Looming Palestinian Municipal Elections Could Be a Final Blow for Abbas

Hamas' unexpected decision to contest the elections could further undermine the standing of the Palestinian Authority, but an Israeli effort to obstruct them would not be well received by the international community.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas chairs a committee meeting in Ramallah, May 4, 2016.
Mohamad Torokman, AP

Palestinian elections for more than 400 municipal and local councils are scheduled to take place on October 8 in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

It appears as if Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was dragged into the elections without sufficient foresight. Presidential and parliamentary elections have not been held for over a decade, ever since Hamas surprised the Palestinian Authority and the experts by winning the 2006 parliamentary election.

Mock council elections were held in the West Bank in 2012. Hamas decided not to participate and Fatah was so unpopular that cynics said it managed to lose to itself in some of the cities.

Four years have passed since then. Abbas decided to gamble and called new elections, perhaps in the expectation that Hamas would once again decide to sit them out.

But Hamas surprised him and announced that it would participate. In the West Bank, Hamas is likely to run in joint lists with politicians who don't necessarily identify with it, but that will be enough for it to pose a real threat to the political standing of the PA.

Most of the leaders of Fatah and the authority seem confident that they will win the elections, but the Israeli security apparatus is a lot less sure. Senior Israelis have warned their Palestinian counterparts in several recent meetings that they are too complacent and that the Abbas camp could suffer a humiliating defeat.

Hamas is capable of using the elections to increase its political influence in the West Bank and even further undermine the standing of the PA and its aging leader.

Theoretically, Israel could place serious bureaucratic obstacles in the path of the elections, but that, too, would be a dangerous move. Israeli intervention in a democratic Palestinian process would not be well received by the international community.

It appears that Hamas' enthusiasm for elections has aroused second thoughts among some PA leaders regarding the wisdom of the move, though it hasn’t changed the focus of Abbas himself.

The Palestinian President has no expectation of renewing diplomatic contacts with the Netanyahu government. At the top of his agenda is the confrontation with Israel in the international arena. The French peace initiative, which could be transformed into a United Nations Security Council resolution after the United States elections next November, is likely to provide him with his key diplomatic weapon.

Until then, however, Abbas will be concerning himself with many questionable anti-Israel initiatives, including the accusation that Israel has poisoned wells in the West Bank and the surprising announcement of the PA's intention to sue the United Kingdom for the damage caused by the Balfour Declaration.

Abbas' schemes have made some in Israeli consider mounting a campaign against him, but in the meantime the Palestinian leader seems to be his own worst enemy. In the background, the succession struggle in the PA continues.

The Abbas era (and even possibly the era of the authority's older generation) has effectively ended. But neither the senior echelon of Israeli intelligence nor the Palestinians themselves know how to assess – or even to gamble on – which of the many candidates to succeed Abbas will be successful.

All these developments are being closely watched by Avigdor Lieberman, the new defense minister, who, in the eyes of members of the security apparatus, seems to be urgently searching for a new agenda and levers of influence in the territories.

The lack of political stability and the unceasing hysteria broadcast by Netanyahu's bureau raise a question mark over the tenure of the current government. Lieberman needs to find a way of leaving his mark – and the goings-on in the territories is more interesting than some of the other security issues.

The question is whether he will choose to destabilize the boat of his own accord and what the consequences of such a move will be.