The Cancellation of Palestinian Elections Poses Many Dangers

April 30, 2021 | Ghaith al-Omari
About the author: Ghaith al-Omari is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. From 1999 to 2006 he served as an adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team and participated in numerous rounds of negotiation at settings including the 2000 Camp David summit.

Yesterday, the Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas announced that he will postpone indefinitely the parliamentary elections that had been scheduled for May 22. Writing on the eve of the decision, Ghaith al-Omari explains that the elections would have likely created a highly volatile situation. But their cancellation brings dangers of its own. He begins with the situation on the West Bank, where Abbas’s Fatah party rules, but Hamas nonetheless has a presence:

Hamas, whose terror infrastructure [in the West Bank] is severely degraded, will . . . likely seek to escalate. Fatah factions that will once again feel marginalized by Abbas may also resort to protests. Whether developments in the West Bank will mobilize the public and turn into mass confrontations is unknowable. If that happens, it is also impossible to predict whether such protests will start against Israel or the PA (though if protests do occur, they will likely end up targeting both). The ingredients for an explosive mix are there, but recent years have shown limited public appetite for a return to widespread unrest. Moreover, PA security forces—separately and in cooperation with Israeli security forces—have proved effective. But the bottom line is this: the days following the cancellation announcement will be extremely tense.

Politically, Hamas will emerge as the winner in the short term. Having vocally rejected cancellation of the elections, the group is well-positioned to claim that it represents the will of both the 76 percent of Palestinians who demand elections and the 61 percent who expect them to be held. Yet after an initial spike in popularity, Hamas will find itself where it started: regionally isolated, partially blamed for the Palestinian split, and at the strategic dead end of controlling Gaza without a clear path to improving the conditions there significantly.

At the national level, a failure to hold elections highlights the difficulty—even impossibility—of achieving intra-Palestinian reconciliation. Various approaches—including attempts to reach comprehensive reconciliation, attempts at limited reconciliation via the formation of a unity government, and now elections—have failed. Although the failure of each approach can be explained by its specific circumstances, it is hard to escape the conclusion that national unity is not a likely option in the foreseeable future.

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