Abbas expected to delay election, but could pay heavy price – diplomatic source

A decision to push off the vote may alienate international partners, source says; Palestinians have not held a national election for 15 years

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a meeting of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank city of Ramallah, August 18, 2020. (Flash90)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a meeting of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank city of Ramallah, August 18, 2020. (Flash90)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will likely postpone the upcoming Palestinian elections, a diplomatic source told The Times of Israel.

“Our expectation is the elections are going to be postponed, but it will come at a very heavy price for Abbas,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.

Palestinians are scheduled to head to their first national vote in 15 years on May 22. The last Palestinian national elections were held in 2006, when Hamas defeated Abbas’s Fatah movement in a landslide.

Should Abbas decide to delay the elections, the aging Palestinian president will likely cite as justification Israel’s silence on whether East Jerusalem Palestinians can participate — but no one was likely to believe it, the source added.

The Palestinian leadership — including leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad — is scheduled to meet on Thursday to decide whether the elections can go forward without Israel officially permitting East Jerusalem Palestinians to participate.

Abbas’s opponents have charged in recent days that the widely unpopular PA president, fearful of political defeat, is using Israel’s refusal as an excuse to back away from holding the vote. Abbas’s Fatah movement faces stark internal divisions, leading to fears of a loss to its Hamas rivals.

FILE: PA President Mahmoud Abbas attends a leadership meeting at his headquarters, in the West Bank city of Ramallah on September 3, 2020. (Alaa Badarneh/Pool Photo via AP)

Should the elections be delayed, the source posited, Abbas could limit the damage among the public and in the international community by stating a credible, realistic date for them to be held.

“The question is — do they postpone with a date or without a date? If they postpone without a date, it will be perceived by the Israelis and the international community as a cancellation,” they said.

If Abbas postponed the vote, it could have dramatic repercussions, the source said, urging the leader to allow the elections to go forward.

“Israel will object to every election under the current configuration because there’s nothing for them to gain from a vote going forward. The only catalyst for change — it’s you,” the source said, referring to Abbas.

The 2006 elections led to an unstable unity government boycotted by the international community. In 2007, civil war broke out between the two sides. After a bloody struggle that left hundreds dead, Hamas expelled Fatah from Gaza to the West Bank.

When the widely unpopular Abbas issued a formal decree ordering the elections in mid-January, many observers dismissed it as a stunt to shore up his fading legitimacy. Nonetheless, the election advanced for months, with anticipation and optimism slowly building.

Close Abbas advisers such as Hussein al-Sheikh and Majid Faraj were said to oppose the move from the beginning. The vote’s most prominent supporter — Fatah Secretary-General Jibril Rajoub — viewed it primarily as a means to shore up his popular credibility for the day after Abbas’s departure.

In the last few days, as more and more reports indicate that the elections could be postponed, open criticism of the decision to call the vote in the first place has grown louder in Ramallah.

“I opposed the elections from the very beginning, because I oppose holding elections under Israeli occupation,” senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad said in a phone call on Thursday.

In this October 20, 2012, photo, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas shows his ink-stained finger after casting his vote during local elections at a polling station in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

The race dramatically shook the Palestinian political arena at the end of March, when popular Palestinian terror convict Marwan Barghouti announced he would run a slate of candidates against Abbas.

Barghouti and longtime Abbas critic Nasser al-Kidwa submitted their slate mere hours before the March 31 deadline. Senior Palestinian officials — including al-Sheikh, who visited Barghouti in Israeli prison — repeatedly sought to pressure them to remain within the fold, but to no avail.

According to the diplomatic source, Ramallah had felt reasonably confident it could control the outcome of the vote. But the threat emanating from Barghouti sent the elections into a tailspin, with senior officials in Abbas’s inner circle sensing a real possibility of defeat.

Abbas’s justification for delaying the election will rely on the highly charged symbolic status of East Jerusalem. The Palestinians insist that an election cannot happen if their hoped-for future capital is not included.

The Oslo Accords, a series of bilateral agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, stipulate that a symbolic number of Palestinians — in the upcoming vote, likely around 6,300 — can vote at designated post offices throughout the contested capital. The vast majority — over 150,000 — will vote at ballot boxes in the West Bank.

But Israel resists any Palestinian Authority activity in Jerusalem, which it views as a violation of its sovereignty. It has cracked down on Palestinian political activity, including arresting Fatah candidates twice in the past month when they sought to hold election events.

On January 17, al-Sheikh sent a letter to his Israeli counterpart, Kamil Abu Rukun, asking for Israeli cooperation in the Palestinian vote in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.

A letter from senior Palestinian Authority official Hussein al-Sheikh to his counterpart in the Israeli security apparatus regarding the scheduled Palestinian elections (courtesy)

In 2006 — the last time the Palestinians went to a national vote — the United States and the international community pressured Israel into allowing the post office vote. But Palestinian officials have said there is less international interest this time around.

“Right now, the pressures are not as they ought to be, especially those of the US administration, which played an important role in the 2006 elections,” senior Palestine Liberation Organization official Ahmad Majdalani said in a phone call last week.

The Palestinian Authority is highly dependent on international aid, mostly from the European Union, the United States, and the United Nations.

What some see as a campaign by Palestinians to blame the international community for not sufficiently pressuring Israel into allowing the East Jerusalem vote could have repercussions for their relations with those countries — such as the United States, European donors, or the United Nations.

“If we were to advise the Palestinian leadership, we would advise them — why take the risk? Why alienate your steadfast partners?” the diplomatic source said.

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