Palestinians Greet A New President With an Old Trick

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Eying the new administration in Washington, Ramallah is promising full democracy in Palestine. The Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, has declared parliamentary and presidential election in June and July respectively.

It’s an old trick. Not that it went unwelcomed by the marks at the United Nations. Secretary General Guterres was to make that clear. He was followed by a number of Western governments, hoping the 85 year old Mr. Abbas, who was elected for a four year stint back in 2005, will finally face voters and democracy will return.

Ramallah is eager to present its promised election round as superior to that of Israel, which will go to the polls in March for the fourth time in less than two years. Here is how Mr. Abbas’s foreign minister, Riad Malki, put it in a speech to the Security Council today:

“In this period of electoral campaigns, there are those who, in trying to secure votes, remain committed to international law, the two-State solution and peaceful means, and those who instead announce settlements, advance annexation and persist in their provocations.”

It’s almost impossible to parse all fallacies here. Feature “this period of electoral campaigns.” True, Israel’s politics have gone bonkers. The country is overly segmented, with every third-rate politician believing he or she is a potential national leader, forming new political parties almost daily. The prime minister, Benjamin Netanayhu, prefers election campaigns to dealing with trials against him on various criminal charges.

So Israel’s democracy might be in crisis, but a democracy it is, including a tradition of competitive elections, a vigorous adversarial press, independent courts, and a free economy. None of that is evident in the Palestinian territories.

Yes, 16 years after being elected to his four-year presidential stint Mr. Abbas has declared a new election round. But is that a sign of democracy promotion? Is it even a piece of news?

“We continue our genuine efforts to achieve Palestinian reconciliation with the formation of a national unity government” and “with the holding of presidential and parliamentary elections,” Mr Abbas told the United Nations — back in 2016. He has hinted at, clearly stated, and promised such elections pretty much every year in over a decade.

So don’t hold your breath. Who, after all, is eligible to run? Take Mohammed Dahlan, a former Fatah leader in Gaza who has a large following despite living in the United Arab Emirates as top adviser to its leader, Mohammed bin Zaid. Even before finalizing the details, the Palestinian Authority announced Mr. Dahlan will be barred from running for the presidency, reasoning that, as Mr. Dahlan was convicted in absentia by a Ramallah court, he won’t be eligible.

Another formidable challenger to Mr. Abbas, Marwan Barghouti, is serving a multiple life times sentence in an Israeli jail on terrorism conviction. He too may not be eligible. Other candidates will likely be blocked in the future.

Then again, too, who is eligible to vote? In the past Palestinian Authority officials announced they will only conduct an election if residents of East Jerusalem, who are Israeli citizens, will vote. It’s unclear if they will. If Israel says they can’t, Mr. Abbas is likely to find an easy out to cancel the election.

Above all, a question mark hovers over the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Despite a Fatah-Hamas agreement in respecdt of the elections, reached recently with the help of Egypt and other Arab states, the reconciliation among Palestinian factions remains fragile. Rivers of bad blood do not easily disappear.

Will Ismail Hannyieh, Hamas’s top leader who decamped Gaza in 2019 and now lives luxuriously at Doha, Qatar, come back? Would he be eligible to run?

More crucially, will the participation of Hamas, listed by America and others as a terrorist organization, add to the facade of democracy Ramallah tries to project to the world, or lead to global condemnation?

In 2006, after winning a parliamentary election, Hamas eliminated all Fatah rivals in Gaza in most undemocratic methods. Those included kneecapping and publicly tossing living individuals from high-rise rooftops to the streets below.

After that Hamas victory, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice regretted her campaign to promote the election, telling the New York Times she failed to predict the Hamas victory, or its consequences. “It does say something about us not having a good enough pulse,” she told the Gray Lady.

President Biden’s approach to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking is yet to be fleshed out. In a Tuesday speech to the Security Council, a first since the January 20 inauguration, the acting American representative, Richard Mills, signaled a return to full-fledged diplomacy. The PA embassy at Washington will be reopened and donations to various of Ramallah’s causes will resume. Mr. Mills also vowed to “maintain [America’s] steadfast support for Israel” at the UN and elsewhere.

Unlike most other Security Council envoys, Mr. Mills refrained from mentioning, let alone praising, Mr. Abbas’s declaration that elections are coming to the Palestinian territories. That was savvy. It’s way too early to say that Palestianian democracy is dawning. Elections, if they take place, could be a start. Then again, they could also usher in, as they did the last time they were tried, an era of one-man rule, government corruption, and terrorism.

Twitter @bennyavni

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