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 (PA) president has called — again — for the first national elections since 2006, when a radical 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 strategy is a sign of just how grim his situation has become.
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.
Polls show Abbas is blamed for failing to deal with his people’s problems. Multiple attempts to create a unified government have foundered. Abbas has called for elections before, but they never materialised 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: The Palestinian Authority hasn’t groomed a new generation of leaders.
“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.
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 would keep his word about a presidential vote.
After representatives of the two factions met 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, but no date has been set for a vote.