Plans for an election are impractical at best, argues Khalid Amayreh in the West Bank

As if the stalled and nearly moribund peace process between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel didn’t face enough problems, PA President Mahmoud Abbas dropped a bombshell this week when he called for “presidential and legislative elections” to be held in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem on 24 January.

The decree is more than problematic since Abbas’s Western-backed regime in Ramallah has no control over East Jerusalem, which Israel considers part of its “eternal, united capital” and the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Hamas.

Moreover, whatever semblance of authority the PA regime has in the West Bank is completely subject to Israeli whim. This means that if Abbas is serious about holding elections in the three separate territories on the designated date, he will have to coordinate the elections with both Israel and Hamas.

Israel has already indicated that it won’t automatically grant Abbas permission to hold elections in the West Bank and there are serious doubts that the most right-wing government in Israel’s history would allow elections to take place in East Jerusalem. Unless, of course, Israel obtains the right political price from the weak PA; in other words, an undertaking to abandon the Goldstone Report.

As to Hamas and other Palestinian factions, the reactions are ranging from total rejection to deep reservations.

Rejecting the call as a pressure tactic on Hamas to sign the Egyptian-mediated reconciliation document, Hamas leaders challenged Abbas, arguing that the PA leader’s term in office has expired and that he wouldn’t be able to organise genuine election without the Gaza Strip. “Holding elections in the West Bank alone is a definitive prescription for a national disaster,” said Ismail Radwan, a Hamas leader and spokesperson in Gaza.

Similarly, the Islamic Jihad organisation dismissed Abbas’s election decree as “an exposed attempt to perpetuate the Dayton princedom” in the West Bank. The allusion here is to the American General Keith Dayton who trains and oversees PA security forces.

Even the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which is a founding member of the PLO, has shown its consternation. The group’s acting leader, Mahmoud Mallouh, has argued that regaining Palestinian national unity is more important than holding elections.

To be sure, Abbas didn’t say he was completely abandoning reconciliation efforts with Hamas. He argued though that organising elections on the designated date was a “legal and constitutional imperative.”

Hamas and many Palestinian intellectuals ridicule this argument, which gives the impression that the PA is an independent and sovereign state with an established constitution when in fact the PA regime, especially in the West Bank, is a little more than a mere sub-contractor for the Israeli occupation authorities. After all, it is the Israeli army, not the PA, that controls every street and corner of the West Bank.

It is not clear if Abbas is bluffing in order to outmanoeuvre and circumvent Hamas, or if he really means it. If the latter, the direct and indirect ramifications of holding elections in the West Bank without the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip would deeply and negatively affect the Palestinian political arena as well as American-led peace efforts.

Indeed, the outcome of an election in which less than half of eligible voters would participate is not going to have much credibility, will further exacerbate the Palestinian crisis, and may lead to an irreversible rupture between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

As to the American-led efforts to resume peace talks between the PA and Israel, which have so far achieved no progress, it is amply clear that these efforts will have to be more or less frozen if Abbas is serious about holding elections. After all, continuing to indulge in a manifestly barren peace process (barren in light of the bitter experience of years of fruitless negotiations with the Olmert government) would seriously undermine Abbas’s efforts to woo the Palestinian public to elect him “president” for a second term.

More to the point, if elections are to be held on the designated date, Fatah would have to display a radical discourse and reassert its commitment to the Palestinian constants, including the two cardinal issues of Jerusalem and the right of return for Palestinian refugees uprooted from their former homes and villages when Israel was created more than 60 years ago. It might even resort, at least as an electioneering tactic, to asserting its commitment to armed struggle against Israel.

For what it’s worth, this would have a negative impact on the peace process as it would undermine the Obama administration’s ability to realise the increasingly illusive goal of establishing a viable Palestinian state in the occupied territories.

Last week, US President Barack Obama called Abbas, assuring him that he would see to it that an independent Palestinian state is established. Obama didn’t say when such a state would see the light of day, nor did he mention anything about American efforts to get Israel to freeze Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank. Abbas would do well to remember that president George W Bush made similar undertakings which came to naught.

Obama was supposed to give a foreign policy address this week that would reveal new American ideas for making progress in the stalled Middle East peace process. It is not clear if the nonevent had anything to do with Abbas’s decision to hold elections in January.

What is clear though is that Abbas is visibly disillusioned, even to the point of despondency, as all American pledges and promises to get Israel to freeze its frantic seizure of Palestinian land are shown to be false. One Palestinian official said in confidence that the president’s mood is “very depressive”. He also described US peace efforts as the “biggest act of deception”. “If Obama with all his power can’t bring Israel to freeze the building of even one building in East Jerusalem, would it be reasonable on our part to expect him to wrest East Jerusalem from Israel, allow for the repatriation of the refugees and at the top of all of this establish a viable and territorially contiguous state for us?”

This week, the Israeli media reported that Abbas was seriously considering submitting his resignation on the grounds that he had no achievement whatsoever with which he could impress Palestinian voters during the election campaign.

The unconfirmed report alerted the Obama administration which hastened to assure Abbas that the US would take a number of unspecified measures to boost Abbas’s standing among his people.

However, the American undertaking seems to be largely rhetorical, since any achievement by Abbas would require serious Israeli concessions in the West Bank. This seems highly improbable, at least for the time being, given the composition and ideological nature of the current Israeli government.

An exit from the narrow horizons facing Abbas could take the form of a certain concession to Hamas by Fatah, probably in coordination with Egypt. But even this wouldn’t be desirable from the American viewpoint since the restoration of Palestinian unity would likely radicalise the overall Palestinian stance and make the Palestinians more determined in their demands for a total Israeli withdrawal from all the territories occupied in 1967.

Al-Masri further argues that the conflict between Fatah and Hamas is first and foremost “political, not constitutional in nature”, which he says requires a political solution. “Failing to understand this reality could lead to national political suicide and a total capitulation to Israeli dictates. Abbas is dead wrong if he thinks that the Palestinian negotiating position vis-à- vis Israel would be better in the absence of national unity.”

1 Comment

  1. October 31, 2009 at 11:52

    […] PALESTINIAN ELECTION ~~ NOTHING BUT FOOL’S GOLD « Desertpeace – view page – cached Plans for an election are impractical at best, argues Khalid Amayreh in the West Bank — From the page […]

%d bloggers like this: