By Solomon D. Stevens
The Palestinian elections have been canceled again. This is not a surprise, and it is also not a surprise that most of the world will blame Israel. I haven’t decided yet if this is because many people are ignorant, or whether it is just another manifestation of antisemitism (I prefer the term “Judeophobia”).
Elections haven’t been held for over 15 years for a very simple reason. Last time there were elections (in 2006), Hamas won by a landslide. International pressure to reverse the outcome (some overt and some covert) led to an open conflict between Fatah and Hamas, which resulted in Fatah assuming power in the West Bank and marginalizing Hamas in Gaza.
Even if the elections had been held, it would not have been a sign that things were becoming more democratic in the West Bank and Gaza. It is important to remember that both Fatah and Hamas are classic autocratic and kleptocratic entities, and Hamas is a terrorist organization. They both control the press and arrest journalists who dare to speak out against them. They routinely arrest political rivals and dissidents. They torture those under arrest and have political control of what are called courts. Each rules without significant internal competition, so any candidates for the legislature or the presidency exist only because they are allowed by the current leadership.
If the announced elections were not signaling a movement toward democracy, what were they? More than anything else, they were a recognition that in the Middle East, the struggle of the Palestinians is no longer seen as central to the future of the region. Four Arab countries, Morocco, the U.A.E., Bahrain and the Sudan, have already normalized relations with Israel, and this is probably only the beginning.
For years, the Palestinian conflict was seen as the key to peace in the region, but this is no longer the case. Both Fatah and Hamas recognize that the upcoming elections could have offered them an opportunity to get back in the game.
The key to all of this is the new Biden administration, which could be impressed with the elections and see this as a reason to return to old models for understanding the Middle East. President Joe Biden is anxious to re-assert American leadership around the world, and he might be enticed to insert America back into the middle of the Israel-Palestinian conflict at a time when the rest of the Middle East has moved on. He has already begun to reinstate aid to the Palestinian Authority and other groups aiding Palestinians — $75 million to Palestinian areas, $40 million for security assistance, $150 million to the United Nation’s refugee agency and other assistance.
The real reason that the elections were not held is that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, now 85, is not popular.
In a recent survey, the Palestine Center for Policy and Survey Research found that the most popular political leader throughout the West Bank and Gaza is Marwan Barghouti, who is currently serving five consecutive life sentences in an Israeli prison for murder and terrorist activities.
In addition, Mohammed Dahlan and Nasser al-Qudwa could play roles in the election. Dahlan was a rival of Abbas until he was driven out of the West Bank in 2011. He has been in exile in the UAE since and is often mentioned as a possible successor to Abbas. The Jerusalem Post calls him a “wheeler-dealer” rather than a “conviction politician,” and therefore someone who might bring some change to the Palestinian Authority. But several of Dahlan’s key associates were recently arrested in the West Bank. Nasser al-Qudwa is the nephew of Yasser Arafat and a former envoy of the PA to the United Nations. He was on the Central Committee for many years but was recently dismissed when he announced his intention to run in the legislative election and support Barghouti for president.
With all of these contentious players, the Fatah vote would have been split in the election, bringing certain victory to Hamas. Abbas, of course, would never admit this publicly. Instead, he turned to the reliable excuse of blaming the Israelis. The only question is: Why would anyone believe him?
Solomon D. Stevens has a Ph.D. in political science from Boston College and has published a book entitled “Challenges to Peace in the Middle East.