Mahmoud Abbas has canceled elections in the past. If they occur, Fatah could be in trouble, strengthening Hamas’s ties in the West Bank. However, it is important to explain who the main candidates are, their chances of success, and how the West may respond.
Israel opposes elections with Hamas.
Call it Deja-vu if you will, but Israel has seen this before. In 2006, Fatah was expected to win in a major landslide against the Islamist terror group. However, this never came to fruition as Hamas stunned Fatah, leaving officials reeling. Since then, Abbas has canceled elections to ensure that he and Fatah remain in power in the West Bank. Despite stifling political growth of the Palestinian’s, Abbas’s Soviet-style politics is viewed to be a defense mechanism against a greater evil in Hamas. The Israeli’s, to some extent, believe this as well. That is why the Shin Bet begged Abbas to cancel the upcoming elections with Hamas. Abbas replied: “I do not work for you” and that Israel “created Hamas” Israel fears that the internal strife within Fatah will allow Hamas to prevail. As a result, a victory for Hamas would pose a significant security threat to Israel.
Old Rivals Challenge Abbas
A few weeks ago, an unprecedented 36 factions registered for the May 22nd Palestinian elections. These registrations highlight a divide within Fatah. Among those who registered were Marwan Barghouti and Nasser al-Kidwa. Marwan is currently serving five consecutive life sentences for facilitating terrorist attacks against Israel during the second Intifada. Al-Kidwa, the nephew of former President Yasser Arafat, has aligned with Barghouti to create a faction to challenge Abu Mazen’s control of the West Bank. Barghouti has every incentive to run for President. It divides Fatah, forces electors to keep him in mind, and puts Israel in a position to reckon with his massive political presence. Marwan is very popular with the more militant fanatics of Fatah. Those who support Barghouti liken him to Nelson Mandela and dub him as a “freedom fighter” Barghouti is also charismatic and possesses the more militant qualities that some Palestinian’s came to admire from Arafat. Marwan, unlike Abbas, does not have an elitist persona–which has turned off Palestinian’s for years.
His personality could help propel him to victory. With the help of Al-Kidwa, Barghouti seeks to captivate the minds of Palestinian’s who miss the days when Yasser Arafat was at the helm. More importantly, Marwan aims to garner support from disgruntled Fatah supporters who have grown tired of Fatah’s ineffective rule. Such a strategy could pay dividends for the Barghouti-Al-Kidwa camp come May. Several analysts in the West and the Middle East believe Marwan and Nasser’s alliance could split the Fatah vote, which may benefit Hamas in the long run.
It is worth noting that there is nothing in the Palestinian Constitution prohibiting Barghouti from assuming the Presidency despite being jailed. If Marwan were to win, it would be up to the Israeli’s whether they wish to release him(something I have a tough time envisioning given the severity of his charges). But prisoner swaps between the PA, Hamas, and Israel have occurred before—so never say never. Despite being imprisoned, Barghouti has a chance to up-end Abbas. According to i24 news in Israel, polling revealed Barghouti’s independent party taking 28% percent of the vote, while Abbas is currently polling at 22%. This included results with Mohammed Dahlan and Hamas in the mix.
Speaking of Dahlan, the animosity between him and Mohamoud Abbas has been at the forefront of Palestinian politics for some time now. Mohammed Dahlan, dating back to his time as a Fatah henchman in Gaza in the 1990s, is viewed as significant competition to Abu Mazen. Dahlan was exiled from Fatah in 2011 from claims by Abbas that Dahlan was corrupt. Mohammed Dahlan has expressed great interest in becoming President of the PA. However, he does not have the popularity that Barghouti enjoys. In all, Dahlan remains a protagonist in Palestinian politics and wields some influence in the West Bank, which has undoubtedly frustrated the PA and Fatah establishment.
A unified Hamas poses a threat.
For the time being, Hamas has settled divisions within their party as they seek to gain control of the West Bank. Last month, the terror group held internal elections between Nizar Awadallah and Yahya al-Sinwar. Yahya prevailed in the election. Since then, the Islamist group has proceeded with its plans to participate in the upcoming elections. Saleh al-Aruri, the leader of Hamas’s Political department, and al-Sinwar are leading Hamas to participate. Though both men aspire to lead Hamas, they have put aside those differences to enter the May elections organized and disciplined against the fractured Fatah party. If Hamas is victorious in May, polling shows that Marwan would edge out current Hamas leader Ismail Haniya in the July Presidential elections.
Could the US talk Abbas out of elections?
Currently, the Biden Administration has not commented on the PA’s willingness to court elections with Hamas. However, one should anticipate a rebuke from Washington given that the U.S will not negotiate with the terror group Hamas. Furthermore, the last time Hamas and Fatah courted elections, Hamas did not have to abide by the Oslo Accords or any set of guidelines for that matter. Abbas stated recently that a conversation between him and Biden would be taking place soon. During their future meet, the U.S may advise Abbas not to proceed with elections, or recommend what the PA should do. If the United States threatens to backtrack its pledges to renew peace efforts and refuse funding to the PA, that could be an incentive for Abbas to cancel the elections once again. The unfortunate reality is that Palestinian politics remains a fickle scene. There is no telling what Abbas and the PA decide to do. However, what is essential is that the United States promptly addresses the issue and make its position clear. If Palestinian elections do indeed occur, expect a very close outcome. After all, this will be their first election since 2006.