Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza have long been denied basic freedoms and self-determination, but not in the way you might think. Their own president, Mahmoud Abbas, has systematically dismantled democratic institutions and turned the Palestinian Authority (PA) into a an authoritarian dictatorship. Abbas is currently in the 15th year of what was supposed to be a four-year term. His refusal to leave office has made a mockery of the election system and voting rights. While American citizens debate the merits of absentee ballots signatures, early voting hours, and photo ID requirements in places like Georgia and Texas, the Palestinian people have not been allowed inside a voting booth since Denny Hastert was Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Abbas’s rumored decision this week to cancel upcoming elections is just the latest in a long series of antidemocratic power grabs. The entire election system in the Palestinian territories was designed in order to curb debate and force voters down a predetermined path. In a perfectly illustrative example, the Japanese government paid for the construction of a beautiful new parliament building in 2004 to house the Palestinian Legislative Council. The building has been vacant since Abbas dissolved parliament by presidential decree in 2006, with unopened mail reportedly piling up ever since.
When the Supreme Constitutional Court stepped in to order new elections be held, no action ever occurred after. A legislative body is vital to a functioning democracy and corruption will thrive if not addressed by an empowered judiciary. It took until 2021 for Abbas to even schedule elections; and even now it is extremely unlikely they will occur.
Unsurprisingly, Abbas blames Israel. His most recent excuse, that there are not enough polling places in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, sounds like the desperate music of an aging autocrat who only knows how to play one tune. In reality, Israel has increased the number of polling places since the last election in 2006. It is obvious to anyone with any measure of objectivity that Abbas only seeks to delay or cancel the election because he appears likely to lose, ending his 15 year reign and the privilege that comes with it. For good measure, Abbas decreed an Electronic Crimes Law that provides for heavy fines and lengthy prison sentences for anyone who disperses material critical of the state. The PA is shutting down websites and social media accounts shining a light on corruption or hosting any kind of criticism of Abbas himself. If the elections ever do happen, Abbas will do everything he can to ensure there is no level playing field for his rivals.
Despite a resume that puts him in a league with some of the Middle East’s most autocratic tyrants, Abbas somehow maintains a network of dedicated supporters among the American left. J Street, A so-called progressive foreign policy lobby, recently feted Abbas at their national conference. This organization enthusiastically provided a platform for a would-be dictator who is deliberately and determinately quashing Palestinian democracy for his own gain.
It takes a special kind of cognitive dissonance to laud Mahmoud Abbas on one hand and protest Georgia’s new voting law on the other. To be sure, democracy is hard work and the United States has a long way to go to ensure every citizen has equitable access to their voting rights. Elsewhere, the situation is much more dire. Nobody who purports to care about democracy should regard Abbas with anything less than contempt. Let’s not check our values at the water’s edge.