Abbas Wanted Biden’s Attention. Look What it Got Him
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- On Jan. 15th, five days before Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration, Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian National Authority, announced a national election of his own.
The timing wasn’t coincidental. The unreservedly pro-Israel Trump administration was a nightmare for the Palestinian leader. Abbas wanted to present himself to his new American partner as a fellow democratic leader. Indeed, in 2005 Abbas did win an election for a four-year term. But 16 years later, he has yet to relinquish power. Winning again would make it difficult for Israel to brand him as just another Middle Eastern dictator for life. Legislative Council elections are scheduled for May 22; in theory, they will be followed by a Presidential election at the end of July and an election for the Palestine National Council on Aug. 31.
The Palestinian President, now 85 years old, was under the impression that he was a shoo-in for victory, after which it would be easier to leverage U.S. policies on behalf of his quest to establish a Palestinian state. But as calculations go, this one hasn’t panned out.
Biden may be more sympathetic than Trump, but the future of Palestine doesn’t rank high on his diplomatic to-do list. The U.S. has made several good will gestures, but Biden has yet to even speak to Abbas, much less invited him to the White House. The U.S. will applaud a free and fair election, but its regional focus is on Iran, not Ramallah. The Administration is also aware that Israel retains a wide bipartisan majority in Congress.
Even worse, Abbas has apparently misjudged his electability. His Fatah party has splintered into factions. A late-March poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, showed Abbas trailing the newly established Freedom Party, a stalking horse for Marwan Barghouti -- the former Fatah man now serving five life sentences for the murder of Israeli civilians. A win for the Freedom Party wouldn’t be a get-out-of-jail card for Barghouti, but it would be a humiliation for Abbas and his clique of Fatah veterans.
Hamas, the armed Islamic fundamentalist group that rules Gaza, also has a candidate in the contest. There has been bad blood between Hamas and Fatah since 2007, when Hamas staged a violent coup that drove Abbas and his supporters out of Gaza. There are also substantive ideological and tactical differences.
Hamas, of course, does not accept Israel’s right to exist. It has fought three wars against Israel in the past two decades. It accuses President Abbas of being a collaborator with the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. There is some truth to this. Abbas wages diplomatic war against the Jewish State but his paramilitary forces also cooperate closely with Israel on matters of security.
Last week, in Jerusalem, mobs of Palestinian militants clashed with police over restrictions imposed on gatherings during the month of Ramadan, always a sensitive season. It isn’t clear that the violence was actually organized by Hamas, but the young street fighters certainly didn’t look like Abbas voters.
That same night, Hamas held a mass protest in Gaza in support of what it called, the “heroic protestors” of Jerusalem. It also launched its campaign for the hearts and minds of angry West Bankers with a barrage of rockets aimed at Israeli towns and villages across the Israeli border.
The message is that only Hamas is ready and willing to defend the Holy City and the West Bank against the Zionists. And when the Israeli police rescinded its ill-considered restrictions, Hamas took the credit for that, too.
In a Palestinian election, nobody wants to be accused of being soft on protecting Jerusalem. But that is the position Abbas finds himself in. He can’t very well fire rockets at Israel, or threaten street violence. But doing nothing could cost him the election.
Faced with this prospect, President Abbas did what he has done in the past when he got into political trouble: He contrived to cancel the election. For the sake of Jerusalem, no less.
“We affirm that we will not accept under any circumstances that the general elections be held without allowing [East Jerusalemites] to cast their votes, run as electoral candidates and hold electoral campaigns,” he told a hastily called Fatah Party meeting in Ramallah.
The Israeli government, which claims sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, has not given approval this and, despite pressure by the EU, it is unlikely to do so. Abbas knows this. His condition is tantamount to ditching the election he initiated. But, not so fast. Hamas, hoping to capitalize on its political momentum, and having already demonstrated its own loyalty to Jerusalem, wants the election to go forward.
On April 29, the major contending parties are scheduled to discuss Abbas’s initiative. If that meeting actually takes place, and the election is cancelled, the status quo may be maintained for a while. His rivals in Gaza, the West Bank and behind Israeli bars will use the time to prepare for a battle of succession. If past precedent and local custom prevail, it is more likely to be decided in the streets than at the polls.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.
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