What’s behind Abbas’ demand for voting stations in Jerusalem?

The insistence of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Israel enabling East Jerusalem residents to vote in the upcoming Palestinian elections might hide his fear of a Hamas victory.

al-monitor Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends a ceremony marking the 15th anniversary of the death of his predecessor Yasser Arafat, in Ramallah, Israeli-occupied West Bank, Nov. 11, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman.

Dec 12, 2019

This time, it appears serious. On Dec. 10, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced that all Palestinian factions had agreed to hold elections for the Palestinian presidency and legislative council. The voting will likely take place in February 2020. Abbas has yet to issue a presidential elections decree, but the Palestinian Authority (PA) has already formally asked Israel to allow residents of East Jerusalem to participate in the elections. Israeli officials confirmed they had received the request, saying the diplomacy-security Cabinet would discuss it, probably next week.

Will Abbas keep his promise and for the first time in 13 years hold democratic elections for the presidency and parliament, even though these could result in defeat and an end to his rule? Let us not forget that in 2006, the last time elections were held, Abbas’ Fatah movement was vanquished by the rival Hamas organization.

Many in Israel wondered this week what made Abbas announce elections so resolutely. What, in fact, is the point of elections for the legislative council and PA presidency given that the split between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is practically a done deal and the leader of the PA does not have a foothold in Gaza?

Hamas and the smaller Palestinian Islamic Jihad each hold in Gaza armed militias. Together they number tens of thousands of combatants equipped with Iranian weapons and ammunition. These two groups will surely not accept the terms that Abbas outlined in the past for unifying Gaza and the West Bank in adherence to the principle of “one law, one weapon, under one authority.” At the same time, Abbas’ rivals in Gaza are negotiating with Israel over a long-term truce, which, if finalized and implemented, would be regarded as a tremendous achievement affirming a form of recognition of their sovereignty over the enclave.

Even if Abbas and his Fatah movement, the dominant force in the PA, garner a large majority in the elections, will Hamas give up control of Gaza it wrested from Fatah in a 2007 coup and hand over control of its armored Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades to the aging PA leader? The same leader who has imposed economic sanctions on Hamas and led it to plead for a deal with Israel to save itself?

Although the Israeli Security Cabinet is supposed to discuss the PA request, its current makeup is unlikely to do so without involving narrow political considerations at a time when Israel itself is headed for elections.

By the way, one cannot help but reflect on the absurdity of Israeli Cabinet ministers facing the country’s third elections in less than a year being asked to make a decision that could affect the prospects of the first Palestinian elections in 13 years.

Members of the Israeli Cabinet include hard-liners Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Justice Minister Amir Ohana. All three were recently appointed to Israel’s transition government based on the narrow political considerations of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rather than on their skills. In their view, which they make no effort to conceal, the very existence of the PA is an existential sin, so that chances of their supporting a PA foothold in Jerusalem with ballot boxes are slim to none.

And what about another Cabinet member, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, whose term has been marked by ongoing battles against any event in Jerusalem, whether political, cultural or educational, that raises suspicions of PA auspices or funding? “I will continue to strengthen the sovereignty and governance of Israel throughout Jerusalem and prevent Palestinian attempts to create a foothold in the eastern part of the city,” Erdan declared on Nov. 20 after shutting down a branch of the Palestinian Education Ministry operating out of the al-Aytam school (Orphan Islamic School) in Jerusalem’s Old City. Would the same Erdan raise his hand in favor of placing PA ballot boxes in East Jerusalem school buildings?

Netanyahu generally accepts the recommendations of security officials on such issues. However, he is highly unlikely to take the risk of having Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman blame him for granting a foothold in Israel’s capital to his nemesis Abbas. After all, Netanyahu defeated Prime Minister Shimon Peres in the 1996 elections with a scare campaign alleging “Peres will divide Jerusalem.” All Netanyahu needs now is for his hawkish former ally Liberman or the former military chiefs who lead the rival Blue and White party to adopt that same slogan and update it to say “Netanyahu is dividing Jerusalem.”

More so. Beyond political considerations, weighty though they may be, there are also professional and security considerations involved. In 2006, Israel agreed to have PA ballot boxes in East Jerusalem. Hamas won the elections, and Israel is having to deal with the repercussions to this day. Abbas may be counting on that very fact.

Prior to the 2006 voting, senior PA officials realized that divisions within the Fatah movement and friction among local leaders could cost them the election and their hold on power. Mohammed Dahlan, then an Abbas confidant and now a bitter enemy, came up with a brilliant idea for thwarting the elections and preventing defeat. He suggested that the PA announce it would only hold elections if Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem were allowed to vote. He even met with then-Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer to plot the maneuver. However, members of the Cabinet at the time were more concerned with pleasing US President George W. Bush, who favored PA elections, and voted almost unanimously in favor of allowing PA ballot boxes in the eastern part of the capital. The rest is history. Fatah experienced a humiliating defeat, Gaza split off from Ramallah and 13 years on that same scenario is about to repeat itself. Abbas is demanding that Israel allow ballot boxes in East Jerusalem as a condition for holding Palestinian elections.

It is no secret that almost all of Gaza’s 2 million residents think Abbas betrayed them, inter alia by imposing sanctions on Gaza that have hurt every household in the enclave. Clearly, prospects of a Fatah election victory in Gaza are nonexistent. In the West Bank, too, many Palestinians are highly critical of Abbas. Despite its 2006 defeat, Fatah has not acted on its lessons, has not modernized and does not promise a new horizon for residents of the West Bank. Given this state of affairs, Israel is highly unlikely to take the risk of a Hamas victory in the February 2020 elections, which would hand it control over the West Bank, too, and present Israel with a far more complicated and complex challenge than the one Hamas currently presents from its perch in Gaza.

We cannot exclude the possibility that Abbas’ demand for East Jerusalem ballot boxes, knowing the makeup of Israel’s Security Cabinet, is, in fact, nothing but a ploy designed to obtain Israeli “help” in getting off his election high horse.

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