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Hamas Big Winner of Palestinian Authority’s Postponed Elections
by Hugh Fitzgerald
When Mahmoud Abbas, now entering the sixteenth year of his four-year term as President-For-Life of the Palestinian Authority, in January decided to announce that both parliamentary and presidential elections would be held this May and July, it seemed to him like a good idea. He would show the new administration in Washington that he was, despite all the nasty remarks about his sixteen-year uninterrupted tenure, a true democrat; he calculated that this should win him points, and thus money and diplomatic support, from the Biden administration.
It soon became clear that Abbas had miscalculated. He failed to realize how deeply disliked by the Palestinians he had become, for his mismanagement, corruption, and nepotism. Public opinion polls showed his Fatah faction winning only 30 of the 132 seats the Palestinian parliament. In a face-off with a Hamas candidate for president, Abbas would be trounced. And either of the other two conceivable presidential candidates, Mohammed Dahlan and Marwan Barghouti, would each win over 60% of the vote if running head-to-head against Abbas.
Abbas now wanted to stop the very elections he had called for, and on April 30 he did just that.. But he needed a reason, an excuse to do so. It was necessary to blame someone, and that someone of course turned out to be Israel. A piece by Daniel Siryoti discusses the election fiasco, and who, now that the elections are called off, emerges as the big winner: “Hamas is the big winner in Palestinian election farce,” Israel Hayom, April 30, 2021:
The consequences of holding Palestinian elections and the reasons why Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas moved to do something completely out of character and behave like a proponent of democracy after 15 years of suppressing any attempts to create opposition in the PA’s institutions of power with an iron fist, will be the focus of discussion of commentators and experts on the Palestinian political system for years to come.
Abbas decided to hold elections for several reasons. First, discontent at his despotism was growing, and he felt an election would calm those growing increasingly critical of his corruption, nepotism, and consistently high-handed ways. Second, he wanted to show the Biden administration that he was indeed a believer in democracy, wiling to run for re-election, a way to re-affirm his legitimacy, which had not been put to the test for sixteen years. Such a display would not only win him political support in Washington, but help to turn on the tap of American aid, which is never far from Mahmoud Abbas’ mind. You don’t manage to accumulate a fortune of $400 million without paying close attention to such things.
The big winner of both the election farce and its coming cancellation is Hamas, which in complete contrast with the political sagas in Fatah that led the ruling party in Ramallah to splinter into three separate lists presented a strong and united list.
Fatah, the Palestinian group headed by Mahmoud Abbas, has split into three groups – a split brought on by the prospect of the elections themselves. First, there was the list of candidates proposed by Abbas himself. Many in Fatah were unhappy with his choices, which were made on the basis of loyalty to him rather than on merit. Second, in a shock to Abbas, Nasser al-Kidwa, the nephew of Yasser Arafat, refused to support Abbas’ list and he, together with Marwan Barghouti (who is serving a life sentence in an Israeli prison, and remains tremendously popular among the Palestinians) announced their own Freedom List of parliamentary candidates. Just after al-Kidwa announced the Freedom List of candidates, Abbas promptly fired him from his sinecure as chairman of the Yasser Arafat Foundation. This move made al-Kidwa more determined than ever not to succumb to Abbas’ pressure. The third group of parliamentary candidates , who were formerly part of Fatah, were the candidates running as the Future List, backed by Mohammed Dahlan, a former Fatah security official turned Abbas opponent-in-exile in the United Arab Emirates. While Fatah has thus been split into three groups – the list of candidates proposed by Abbas, the Freedom List of Barghouti-Kidwa, and the Future List of Mohammad Dahlan, Hamas remains united behind a single list of candidates.
Recent polls showed that the Palestinian public has grown tired of Fatah’ s political conservatism, nepotism, and corruption, which has penetrated every aspect of government institutions. According to the polls and the assessments of various sources involved in Palestinian domestic politics, Hamas, which has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007, was expected to win big in both the legislative and presidential elections and replace Fatah as ruler of the West Bank. Hamas took control of the coastal enclave after Abbas dispersed the parliament in response to the terrorist group’s 2006 election victory.
The likelihood of Hamas winning the elections and democratically taking control of the Palestinian Authority and its governing institutions didn’t just keep officials in Jerusalem up at night. In Cairo and Amman, there is concern a Hamas-led government would bolster the Hamas-linked Muslim Brotherhood in both Jordan and Egypt, where the movement has been outlawed. Due to these concerns, senior Jordanian, Egyptian, and even Israeli security officials made their way to Abbas’ Ramallah office to dissuade him from going through with the elections….
