By Ramzy Baroud
Friday’s decision by Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas to “postpone” the upcoming elections, which would have been the first in 15 years, will deepen Palestinian division and could signal the collapse of the Fatah movement, at least in its current form.
Unlike the last Palestinian parliamentary elections of 2006, the big story this time was not the Fatah-Hamas rivalry. Many rounds of talks between representatives of Palestine’s two largest political parties had already sorted out many of the details regarding the now-delayed 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 long ruled over occupied Palestinians, through its dominance of the PA, with no democratic mandate whatsoever. Hamas, on the other hand, was desperate to break away from its long and painful isolation, as exemplified by the Israeli siege on Gaza, which ironically resulted from its victory in the 2006 vote.
It was not Israeli or American pressure that made Abbas betray the collective wishes of a whole nation. The pressure from Tel Aviv and Washington was real and widely reported, but must have also been expected. Moreover, Abbas could have easily ignored them, as his January election decree was welcomed by Palestinians and praised by much of the international community.
Abbas’ unfortunate but, frankly, expected decision was justified by the 85-year-old leader as one that was compelled by Israel’s refusal to allow Palestinians in Jerusalem to take part in the elections. His explanation, however, was a mere fig leaf aimed at masking his fear of losing power. 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, either in the way they build, work, study and travel or even the way they marry and worship. So it would be mindboggling if Abbas was truly sincere that he had expected the Israeli authorities to allow Palestinians in the occupied city easy access to polling stations to exercise their political right, while those same authorities labor to erase any semblance of Palestinian political life, and even any mere physical presence, in Jerusalem.
The truth is Abbas canceled the elections because all credible public opinion polls showed that this month’s legislative vote would have decimated the ruling clique of his Fatah party and ushered in a whole new political configuration. This would have seen Abbas’ rivals Marwan Barghouti and Nasser Al-Qudwa emerge as the new leaders of Fatah. If this scenario were to occur, a whole class of millionaires who turned the Palestinian struggle into a lucrative industry, generously financed by “donor countries,” was at risk of losing everything in favor of uncharted political territories, controlled by a prisoner, Barghouti, from his Israeli prison cell.
Even worse for Abbas, Barghouti could have become the new president, as he was expected to compete in the July presidential election. That would have been bad for Abbas, but good for Palestinians, as Barghouti’s presidency could 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 about a “peace process” between Israel and the Palestinians while the latter’s president languishes in jail, as he has done since 2002?
By effectively canceling the elections, Abbas, his benefactors and supporters were hoping to delay any moment of reckoning within Fatah — in fact, within the Palestinian body politic as a whole. However, the decision is likely to have far more serious repercussions for Fatah and Palestinian politics than if the elections had taken place.
Since Abbas’ election decree, 36 lists have registered with the Palestinian Central Elections Commission. While Islamist and socialist parties were prepared to run with unified lists, Fatah disintegrated. Aside from the official Fatah list, which is close to Abbas, two non-official lists, “Freedom” and “Future,” planned to compete. Various polls showed that the Freedom list, led by Al-Qudwa, who is the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s nephew, and Barghouti’s wife Fadwa, was on the way to ousting Abbas and his shrinking, though still influential, circle.
But none of this is likely to go away simply because Abbas reneged on his commitment to restore 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 who were mentally ready to break away from the dominance of Abbas will not relent simply because the aging leader has changed his mind. In fact, throughout Palestine, an unparalleled discussion on democracy, representation and the need to move on from Abbas and his haphazard, self-serving politics is now taking place and is impossible to contain. For the first time in years, the conversation is no longer confined to Hamas vs. Fatah, Ramallah vs. Gaza or any other such demoralizing classifications. This is a big 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, thus placing himself and a few others around him as enemies of the Palestinian people, their democratic aspirations and their hope for a better future.