliation, attempts at limited reconciliation via the formation of a unity government, and now elections—have failed. Although the failure of each approach can be explained by its specific circumstances, it is hard to escape the conclusion that national unity is not a likely option in the foreseeable future. Practical considerations—ranging from Hamas’s security control over Gaza to vested political and bureaucratic interests that took hold over a decade and a half of separation—as well as irreconcilable ideologies may well be insurmountable for now.
This seem entirely correct to me, and should be reviewed carefully by the Biden administration. This situation means that a Biden initiative to implement the “two-state solution” will not succeed, and will only result in a waste of precious time and energy for top administration officials—as well as needless friction with the government of Israel.
There are instead more positive things to do. Al-Omari suggests working with “Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia—to encourage Abbas to engage in Fatah revitalization and to clarify the succession process.” This seems to me unlikely to work very well. Abbas has never wanted to anoint a successor and will not even at his advanced age—perhaps especially now, at his advanced age—and may well view a fluid and reformed succession process as likely to result in his own removal. As to working with the governments of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia on Fatah revitalization, none of them has any experience with such a project. None has a successful governing party or movement, or any useful expertise in creating one. Instead, I’d suggest trying to get the Gulf Arabs interested in helping the West Bank economically, through greatly increased investment. That might be a project on which the United States, Israel, and the Gulf Arab governments plus Jordan could work together for common interests.