(Bloomberg) — Time is running out for 83-year-old Mahmoud Abbas. Foreign aid to the Palestinians has dropped nearly 80% over the past 10 years, the political outlook is bleak after a half-century of Israeli occupation and his people’s campaign for statehood risks sinking into irrelevance.
To salvage his legacy, the Palestinian Authority president has called — again — for the first national elections since 2006, when an Islamist win triggered a split that has set back the Palestinian national struggle ever since. It’s a tactic that could backfire on him if Hamas wins again — or prove another sign of his weakness if elections aren’t held.
“We, the Palestinians, need to survive and remain steadfast in order to face a changing world,” Nabeel Shaath, a senior adviser to Abbas, said in an interview in Ramallah. “This is the time to reemphasize the need for unity.”
That Abbas would resort to such a timeworn strategy is a sign of just how grim his situation has become. During his 15 years in office, the Palestinians’ statehood dream has gone from cause celebre to worn-out battle cry, a combination of his own missteps, shifting regional priorities and hardline Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decade in power.
Under Abbas, the Palestinians ruptured into dueling West Bank and Gaza Strip governments. The last round of peace talks with Israel broke down in 2014, and the Trump administration’s still-unseen peace plan by all accounts hews close to Israeli demands. Regional strife, especially in Syria, has redirected the focus away from the Palestinian cause, and Gulf Arab allies have drawn closer to Israel over a shared distrust of Iran.
Polls show Abbas is blamed for failing to deal with his people’s problems. His West Bank-based government is widely regarded as inept and corrupt. Multiple attempts to create a unified government have foundered. Abbas has called for elections before, but they never materialized because the two governments haven’t been able to bridge their differences. The legislature hasn’t functioned since Hamas overran Gaza in 2007, and Abbas, who unilaterally dissolved it last year, essentially rules by decree, punishing critics, censoring opponents, and banning protests as well as some activist groups.
What’s more, Abbas has made no provisions for the future: His Palestinian Authority is a gerontocracy that hasn’t groomed a new generation of leaders.
All That’s Left
“The hope is that they can restore their legitimacy by going to elections,” said Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian cabinet minister. “There are two ways to restore legitimacy. The first is to make political achievements, which is not likely to happen. The other way is to have elections. That’s all they have left to solve their internal problems.”
Many Palestinians yearn for change, especially the young people who account for 67% of the population and see their aged leaders as woefully out of touch. They’ve been left behind economically and are struggling to get ahead, as are other young people now protesting across the region, but they have the added burden of having so much of their lives dictated by the confrontation with Israel. They lack confidence that their leaders can shake things up.
The Palestinian Authority is “basically a group of people who have imposed themselves upon us,” said Mohamad, a 23-year-old psychologist who declined to give his full name for fear of reprisal. “I am jealous of other societies that witness a truly democratic election process. I wish I could experience the same process. I never did and I don’t think I ever will.”
Benefiting From Division
The political will just isn’t there, said Mohammad al-Gherbawi, a 29-year-old clothing salesman in Gaza City.
“The politicians are the only people who are getting benefits, privileges, and advantages out of the current internal division, and I don’t think that they will easily leave their posts,” Gherbawi said.
Hamas, which won the last elections in 2006 in a surprise upset over Abbas’s Fatah, hasn’t agreed to his proposal for two-step parliamentary and presidential elections, worried that he’s laying a trap to keep his party in power.
Polls show Hamas wouldn’t win a majority in the legislature, and there’s no guarantee that Abbas — whose term officially expired in January 2009 — would keep his word about a presidential vote, possibly shutting the militant group out of power entirely.
After representatives of the two factions met last week in Gaza, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said his party is ready “to advance the elections and provide full flexibility in order to achieve Palestinian unity.” They met again on Sunday, but no date has been set for a vote.
Even if one is held, an election might boomerang against him. Should Hamas win, the Palestinian Authority would be widely shunned as a terrorist entity. Hamas remains a formidable force, even after plunging Gaza into unprecedented poverty and three wars with Israel during its rule, and polls incorrectly predicted it would lose in 2006.
Some Western diplomats fear Palestinians would be marching toward the kind of unrest that has followed free elections elsewhere in the Middle East. Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, recalled “one of the most senior EU diplomats” cautioning against jeopardizing political stability.
“Why would you have elections, for god’s sake?” Shikaki cited the envoy as telling him. “Can’t you learn from the countries around you?”
Sam Bahour, a Palestinian businessman in the West Bank, doesn’t want to hear such talk.
“Time is running out,” Bahour said. “Palestine won’t fall apart if Abbas isn’t re-elected, and the international community should know we are like any nation and respect the results, whatever they may be.”
(Adds that Palestinian legislature was dissolved in sixth paragraph)
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To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alaa Shahine at email@example.com, ;Lin Noueihed at firstname.lastname@example.org, Amy Teibel
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