In Jerusalem And Ramallah, Hope For Political Salvation Via The Ballot Box


Israel can’t stop holding elections; the Palestinians just can’t get started.

Meeting after meeting in Jerusalem isn’t getting Blue and White leader Benny Gantz anywhere. He says that he’ll succeed in building a government. But there is growing realization that a third election is becoming increasingly likely, even if Gantz says it would be “outrageously wasteful.”

Meanwhile, in Ramallah, the leader has the opposite problem: President Mahmoud Abbas is promising elections to a population that hasn’t been allowed to vote for years. But there is widespread skepticism that he will deliver on his promise, despite the optimism of the head of the Palestinian election committee, Hanna Nasser, who told Abbas: “We’re just around the corner from holding elections.”

There are some striking similarities between the predicament of Israel’s leader and the Palestinian leader. Both are in crisis. Netanyahu because of a likely indictment and failure in his task of forming a government after two elections. Abbas because he is unpopular, and viewed by the general public as increasingly irrelevant.

And both, it seems, hope for salvation via the ballot box — or in Abbas’ case through the promise of elections that probably won’t materialize.

The chairman of the Palestinian Central Election Commission traveled from the West Bank to Gaza in order to put the wheels in motion for Palestinian elections next year.

Abbas announced at the United Nations General Assembly last month that he intended to hold elections. There hasn’t been a presidential vote since 2005 or a general election since 2006, but he insisted that Palestinians have always believed in “democracy as a foundation for the building of our state and society.” And now, just when his legitimacy is in desperate need of a boost, the time is suddenly ripe to start talking about elections, with a legislative election set to take place in February, followed by a presidential election in May.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to be pushing for a third Israeli election, as the best of various bad options open to him. Gantz’s party wants a Bibi-less unity government, but with Netanyahu’s Likud party.

The prime minister is preventing this by keeping a firm grip on Likud. And he is stopping Gantz from getting the support he needs from other parties. He is doing this by insisting that religious parties and other right-wing parties will only negotiate with Gantz as a bloc, which he leads.

The best that Gantz is offering Netanyahu is the second stint in a rotation deal that would start in 2021 by which point Netanyahu is likely to be fighting his corruption cases in court. Netanyahu seems to expect a new election to give him a clear victory.

Both leaders have reason to act with caution.

In Netanyahu’s case, polling suggests it is farfetched that he will score a decisive win in a new election, and losing or getting another inconclusive result would be very embarrassing.

Abbas may want to look at Britain, where the whole Brexit saga started when then-Prime Minister David Cameron called a referendum hoping to cement legitimacy for his Europe policy, and where his successor Theresa May called the 2017 election to cement her power and ended up losing 13 seats and this year lost the confidence of her party and resigned.

Abbas’ Fatah has strong competition from Hamas and other factions, and as far as Abbas himself is concerned, a March poll by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research concluded that three out of every five Palestinians wants him to resign.

With figures like these, does Abbas really want the Palestinian population to vote? And with so many practical obstacles that have prevented voting until now, does he really think it will happen? Will the Palestinian Authority and its foes in Hamas really cooperate enough to hold elections?

Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said his party is “serious about holding it and we will do everything possible to facilitate it.” But we have heard conciliatory talk before, yet the PA-Hamas relationship always seems to sour, and impacts the lives of normal Palestinians.

Another problem is Jerusalem. Palestinian factions say, as a matter of pride and principle, that they won’t organize voting without ballots in Jerusalem, but Israel is expected to insist that it won’t permit PA polling on territory that it controls.

For these reasons and others, Palestinian politics, after years of failed attempts to plan elections, is unlikely to suddenly succeed. But this could be Abbas’ best chance of holding onto power. He will give the impression of doing everything possible to get Palestinians to the polls — and if this fails he can present himself as a champion of democracy prevented in his quest by others.

If elections fail to happen, he will blame Hamas for preventing them, and go on a tirade against Israel for prohibiting voting in Jerusalem and other policies that he will claim undermine the Palestinian political process. It’s a stretch to say that it will do wonders for his popularity, but it could go some way to address his image as a leader lacking legitimacy who is outstaying his welcome. Illusionary elections may turn out to be a smart strategy. 

Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.