Abbas is absolutely right to call for long-overdue Palestinian elections

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was absolutely right to call for elections in January, and it is essential that these elections take place in both the West Bank and Gaza. These elections were agreed to by both the Fatah and Hamas in the Cairo negotiations that produced agreement on virtually nothing else. However, in the intervening months both parties have suffered great losses in public opinion for various reasons. This is no reason for refusing to go ahead with the elections, which are the only way to resolve the current impasse and crisis of leadership and legitimacy in the Palestinian society.

Hamas is opposed to elections no doubt because it fears it will lose them, or at least not do as well as it did in 2006. They should not be permitted to exercise any such veto. Hamas’ reluctance to submit to elections is a rather good example of the tendency among Islamists and other political extremists to be enthusiastic about “one man, one vote, one time,” especially once they have succeeded in winning an election, and, like all fundamentally undemocractic forces, are now tempted to simply sit on that victory forever.

Those who are obsessed with the idea of Palestinian national unity should be the first to welcome these elections. Functional cohabitation in government between two parties who disagree on absolutely everything from the national strategy on liberation to the character of Palestinian society proved impossible between 2006-2007 and led to a violent sundering.

A national reconciliation agreement that tries once again to smash the square peg of Hamas into the round hole of the PA is not likely to produce better results. Indeed, it could prove disastrous not only insofar as this kind of power-sharing can hardly work under conditions of such disagreement and when almost everything Hamas does is determined by its campaign to replace the PLO as the main Palestinian political organization, but also because it would probably lead once again to violence. Moreover, it would probably mean the sacrificing of both Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and his program of building the Palestinian governing, infrastructural and administrative framework for an independent state, the importance of which simply cannot be overstated. National reconciliation has to be based on a minimal consensus in order to be functional, and right now, that simply doesn’t exist.

But that doesn’t mean, of course, the Palestinians can or should accept the present situation of divided authority, divided legitimacy and political-geographical division between the West Bank and Gaza. There is an obvious solution to all of this: elections to determine the will of the majority of Palestinians and clarify the confused situation created by the election of Fatah’s candidate for president Mahmoud Abbas in 2005 and a parliamentary majority of candidates backed by Hamas in 2006. By calling presidential and parliamentary elections at the same time, Abbas also is giving the Palestinians a chance to speak their mind across the board, decisively and in one fell swoop. It is long overdue.

There’s no question that this is a politically bold and risky move for the Palestinian president. Apparently he intends to run again, and after the Goldstone fiasco, from which he and his organization only partly recovered, he cannot be assured of victory either in presidential or parliamentary elections. The Palestinian electoral commission that ran the 2005 and 2006 elections did so with a transparency, openness and credibility completely unmatched anywhere else in the Arab world in living memory, and I think can be relied upon to do so again. There’s no reason whatsoever to doubt the credibility of another Palestinian election, unless, like Hamas, you are dead set against it for cynical political reasons. Not that I can’t understand their concerns: if my political program was based largely on campaigns against smoking, girls expelled for wearing trousers at school, hijab enforcement, and preventing women from immodestly riding on the backs of motorcycles, I’d be pretty nervous about my chances too.

Alea iacta est: Abbas has done the right thing and called for elections in January. The Egyptian reconciliation proposals accepted by Fatah and not (or at least not yet) by Hamas would put them off until June. The only possible virtue of that reconciliation proposal would precisely be to allow for an election to clarify authority and legitimacy among Palestinians by the free vote and free will of the Palestinian people themselves. If Hamas does agree to the Egyptian proposals, it is probably reasonable for Fatah and the PA to implement this six-month delay. If it does not, the PA should go right ahead and push the election project as far as it can possibly go with or without the cooperation of Hamas. If Hamas blocks elections because it fears defeat, or tries to hold jerry-rigged elections on its own in Gaza, thereby solidifying the political divisions in Palestine, it should pay a heavy political price for what would be truly unforgivable actions.