The decision on April 30 by Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, to ‘postpone’ Palestinian elections, which would have been the first in 15 years, will deepen Palestinian division and could, potentially, signal the collapse of the Fatah Movement, at least in its current form.
Unlike the last Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, the big story, this time, was not the Fatah-Hamas rivalry. Many rounds of talks in recent months between representatives of Palestine’s two largest political parties had already sorted out much of the details regarding the now-canceled elections, which were scheduled to begin on May 22.
Both Fatah and Hamas have much to gain from the elections; the former relished the opportunity to restore its long-dissipated legitimacy as it has ruled over occupied Palestinians, through its dominance of the Palestinian Authority, with no democratic mandate whatsoever; Hamas, on the other hand, was desperate to break away from its long and painful isolation as exemplified in the Israeli siege on Gaza, which ironically resulted from its victory in the 2006 elections.
It was not Israeli and American pressure, either, that made Abbas betray the collective wishes of a whole nation. This pressure coming from Tel Aviv and Washington was real and widely reported, but must have also been expected. Moreover, Abbas could have easily circumvented them as his election decree, announced last January, was welcomed by Palestinians and praised by much of the international community.
Abbas’ unfortunate but, frankly, expected decision was justified by the 86-year-old leader as one which is compelled by Israel’s refusal to allow Palestinians in Jerusalem from taking part in the elections. Abbas’ explanation, however, is a mere fig leaf aimed at masking his fear of losing power with Israel’s routine obstinacy. But since when do occupied people beg their occupiers to practice their democratic rights? Since when have Palestinians sought permission from Israel to assert any form of political sovereignty in occupied East Jerusalem?
Indeed, the battle for Palestinian rights in Jerusalem takes place on a daily basis in the alleyways of the captive city. Jerusalemites are targeted in every facet of their existence, as Israeli restrictions make it nearly impossible for them to live a normal life, neither in the way they build, work, study and travel nor even marry and worship. So it would be mind-boggling if Abbas was truly sincere that he had, indeed, expected Israeli authorities to allow Palestinians in the occupied city easy access to polling stations and to exercise their political right, while those same authorities labor to erase any semblance of Palestinian political life, even mere physical presence, in Jerusalem.
The truth is Abbas canceled the elections because all credible public opinion polls showed that the May vote would have decimated the ruling clique of his Fatah party, and would have ushered in a whole new political configuration, one in which his Fatah rivals, Marwan Barghouti and Nasser al-Qudwa would have emerged as the new leaders of Fatah. If this scenario were to occur, a whole class of Palestinian millionaires who turned the Palestinian struggle into a lucrative industry, generously financed by ‘donor countries’, risk losing everything, in favor of uncharted political territories, controlled by a Palestinian prisoner, Marwan Barghouti, from his Israeli prison cell.
Worse for Abbas, Barghouti could have potentially become the new Palestinian president, as he was expected to compete in the July presidential elections. Bad for Abbas, but good for Palestinians, as Barghouti’s presidency would have proven crucial for Palestinian national unity and even international solidarity. An imprisoned Palestinian president would have been a PR disaster for Israel. Equally, it would have confronted the low-profile American diplomacy under Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, with an unprecedented challenge: How could Washington continue to preach a ‘peace process’ between Israel and the Palestinians, when the latter’s president languishes in solitary confinement, as he has since 2002?
By effectively canceling the elections, Abbas, his benefactors and supporters were hoping to delay a moment of reckoning within the Fatah Movement – in fact, within the Palestinian body politic as a whole. However, the decision is likely to have far more serious repercussions on Fatah and Palestinian politics than if the elections took place. Why?
Since Abbas’ election decree earlier this year, 36 lists have registered with the Palestinian Central Elections Commission. While Islamist and socialist parties prepared to run with unified lists, Fatah disintegrated. Aside from the official Fatah list, which is close to Abbas, two other non-official lists, ‘Freedom’ and ‘Future’, planned to compete. Various polls showed that the ‘Freedom’ list, led by late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s nephew, Nasser al-Qudwa, and Marwan Barghouti’s wife, Fadwa, headed for an election upset, and were on their way to ousting Abbas and his shrinking, though influential circle.
Yet, none of this is likely to go away simply because Abbas reneged on his commitment to restoring a semblance of Palestinian democracy. A whole new political class in Palestine is now defining itself through its allegiances to various lists, parties and leaders. The mass of Fatah supporters that were mentally ready to break away from the dominance of Abbas will not relent easily, simply because the aging leader has changed his mind. In fact, throughout Palestine, an unparalleled discussion on democracy, representation and the need to move forward beyond Abbas and his haphazard, self-serving politics is currently taking place and is impossible to contain. For the first time in many years, the conversation is no longer confined to Hamas vs. Fatah, Ramallah vs. Gaza or any other such demoralizing classifications. This is a major step in the right direction.
There is nothing that Abbas can say or do at this point to restore the people’s confidence in his authority. Arguably, he never had their confidence in the first place. By canceling the elections, he has crossed a red line that should have never been crossed, thus placing himself and few others around him as enemies of the Palestinian people, their democratic aspirations and their hope for a better future.