After days of speculation, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas on Friday finally did what everyone expected him to do and postponed indefinitely legislative elections, scheduled for May.
The move was fiercely condemned by his rivals, not only from Hamas, but from smaller groups, including splinter factions within his own Fatah movement who had warned Abbas against any delay earlier in the week.
Yet the announcement shocks nobody.
Indeed, the elections were set up to be canceled.
Called in January, legislative and presidential elections were from the outset conditioned on the ability to hold a vote in occupied East Jerusalem, a caveat entirely in the hands of Israel.
Thus, should the electoral winds not blow favorably, the easiest thing to do is to call off elections and blame the occupying power for being, well, an occupying power.
And that is exactly what has happened.
The PA has blamed Israel for being less than accommodating about Jerusalem. But Israel was always going to be less than accommodating about Jerusalem. It was last time, in 2006, when it barred Hamas candidates from standing from running.
That vote went ahead anyway. And Hamas won.
An ill wind
While all the electoral lists agreed on the principle that Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem should have a vote, opinion polls suggested a significant majority wanted elections go ahead regardless, with arrangements made to accommodate East Jerusalemites to vote outside city limits.
And few really believe that the elections have been canceled over that principle, Hamas even calling the decision a “coup.”
Two factors have counted against elections.
First, since January, the electoral winds have not favored Abbas’ Fatah faction.
Quite the opposite. Fatah, the movement of Yasser Arafat, and historically the main Palestinian political faction, has splintered into three.
Muhammad Dahlan, the long-ousted former Gaza security chief, now a resident of the Abraham Accords’ United Arab Emirates and by all accounts a trusted adviser to UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, is backing the Future List of candidates.
Imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who consistently polls as the most popular Palestinian politician, is backing another Fatah breakaway, the Freedom List, headed by Nasser al-Qudwa, Arafat’s nephew.
Until the split, Fatah had maintained a lead in opinion polls over Hamas, its main rival. That situation seemed to suit both factions.
After months of negotiations, reports suggested that some kind of backroom deal had been struck allowing both parties to remain in effective control over their respective areas – Gaza for Hamas and the less than 20 percent of the West Bank that comprises Area A for Fatah.
After the split, however, and as indicated by a Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research March poll, Abbas’ Fatah faction dropped to second, ahead of Barghouti’s list, but behind Hamas.
Even Hamas probably didn’t want to form the next Palestinian Authority government. That would have seen international funding for the PA fall off dramatically, since countries and groups of countries like the US and the EU consider Hamas a “terrorist” organization.
It is why there were persistent rumors, never substantiated, of a joint list with Abbas’ Fatah.
On the other hand, Hamas also wanted to show that it retained the support of a significant segment of the Palestinian population.
It may not have wanted to form the next government, but while inconvenient, another parliamentary electoral victory would have underlined that it remained a legitimate and unavoidable political actor on the Palestinian scene even if it were to accept to play second fiddle to Abbas’ Fatah in order to open up Gaza and, at least cosmetically, unify the two areas of occupied Palestinian territory.
But that would have necessitated Abbas’ Fatah faction to retain enough support to credibly form a government. The entry of Barghouti in particular upended those cosy plans – overt or unspoken. Suddenly, an election that had seemed a foregone conclusion was no longer that.
The East Jerusalem stipulation had granted Abbas the ability to call off elections at will. Still, he needed more.
After all, the elections were not really called in a bid to renew anyone’s popular mandate or to heal a political division that dates back to the last elections.
Rather they were called in order to burnish the PA’s democratic credentials, especially in Washington, where the incoming Biden administration was – and is – promising a return to the pre-Trump normal.
Just like the announcement in November last year that the PA would resume security cooperation with Israel, the elections were essentially an attempt by the PA to ingratiate itself with the new US administration.
That was understood in Washington, which also could not countenance a Hamas victory.
The administration was thus sensitive to Abbas’ predicament and, not two weeks ago, the US let it be known that it would “understand” an election postponement.
An unseemly mess
It has been yet another sorry episode of Palestinian governance.
Holding elections under military occupation is problematic enough as it is. There is a danger that such votes simply grant legitimacy to the status quo while being an essentially meaningless panacea to pacify a population with the suggestion that it has a say even when it doesn’t.
Elections to a body effectively beholden to a military occupier is not an exercise in freedom or of anyone’s legitimate rights.
Holding elections only in occupied territory is problematic for other reasons. It effectively sidelines more than half of all Palestinians, those who live in exile and in refugee camps in the region, who have legitimate reasons to also want their votes to count.
That said, elections also grant legitimacy or, indeed, take it away. Neither Abbas’ Fatah nor Hamas in Gaza have covered themselves in glory over the past 15 years since the last election – though of course Hamas have had greater odds aligned against it, sealed from the rest of the world in a Gaza Strip that suffered three major Israeli military assaults.
Shorn of any serious alternatives, the elections as planned would have merely cemented a status quo that serves no one but those two factions.
Once alternatives showed up, the vote got interesting. And the powers-that-be ran scared, in Palestine and abroad.
By canceling the vote, perhaps Abbas has done more than he would even by losing an election to show up the lack of legitimacy of the current crop of Palestinian leaders.