Mahmoud Abbas waited for more than a decade to call for elections to the Palestinian Authority’s Legislative Council, the presidency, and the PLO’s National Council. Ironically, those planned elections are likely to backfire, and cause irreparable harm to Palestinian democracy.
That’s not because elections and democracy are bad for Palestinians. But the timing is terrible: the elections could jeopardize the post-Trump restoration of ties with the U.S., could throw the peace process into an even deeper freeze and could lead to Fatah’s disintegration.
Furthermore, the elections are scheduled to be held in the midst of a raging pandemic which Abbas is badly mishandling: failing to both secure vaccines by his own efforts for Palestinians, and failing to make the case forcefully enough that Israel, according to Geneva Conventions, UN Security Council Resolutions, and human rights codes, is responsible for securing the vaccine for Palestinians still living under Israel’s occupation.
If, near to election day, Abbas feels he could lose his tripartite control of Fatah, the Palestinian Authority and the PLO, he could rescind his recent commitment to elections to hold on to power without a mandate.
In fact, ever since his election to the Palestinian Authority’s presidency in 2005, it has been Mahmoud Abbas’s own actions that have harmed Palestinian democracy the most.
Even though Abbas’s presidential term ended on January 9, 2009, it was subsequently extended for an indefinite period by a compliant Fatah Central Committee. Abbas has transformed the PA into a dictatorship. He bypassed the Palestine Legislative Council, suspended shortly after Fatah’s defeat in Gaza in 2007, and began ruling by presidential decree. He refused to call for new elections from then until just two months ago.
In that time, Abbas marginalized the PLO, the highest policymaking body for Palestinians worldwide, and weakened its political and military institutions. He drained its independent sources of finances to shore up the PA, the policymaking body for Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem that was born of the now defunct Oslo Accords
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Abbas’s current intention to run again for president of the PA at the ripe old age of 85 is causing convulsions within Fatah and leading to its splintering into three factions plus an independent faction. This could mark the end of Fatah’s dominance among Palestinian political institutions as we know it today.
The debilitating schism between Hamas and Fatah since 2006-2007 has physically, politically, financially, and diplomatically split Gaza and the West Bank. As a result, Israel’s increasingly right-wing political establishment, under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu, found pretexts to delay the implementation of the 1993 Oslo Agreements, arguing there was no Palestinian leadership with which to negotiate.
Abbas’s authoritarianism and intolerance of criticism is cracking Fatah apart into three or four factions.
And despite reassurances from Palestinian Prime Minister Muhammad Shtayyeh, most recently in a zoom call with leading Palestinian Americans I attended, that any Palestinian living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories can form a 16 candidate-slate as long as they pay a deposit and have no Palestinian court convictions, the reality is a little different.
The first faction is led by Abbas himself and four wannabe successors – Fatah secretary general Jibril Rajoub; Majed Faraj, head of the PA’s security forces and Israel’s major security enforcer; Hussein al-Sheikh, minister in charge of coordinating civilian affairs with Israel; and Shtayyeh, a distant hopeful to succeed Abbas as PA president.
The most serious challenge comes from Marwan Barghouti and Nasser al-Kidwa. Abbas’s fear of Marwan Barghouti led his close confidante Hussein al-Sheikh to visit Barghouti in jail to offer him to head the Fatah slate along with 10 of his nominees. Barghouti rejected the offer.
Nasser al-Kidwa, Yasser Arafat’s nephew, a former Palestinian foreign minister, long-time PLO representative to the UN a member of Fatah’s Central Committee, then (somewhat courageously) declared that he was forming a Fatah slate in support of Marwan Barghouti. Shortly after, the Central Committee expelled him.
Barghouti, according to the latest opinion polls, has the best chance of beating either Abbas or Hamas’s nominee, presumably Ismail Haniyeh, to become PA president. The fact that he sits in an Israeli jail condemned to multiple life sentences would not prevent him from being on the ballot. A win might even garner sufficient international pressure to get him released.
The third faction is led by Mohammed Dahlan, Abbas’ nemesis and former senior Fatah official now living in self-imposed exile in the UAE, has been disqualified from running for the PA presidency on the trumped-up excuse that he was convicted in a Palestinian court in a case widely believed to have been fabricated by Abbas.
