Analysis: Poll will further split Palestine

By Daoud Kuttab, October 29, 2009
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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the meeting of the PLO’s central council, at which the decision to hold a presidential and parliamentary vote on January 24

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the meeting of the PLO’s central council, at which the decision to hold a presidential and parliamentary vote on January 24

If President Mahmoud Abbas carries out his threat to hold presidential and parliamentary elections on January 24, as announced this week, he will deepen the split between Gaza and the West Bank.

Palestinian basic law requires that elections take place before the end of January 2010. The PLO leader, however, was willing to postpone these elections until June 2010 in return for a reconciliation with the Islamic Hamas movement that controls Gaza against Palestinian, Arab and international will.

Egyptians have been very unhappy with the failure of Hamas to sign the reconciliation agreement, drawn up after months of painstaking efforts by the head of the Egyptian intelligence service, Omar Suleiman.

The Islamist movement had initially said that it would accept the Egyptian compromise, but asked for a delay after Mr Abbas declined to ask the UN human rights committee to vote on the Goldstone report.

Hamas then continued to drag its feet, even after the UN committee was reconvened upon PLO request and approved the Goldstone report.

This left Mahmoud Abbas in a legal and a political bind. While he was obliged to announce the election date, doing so carried a heavy political risk.

Without a national reconciliation, Gaza under Hamas would not participate in an election. He was also concerned that many of his left-wing partners from the PLO might also reject the vote, because of its potential to exasperate the internal conflict. On the other hand, without elections, the legal status of Abbas and the Fayyad government would be questioned.

Eventually, Mr Abbas made the decision to hold elections during a meeting of the PLO’s central council — he could not shoulder the weight of such an important decision alone.

Now that they have decided on an election, it will certainly push the chance of unity talks even further away, although the reaction of Hamas and some of its supporting Arab countries (Syria and Qatar) is still unclear.

Mr Abbas is under pressure from his own reinvigorated Fatah movement not to make any further concessions to the Islamic Hamas movement. Many felt Hamas were pushing the Egyptians — who are partially supporting Israel’s inhuman siege of Gaza by refusing to open up the Rafah crossings except for humanitarian cases — for a reconciliation agreement that would be much more favourable to them, at Fatah’s expense.

However, an election does not totally close the door on reconciliation. Another three months are needed to prepare for the vote. This gives Egyptians and others a chance to find a last-minute solution.

But if the West Bank elections go ahead alone, its relations with Gaza and Hamas will suffer.

Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist and former professor of journalism at Princeton University

    Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010