The Israelis know that, meretricious as Mahmoud Abbas is, his sclerotic rule over the PA is not nearly as dangerous for Israel as would be a Hamas regime ruling in both Gaza and the West Bank. The Egyptians and Jordanians are both alarmed about a possible Hamas victory, for they understand that Hamas is merely the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. The MB is a declared enemy of Egypt’s El-Sisi, and of Arab monarchies in the Gulf, as well as of Jordan. Hence the alarm over a likely win by Hamas has caused Israeli, Egyptian, and Jordanian officials to try to persuade Abbas not to hold elections. And Abbas needed little convincing, once he realized that his list was certain to lose in the parliamentary elections and, in the presidential elections, he himself would lose against a candidate from Hamas, or against either Barghouti or Dahlan.
Few Palestinians have forgotten the murderous attacks by Hamas on Fatah members in Gaza in from June 10-15, 2007, which led to many Fatah members fleeing to the West Bank. Should Abbas have gone through with the now-cancelled elections, it’s hard to see how violence could have been avoided. In the West Bank, there would have been a conflict not just between Fatah and Hamas, but also a struggle within Fatah, among those who claim fidelity to the late Mahmoud Abbas, and the loyalists of Marwan Barghouti and of Mohammad Dahlan, who would have entered the fray to protect their interests. No one has yet compiled estimates of the number of Hamas fighters there are in the West Bank, nor of how many followers and potential fighters the as-yet-unknown successor of Abbas in the Fatah faction would control, or how many are ready to fight for Marwan, Barghouti (from his Israeli prison cell) or for Mohammad Dahlan (from his United Arab Emirates exile). But Hamas, solidly united, would almost certainly have prevailed over a Fatah hopelessly split into three rival groups.
Israel, Egypt, and Jordan can breathe a sigh of relief – a most temporary sigh, because Abbas is 85 and in poor health. And Hamas is almost certain to win whatever elections are held after Abbas’ retirement or death. This will not be a problem only for Israel, Egypt, and Jordan, and the Palestinians opposed to Hamas. A future Hamas victory will also be a problem for Washington. Appeasement-minded though it is, the Biden Administration would find it difficult to be quite so accommodating in dealing with Hamas, ruling as it then would in both the West Bank and Gaza. How could Biden and Blinken explain their dealings with Hamas, as if it were a legitimate government, when the American government long ago declared Hamas to be a “terror group”? And could it even recognize a Hamas-ruled government, given that the Hamas Charter still calls for the total destruction of the Jewish state?
Mahmoud Abbas helped to create his own opposition within Fatah. He drew up a list of parliamentary candidates without consulting anyone. As one example of his folly, he chose only two candidates – out of 132 – from east Jerusalem. The Palestinians in east Jerusalem, as a consequence, have been furious with Abbas. What was Abbas thinking when he made those choices? What was he thinking when he chose a list full of loyal mediocrities, instead of those more meritorious and, consequently, less submissive to his will? And why did he think he would manage to keep Mohammad Dahlan from running for president, claiming he was ineligible because years before, on charges that Abbas had concocted against him, Dahlan was convicted of embezzlement? Dahlan remains very popular (he recently arranged for the UAE to supply 50,000 doses of COVID vaccine to the Palestinians), much more popular than Abbas. In the most recent public opinion polls, 60% of them say they would vote for Dahlan over Abbas. And the same percentage – 60% — say they would vote for Barghouti over Abbas. It seems likely that when elections finally are held, that Dahlan, Barghouti, and whoever is Abbas’ successor in the main Fatah faction will split the anti-Hamas vote, leaving Hamas as the victor.
Mahmoud Abbas has come out of this fiasco of his own making looking both foolish and despotic. He can complain all he wants about Israel being to blame for his “postponement” (that is, cancellation) of the elections, because it had “prevented” Palestinians in east Jerusalem from voting. But the Palestinians know better. Israel made clear that it would not prevent Palestinians in east Jerusalem from taking part in the elections. It made known that its objection was only to their casting their ballots in Jerusalem itself — a move heavy with symbolism, which would have been, Israel recognized, not as much about voting as about the PA staking a Palestinian claim to the city. The Palestinians in east Jerusalem could easily vote in one of the suburbs nearby, such as Abu Dis. The very same point was made by the Palestinian Central Elections Commission, which said it was perfectly acceptable for Palestinians in east Jerusalem to vote just outside the city limits. Mahmoud Abbas wouldn’t hear of it. He wanted to wriggle about of his promise to hold elections, wanted to blame Israel, and on April 30, that’s what he did.
But Hamas itself, seconded by al-Kidwa, Barghouti, Dahlan, and all the others fed up with Mahmoud Abbas, now finds itself in a curious position, that amounts to defending the Jewish state, for Hamas will not let Abbas get off the hook by blaming Israel for the cancelling of the elections. The Palestinian public, weary of Abbas and despondent at the cancellation of the elections will nurse its rage. And Hamas, as a truth teller, will rise ever higher in that public’s esteem.
First published in Jihad Watch.