Nevertheless, Dahlan plans to field a "Democratic Reform Movement" slate, likely to be heavily supported by his fellow Gazans – civilians, former security officials, and many refugee camp dwellers throughout Gaza and the West Bank.
Dahlan was "convicted" on charges of corruption and embezzling funds, then expelled from Fatah, on zero evidence. Whatever funds Dahlan has now accumulated are thanks to his work for the UAE’s Mohammed bin Zayed.
Abbas’s children, on the hand, have reportedly amassed over $1 billion in assets, deposited in banks and investments around the world. The source of these funds was none other Palestinian companies benefitting from services provided to Palestinians. Who should have been convicted of embezzlement – Dahlan or Abbas, thanks to his nepotism?
In a zoom meeting hosted by Birzeit University, Nasser al-Kidwa declared Dahlan was persona non grata in his joint list with Marwan Barghouti: Dahlan helped facilitate the normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE, in his view, a disqualifying act.
As an astute diplomat, al-Kidwa should know better: had it not been for the UAE’s intervention, Netanyahu would have by now annexed 30 percent of the West Bank.
Dahlan boasts substantial geopolitical support from the UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, and substantial financial support from the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Rejecting Dahlan is a strategic error for the Al-Kidwa-Barghouti slate: a tripartite alliance would have easily won widespread support within Fatah and Hamas, while enjoying crucial regional geopolitical and financial support
Finally, former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s slate will presumably attract independents, especially technocrats and some Palestinian businesspeople. Nevertheless, it will undoubtedly be the weakest splinter of the Fatah-related slates.
It is abundantly clear that the Israel-Palestine conflict is not be near the top of Biden’s foreign policy priorities. But the U.S. is so embedded in both the conflict, in the Palestinian political future and in the security repercussions for the region that disconnecting is not a luxury the administration can afford. But the elections are likely to throw up serious issues.
A dozen legislative landmines, from sanctioning Hamas to the Taylor Force Act, already threaten U.S. President Joe Biden’s declared intentions to restore ties with the Palestinian Authority, reopen the PLO delegation’s DC office, resume urgently needed aid, and renew U.S. peacemaking efforts. Many of those Congressional decisions, incumbent on Biden, will be freshly problematic in the wake of Palestinian elections.
But if Palestinian elections are held as planned, Hamas’s slate for the could win the second largest bloc of Legislative Council seats. If Hamas is included in any branch of the newly formed Palestinian government, U.S. regulations designating Hamas as a "terrorist" organization could force the cut-off of some or all the aid earmarked for the Palestinians (such as $350 million annually to UNRWA, $200 million for economic and humanitarian aid) unless presidential wavers are used to overcome existing U.S. laws.
If Hamas’ success means the paralysis of U.S. aid to the Palestinians, then U.S. leverage over the Palestinian political process will diminish respectively. But if the new administration does want to at least prepare the way for future negotiations, or at least not scupper them, it must recommit to resuming U.S. aid to the Palestinians; and opposing any unilateral steps threatening a two-state solution, guaranteeing a Jewish and democratic Israel and an independent Palestine.
Abbas’s 15 or so years of ineffectual and authoritarian rule will undoubtedly precipitate Fatah’s disintegration if, or when, elections proceed as planned.
Along with so many fellow Palestinians, I am sick of being led and represented by a dictator. We are a smart people diminished in stature by self-appointed, ignorant, self-serving, unelected so-called leaders. And there are too many ambitious idiots hoping to succeed Abbas.
The geriatric Abbas should not be allowed to run for president. Palestinians need young, energetic and creative leadership unmarred by the Abbas-era corruption allegations, lack of transparency, and destruction of Palestinian democratic values and institutions. Even worse, Abbas has acted as Israel’s security enforcer in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority and has utterly failed to advance the peace process or Palestinian independence by one iota.
Palestinians of all political factions should not allow Abbas to run for Palestinian Authority president or anything else. His final act should be to resign voluntarily – and if he refuses to do so, Palestinians should depose him, even against his wishes and those of his surrogates.
Bishara A. Bahbah taught at Harvard University, where he was the associate of its Middle East Institute, served as a member of the Palestinian delegation to the Multilateral Peace Talks on Arms Control and Regional Security, and is a founder of the Palestine Center in Washington, D.C. He is the former editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem-based newspaper Al-Fajr