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Abbas election call leads to EU outbreak of head-scratching

If there's a method to the Palestinian president's madness of asking for public review of his rule, it's a mystery

“Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake,” Napoleon Bonaparte once famously said.

The Hamas Leadership might not know the above quote, but they will certainly be rubbing their collective blood-soaked hands with glee at the frankly mind-boggling decision by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to call municipal elections for October 8th in the West Bank.

It’s one of the strangest, head-scratching political moves that political geeks like us have witnessed in a long time. And judging on the number of conversations we have had with MEP offices, staffers and policy-makers here in Brussels since the end of the summer recess last week, you might think that the whole of the EU’s Middle East watchers have gone down with a collective epidemic of head lice.

You see, despite the recent fiasco over Brexit, it’s a commonly held and observed maxim here at the heart of the EU that most politicians call elections when they are reasonably certain of winning, and furthermore that you never ask the electorate a question unless you already know the answer. And it’s blindingly obvious to any observer of the conflict that Abbas’ popularity is at an all time low and that Palestinian opinion is deeply divided.

Of course, one could make the claim that this division is entirely of the president’s own making, having delivered next to nothing for the Palestinian population since the last elections, 10 years ago.

Using the crudest of political tactics, Mr Abbas’ strategy seems to have been one of wholly covering up widespread corruption and mismanagement of Palestinian government resources while focusing on fabricated stories of Israeli plans to take over the Temple Mount and a multitude of other conspiracies (remember the one before the summer when he told the European Parliament that rabbis had called for the Palestinian water supply to be poisoned?). All this was designed to incite the population and move their gaze away from Ramallah’s failures, towards laying blame for all Palestinian woes at the door of the Knesset.

Let’s also recap: the last time elections were called in 2006, Abbas was leaned on to hold them by the then President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Hamas’ decisive victory led to Abbas’ and Fatah’s eviction from Gaza, not to mention the ongoing stalling of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority leadership, despite repeated offers from Israel for unconditional dialogue at a time and place of Mr Abbas’ choosing.

So why call elections now? And without pressure? Abbas keeps repeating that the Palestinian people need democracy. But democracy and the violent fundamentalist Islam as espoused by Hamas, and also from his own side, seem to have a very hard time sharing the same political bed.

We all know that a Hamas victory in the West Bank would effectively end Palestinian hopes of statehood among international opinion-makers. It’s also a reasonable bet that the Palestinians may lose international support as well as from their traditional allies in Jordan, Egypt, and even Saudi Arabia.

It’s either a deeply worrying move with no sense behind it at all, or Abbas is a strategic genius who knows something that his own people in Fatah — who stand to lose key positions — and the rest of the world don’t know.

The Machiavellians among us may be entertaining the possibility that this bizarre fit of pique is designed to extract maximum concessions from the EU and other world influencers in a bid to bolster his position. Already we are getting reports that the EU is seeking to work alongside the UN and the PA in bringing a case to the International Criminal Court in a bid to pressure Israel to end it’s “occupation.”

But then we also hear that there are no concrete plans from the EU to properly engage on the conflict until after the Paris initiative (widely perceived by many to be more for the optics than anything meaningful or tangible), and of course after the US elections in November.

In short, if this is Mr Abbas’ thinking, then it’s a hugely risky strategy.

The EU Institutions have previously welcomed Mr Abbas to Brussels with open arms. They gave him free reign to make his ludicrous anti-Israel assertions on the floor of the European Parliament Chamber and at joint, no-questions-please press-conferences.

But many within them are now openly beginning to question the logic of continuing to do business with a man apparently hell-bent on taking himself, and those around him in Fatah, over the edge of a political cliff.

Meantime, Hamas are Bonaparte-esque in their quiet. Not wanting to interrupt their political rival before they can announce “Checkmate.”

You will have to excuse me now. I’m off to get some scalp treatment.

About the Author
Alex Benjamin is the director of EIPA, a multi-disciplined pro-Israel advocacy Group based in Brussels, with offices in Paris and Berlin. He is also the Director of Public Affairs for EJA: European Jewish Association, a Brussels based NGO which represents and acts on behalf of Jewish communities across the EU and wider European continent, at the heart of the European Institutions and at bilateral level with Member States.
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