With my crystal ball in the shop for its annual Rosh Hashanah cleaning, I can’t predict which stories you’ll be reading this week about Israel and the Middle East.
But I can tell you what story you won’t be reading: the results of local elections in the Palestinian territories and Gaza.
That’s because the Palestinian Supreme Court in Ramallah last month postponed elections scheduled for October 8. The official reason is to give the court – whose nominally independent judges are in fact appointed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – time to consider two appeals by Abbas’s Fatah faction against election procedures.
But the move can be seen as a very convenient excuse for Abbas – who has overstayed his own elected term by six years – to avoid potential embarrassment at the polls.
Along with Abbas’ bizarre speech at the United Nations on September 22, in which he called on Britain to undo and apologize for the 1917 Balfour Declaration that called for the creation of a Jewish state, it’s a sign that the increasingly isolated 81-year-old leader has all but given up the pretence of pursuing a two-state solution.
Because the elections in question are municipal rather than national, the postponement hasn’t attracted a lot of international attention.
But, as Diana B. Greenwald pointed out in an excellent Washington Post article (http://tinyurl.com/jtyuo3y), local elections can serve as an important counterpoint to autocratic authority. They can also be important indicators of shifts in the Palestinian resistance movement.
Greenwald writes that research on elections in non-democratic countries suggests that single-party regimes can use elections at all levels to “strengthen their rule by co-opting potential opposition and cultivating loyal elite networks.”
However, these strategies often have backfired in the West Bank.
Before the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA), the West Bank and Gaza were directly administered by Israel. Israel briefly allowed municipal elections in 1972 and 1976.
But, because so many of these elected officials championed violent resistance against Israel, all elected officials by 1982 were replaced by mayors appointed by Israel.
Although Palestinians held their first national elections in 1996, after the creation of the PA, municipal elections were not held until 2004-2005. When the elections began in December 2004, Fatah was popular, and there was some optimism about the peace process.
As rounds of voting continued into 2005, however, Palestinians were disillusioned with Fatah and looking to Hamas for answers. Hamas-affiliated lists not only captured a majority of towns in Gaza, but also prevailed in key West Bank cities.
So the dominance of Hamas in the 2006 general elections – followed by Hamas’s seizing control of the Gaza Strip in 2007 – should not have come as a shock.
Abbas, meanwhile, was elected in January 2005 to serve as president of the Palestinian National Authority until January 2009. He extended the term until elections that had been planned for 2010, but was voted into office indefinitely by the Palestinian Liberation Organization Central Council in 2009.
To date, he has no clear successor.
Magical thinking would have us believe that Hamas is a terrorist organization, while Fatah is the only potential partner for peace. The reality, however, is that each faction rules its territory with zero tolerance for opposition.
While we might expect the Islamist Hamas government to crack down on journalists and freedom of expression, Abbas and Fatah are just as oppressive. The Independent Commission for Human Rights has reported that 24 people in the West Bank and 21 in Gaza were arrested in 2015 for criticizing Palestinian authorities or writing about forbidden topics.
The scheduled elections could conceivably have given Abbas some political legitimacy. But, after a Hamas-controlled court in Gaza disqualified 10 Fatah candidates (another was disqualified by a court in the West Bank), it was clear that Fatah would have been a non-starter in Gaza and shaky on its home turf.
Hence the appeals of the election rules, and the delay of the elections.
When it’s not busy censuring Israel, the international community is obsessed with getting Israel and the Palestinian Authority to resume negotiations towards a phantom peace accord with no basis in reality.
But those who are truly concerned with the plight of the Palestinian people should be looking to help the PA reinvigorate its internal political process, and stop pandering to a desperate leader who has resorted to whining over 100-year-old grievances at the UN.
Without legitimately elected and broadly supported leadership, a future independent Palestinian state will be as weak and corrupt as its current incarnation.