A tale of two elections for Abbas and Netanyahu
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ decision to dissolve the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) last month is enigmatic at best. Not that the PLC’s legal term had expired more than eight years ago — along with his own as president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) — but because it puts him, his Fatah movement and other factions in a tough place, facing tough choices and possible negative consequences.
The decision was based on a recommendation of the Constitutional Court — one that many Palestinian critics believe is a politicized and not a legal ruling. Abbas called for new legislative elections to be held within six months, but conveniently he left out reference to holding a presidential poll as well. Previous agreements between Fatah, Hamas and other factions — none of which saw the light of day — stated that new legislative and presidential elections were to be held simultaneously.
The now-dissolved parliament was elected in free and transparent elections in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza in January 2006. Most Fatah candidates were trounced by voters and Hamas emerged victorious with a majority in the 132-member PLC. Accordingly, Abbas was forced to ask Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader, to form a new government. But the bloody events of June 2007 in Gaza, where PA and Fatah officials and party members were either killed, arrested or expelled by Hamas, was seen as a coup that resulted in the sacking of the Haniyeh government and the de facto political separation between Gaza and the West Bank. Inter-Palestinian division continues to this day. All attempts to end the factional conflict by intermediaries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt have failed to restore unity and end Gaza’s rogue status under Hamas.
Abbas waged an economic war against the strip by cutting PA salaries and refusing to pay for the fuel needed to run Gaza’s only power station. That move, which exacerbated an already dire situation due to Israel’s decade-old blockade, largely backfired and brought Palestinian approval rates of the PA and Abbas to new lows.
Some polls suggest that, if new elections are held, Hamas would still make gains in the West Bank and Gaza. But the Islamist movement is now more concerned with a possible long-term deal with Israel; one that would leave it in control of Gaza while alleviating the humanitarian crisis and lifting the economic blockade. In addition, Hamas is worried that Abbas would manage the potential elections to deny it legitimacy in the future.
The immediate outcome of the dissolution of the PLC — although it remains legally contested — is that the speaker, a Hamas supporter, cannot take over as interim president of the PA if Abbas dies or becomes incapacitated.
But there are those in the Palestinian territories who believe that Abbas is bluffing and that he will find an excuse to postpone future elections. The immediate outcome of the dissolution of the PLC — although it remains legally contested — is that the speaker, a Hamas supporter, cannot take over as interim president of the PA if Abbas dies or becomes incapacitated.
There are also hefty political risks that Abbas will face if elections are held. A right-wing Israeli government will almost certainly prevent East Jerusalem residents from standing or even voting. That would constitute a major setback for the Palestinian claim to the Arab part of the city.
Some believe that Abbas is preparing the ground for the disbanding of the PA and a return of the Palestine Liberation Organization with its various bodies as the only political reference for the Palestinians. But, whatever his motives, Abbas appears to have started a process that no one knows exactly how it will end.
On the other side of the divide, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for early elections on April 9 after he and his coalition partners agreed to dissolve the Knesset. That’s quite a turnaround from his position a few weeks ago following the resignation of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Almost all Israeli observers agree that Netanyahu’s quest for a historic fifth term as prime minister is possible despite his legal troubles. The move is seen as a leap forward to win a new mandate and realign his coalition partners in a bid to pass legislation that will prevent his prosecution as a sitting premier.
While most polls see his Likud party emerging as winner, Netanyahu still needs partners to form a majority in the 120-seat parliament. Therein lies the challenge. His former right-wing allies are regrouping and, while the centrist and leftist parties are expected to lose more ground, the newly formed New Right (Hayamin Hehadash) party led by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, who decided to ditch the Jewish Home (Habayit Hayehudi) party, is making waves.
The New Right will seek to replace hardline extremists, mostly ultraorthodox settler voters, by attracting seculars who had given up on traditional opposition parties. Whatever the shake-up in the six right-wing parties will be, it is clear that Bennett and Shaked are already preparing themselves for the post-Netanyahu era.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010