Jerusalem – When the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) announced the legislative and presidential elections in the autumn, the first in 15 years, the predominant reaction was one of great skepticism. In fact, it would not have been the first time in which, in the course of these years, elections were announced and then canceled, exactly as happened for the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, the two opposing factions that govern the West Bank and the Gaza Strip respectively and which still have not they managed to find the way to national appeasement after the 2007 civil war. Abu Mazen’s announcement was seen at the time as an attempt by the current leadership to confirm its legitimacy at the same time as the Biden administration took office.
Thirty-six lists running for the presidential elections
But with the passing of the weeks, the electoral appointment that will begin on May 22 with the legislative elections and should continue on July 31 with the presidential elections, seems an increasingly realistic and also rather animated scenario: on Sunday the central electoral committee approved 36 lists (there were 11 in 2006). “There is great excitement among the people, which is also demonstrated by the fact that 93% of those entitled to vote have registered to vote”, he told Republic Ghassan Khatib, former minister until 2006 and currently director of the Jerusalem Media & Communication Center studies. However, attention remains focused on only 4 lists: on the one hand the single one of Hamas and on the other 3 lists competing for the traditional Fatah electorate. The real novelty of the elections, and the great puzzle for Abu Mazen, is that the course of the electoral process so far is translating into an internal challenge to his monochromatic management of Palestinian institutions.
The list of Marwan Barghouti and Nasser Qudwa
Less than 24 hours before the deadline for submitting the electoral rolls on March 31, the worst of nightmares for President Abbas materialized: Marwan Barghouti, from the Israeli prison where he served five life sentences as the instigator of terrorist attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians during the Second Intifada, presented a list of himself together with Nasser Qudwa, grandson of Yasser Arafat, recently expelled from Fatah precisely for having announced his intention to compete with an independent list, in controversy with the authoritarianism of the Abbas management.
The Qudwa-Barghouti list breaks the mold and becomes a new thorn in the side for Abu Mazen, in addition to the one already posed by the “Democratic-Reformist Current of Fatah” of the archrival Mohammad Dahlan, who has lived in exile in Abu Dhabi since 2011. Barghouti’s target – represented on the list by his wife Fadwa – is to test the ground in view of a possible direct candidacy for the presidential elections on 31 July.
The Palestinian polls
Polls have always indicated that Barghouti, perceived by Palestinians as an icon of the resistance who is paying a personal price for his people’s struggle, would emerge victorious from any confrontation with the current president. According to the latest report by the Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki, in a three-party presidential competition, Barghouti would receive 48% of the votes, Abu Mazen 29% and the leader of Hamas Ismail Haniyyeh 19%. The official Fatah list, with Barghouti on the pitch, loses at least 10 points.
“There are no competing Fatah lists: there is only one list in the field that represents the parent party,” he says Republic Raed debiy, leader of the international section of the Fatah youth movement, ranked 130 (out of 132 seats) on the “mother list”. For Debiy, “Dahlan has long sold himself to the Emirates and certainly cannot be considered Fatah”, while for Barghouti the situation is different. “He is a symbol for Fatah and for the Palestinian people”.
Debiy confirms what the minister declared on Sunday Hassan al Sheikh, Abu Mazen’s right-hand man, according to whom “very positive negotiations are underway that could lead to a resolution of the misunderstandings with Barghouti in the next few days”. It should be remembered that also in 2006 Barghouti presented an independent list, which was then withdrawn in view of the elections to support Abu Mazen.
Urn in East Gerusalemme
If the internal controversy in Fatah does not subside, more and more rumors claim that Abu Mazen, to avoid a possible personal defeat, could try to cancel, or at least postpone the elections. Israel could offer him the opportunity, if he does not allow the deployment of the ballot boxes in East Jerusalem.
For months, Palestinian leaders have been threatening that “without Jerusalem there will be no elections”, however Israel – which did not oppose the procedure in 1996 or 2006 – has not currently expressed itself on the matter.
The silence of Israel
In the midst of an unprecedented political stalemate that has just seen a fourth round of elections in less than two years, no member of the Israeli government has so far publicly related to the expected electoral appointment of the neighbors, which will inevitably have repercussions for the Jewish state. The only official message that has been heard in recent days on the matter was delivered by the general Kamil Abu Rukun, the outgoing Coordinator of Israeli Army Activities in the Palestinian Territories (Cogat). “If Hamas wins, Israel will stop coordinating with the Palestinians” is what Abu Rukun claims in his end-of-office briefings, even in front of the international community.
According to Khatib, Abu Mazen could always revoke the elections, but “he should not do it: the expectation that has been created is enormous and would risk paying the consequences anyway”. If we proceed, “the feeling is that there will be a change in the balance of power that has governed the Palestinian leadership so far”.
The US unknown
The position of the American administration could also defeat all the cards on the table, which continues to issue mixed signals: on the one hand, the renewal of economic aid to the Palestinian Authority has just been approved, with an initial package of 100 million dollars ; on the other Joe Biden he has not yet called Abu Mazen from the settlement, unlike what happened with Netanyahu.
Reason why it seems that the Palestinian president has refused a call from the Secretary of State Anthony Blinken last week. What seems to be emerging so far is that Biden’s US does not intend to place the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the top of its foreign agenda. It remains to be seen how this will impact the first Palestinian elections in 15 years.