Postponing vote saves Abbas from the jaws of unavoidable defeat

Political analysts believe the position announced by the European Union reflects anger that may affect the nature of the relationship between the EU and the Palestinian Authority.
Saturday 01/05/2021
Palestinians in  Gaza take part in a rally against the decision of the Palestinian authorities president to delay the legislative and presidential polls, on April 30, 2021. (AFP)
Palestinians in Gaza take part in a rally against the decision of the Palestinian authorities president to delay the legislative and presidential polls, on April 30, 2021. (AFP)

RAMALLAH - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas broke his commitment to elections that could have removed him along, with the currently dominant Fatah, from office, by announcing the indefinite postponement of the vote.

But the decision is not without likely repercussions, as it not only threaten to perpetuate the division among Palestinians but will also undermine Abbas’s credibility with the international community, especially European partners.

The Palestinian president announced late Thursday night the postponement of Palestinian elections until it could be ensured that the Israeli authorities allow voting in Jerusalem.

Abbas said at the conclusion of a Palestinian leadership meeting, at the presidential headquarters in Ramallah in the West Bank, that the decision “came after the failure of all international efforts to persuade Israel to allow the inclusion of Jerusalem in the elections.”

He declared that elections will not be held without East Jerusalem.

Abbas’s decision was expected, especially after the divisions which have shaken Fatah, had generated three legislative slates. Among these was the “Freedom” list, which was formed on the basis of an alliance between  ousted Fatah figure Nasser al-Qudwa and detained Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti serving time in Israeli jails.

According to recent opinion polls, the list was expected to lead in the elections.

There is widespread belief among Palestinians, as well as among the international community, that the East Jerusalem voting issue was  an excuse for Abbas to renege on his commitment to hold elections. Making a new voting date conditional on a change in Tel Aviv’s position will only mean that the Palestinians will likely wait for a long time, perhaps for many years, before being able to cast their ballot in an election.

The postponement is in fact generally viewed as an outright cancellation of the vote under the pretext that Israel did not allow it to proceed in East Jerusalem.

Observers believe that Abbas views the postponement as an “achievement,” not only because it saved him from a resounding defeat, but also because it will allow him to use the elections as a bargaining chip in the future.

The decision angered the Palestinian factions and provoked the resentment of the European Union, which quickly issued a statement expressing deep disappointment and called for a new date for the vote to be set without delay.

EU High Representative Josep Borrell said,  “The decision to postpone the planned Palestinian elections, including the legislative elections originally scheduled for 22 May, is deeply disappointing.”

He added, “We strongly encourage all Palestinian actors to resume efforts to build on the successful talks between the factions over recent months. A new date for elections should be set without delay.”

France, Germany, Italy and Spain also said Friday they were disappointed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s decision and urged him to set  new election dates quickly.

“We call upon the Palestinian Authority to put forward a new electoral calendar as soon as possible,” the four major European Union countries said in a joint statement.

“We call on Israel to facilitate the holding of such elections across all of the Palestinian territory, including in East Jerusalem, on the basis of past agreements,” they added.

The European Union has consistently supported the elections with the aim of renewing the Palestinian political mandates in preparation for the resumption of negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

The EU worked hard to overcome the difficulties facing the vote, but Abbas’s calculations and the influence of the narrow circle surrounding him prevented that.

Political analysts believe that the stance taken by the European Union reflects a level of anger that may affect the nature of the relationship between the EU and the Palestinian Authority.

The analysts do not rule out that the Europeans will reverse their supportive stance towards the Palestinian Authority, which will negatively affect the Palestinian cause as a whole.

Hundreds of Palestinians demonstrated in Gaza on Friday to denounce Abbas’s announcement. The demonstrations took place at the initiative of Hamas in different parts of the Strip.

During a demonstration in northern Gaza, Hamas leader Mushir al-Masry said  President Abbas had  turned against the elections before they were even held, accusing him of using Jerusalem as an excuse to evade his commitments.

Masry described the decision to postpone as “criminal” because it was taken just “to escape defeat.”

The Palestinian Central Elections Commission announced the suspension of the electoral process, starting from Friday morning, carrying out the leadership’s decision.

On Friday, the United Nations warned of a “worsening of the situation” in the Palestinian territories following the vote postponement. The UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Thor Winsland, said, “We fully understand the disappointment of the Palestinians.”

He added that setting a new and timely date for the elections would be an important step to reassure the Palestinian people that their voices will be heard.

Gaza analyst Talal Okal said that the postponement  caused great disappointment among the Palestinians, most of whom had felt that the time was right for change.

85-year old Abbas has been in power since 2005 and has ruled by decree for more than a decade.

Political analyst Abdul Majeed Swailem expected the Abbas decision to exacerbate Palestinian divisions, and said, “The Palestinian people are heading in the near future towards more division after the decision to postpone the elections, unless there is a different political will.”

Writer Sharhabeel al-Gharib considered that “the decision will complicate the internal Palestinian landscape. The Palestinian people”, she said, “will face a new political rift, and perhaps the Palestinian people will enter a dark tunnel after it was believed that these elections would constitute a great glimmer of hope for them, in order to reform the political system and address the repercussions of their divisions.”

At the end of last year, President Abbas was enthusiastic about holding elections as he tried to present himself to the Joe Biden administration in Washington as a democratically-committed leader who believes in peaceful change and seeks peace with Israel.

Palestinian youths wave a national flag during a Hamas protest in the Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip on April 30, 2021, following the postponement of the upcoming Palestinian elections. (AFP)
Palestinian youths wave a national flag during a Hamas protest in the Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip on April 30, 2021, following the postponement of the upcoming Palestinian elections. (AFP)

In January, he announced that the legislative elections would be held this May, to be followed by a presidential elections.

His expressed enthusiasm soon began to wane as the Biden administration showed that resolving the Palestinian issue was not among its top priorities, despite its emphasis on the need for a two-state solution.

For Abbas, the situation became more complicated with the escalation of disagreements within Fatah and the emergence of calls among leading figures favouring fundamental change.

There was, for instance, the decision of leading figure Nasser al-Qudwa to form a list independent of Fatah, which resulted in his dismissal from the movement. There was also the decision of detained leader Marwan Barghouti to join Qudwa’s list on the condition that the latter supports him in the race for president.

This proviso sealed Abbas’s decision about the necessity of postponing the vote. He is said to have reached the conclusion that this was the lesser of two evils.