The Other Election to Watch

by Jonathan Feldstein

Initially, this was going to be written in the future tense, not the past tense. As much as Americans may be equally tired of, and curious about, the outcome of the upcoming presidential election, I wanted highlight on another election scheduled for this week, one with many implications for the US, and the world.

Yet keeping on top of the scheduled Palestinian Authority municipal elections, called for October 8, has been a bit like sitting at center court at a tennis match. As soon as the ball lands on one side and seems like it’ll never be returned, it’s volleyed back to the far opposite end of the court. This has been going on for some time, each volley landing just barely in, and always being returned to the most unexpected place. Or, maybe regarding Palestinian elections, this is what is exactly to be expected.

Unlike the US with constitutionally proscribed presidential elections every four years, there is no such tradition within the Palestinian Authority. As such, setting a date for elections several months ago was news in of itself. With the incumbent Palestinian Authority President now in the 11th year of his four year term, the notion of free and democratic elections escapes their tradition.

Just as calling elections was newsworthy, so too have the twists in the road that have taken place since. Recently, a Palestinian supreme court’s ruling canceled the elections. Imagine the US Supreme Court deciding that elections wouldn’t happen one year and the outcry that would bring.

But with no democratic tradition, expectations are low, and resigning to be resigned to this as the norm is the norm. With each party having as much to lose as to gain, maybe all are breathing a sigh of relief.

The elections called for October 8 were for city and regional leadership throughout the Palestinian Authority (PA). Right off the bat it was a question as to whether the promise of elections could be delivered because even though on paper Gaza is part of the PA, the PA and Fatah as its ruling party has had no control of Gaza since the bloody coup a decade ago that imposed Hamas as the authority in Gaza. Simply, nobody knew whether Hamas would allow elections, and if they did to what extent they would fix the outcome, either actively (and anti-democratically) or just by intimidation.

The next question was whether Hamas would participate at all. While known internationally as an Iranian backed terrorist organization, Hamas also maintains a local political infrastructure. Of course nothing is democratic about a Hamas election, but Fatah gambled that Hamas would not participate for a few reasons.

First, doing so would give authority to the Palestinian Authority under Fatah, which Hamas challenges at every turn. Second, there was a risk that Hamas would lose. Of course in losing they would find a convenient scapegoat in Israel or something else to blame, but the reality would be known on the street that they lost. Third, by participating they would be under the eyes of the few in the world who actually cared whether Gaza’s residents were entitled to vote in any semblance of a free election. While most are too happy to hold Hamas and the Palestinians to a lower standard, and therefore could care less whether there is a vote or a coup and how free life there really is, Hamas knows that they at least need to keep up appearances.

Hamas played its hand well, calling Fatah’s bluff in a way that was altogether transparent. Despite Hamas insisting that public opinion favors them, they refrained from placing its top leaders on the ballot. This was in part to avoid drawing Israeli attention to those individuals, but also no less an attempt to avoid the appearance of electoral defeat. With Hamas leaders on a list of potential losers, fielding candidates not directly identified with them would allow Hamas to claim that it really didn’t lose. If they won, of course, Hamas officials would have celebrated the victory as their own.

Fatah had a lot to lose in calling the elections as well. While sounding like a “normal” political party and seemingly more legitimate than Hamas, Fatah is nothing more than an Arabic acronym for the PLO, the grandfather of all Palestinian Arab terror groups founded in 1964. First, Fatah bet that Hamas would not participate (they were wrong on that) and that Fatah candidates would be a shoe in. They lost one of these bets which diminished their credibility, yet also bet that their candidates would win and that would increase their credibility and popularity. They also bet that they would gain influence and control, including control of security and municipal budgets. They also stood to lose the election, and while knowing that Palestinian Arabs in Gaza would not really be able to vote freely, allowing such free elections in the other Palestinian Authority areas could lead to an upset. It’s strange to think of calling elections being a bold move in and of itself, but that’s what it was. Now we’ll never know.

What would have been is a matter of speculation now. It was widely understood that the PA has less control in large cities which tend to be more radical and thus easier to get votes for Hamas candidates. There’s also the reality that clans, headed by influential local sheikhs, are the nucleus of the Palestinian Arab vote. So clans under the influence of Fatah would vote for Fatah. But, a clever sheikh of a clan that’s relatively influential will bid out his clan’s votes to either party and go less on ideology and more on how much control and influence (including money) he and his clan would get.

Fatah also knew that the outcome of these elections would impact if and when there might (ever) be another parliamentary election. If Fatah won, they’d be inclined to call such an election soon. If they lost, they could sit out another indefinite period until they felt having such an election wouldn’t automatically assume a Hamas win.

Overlaying the election between the parties, is the vying for influence within the parties. More or less parallel to the now aborted elections, Hamas is gearing up for a transition from one terror leader to another. While complex and worthy of a separate article itself as to the dynamics and players involved, the short term issue was who will be the head and in control of Hamas not just in Gaza as a terror movement with wide and deep legs internationally.

At the same time, with PA President Abbas sitting in office nearly 200% longer than the term for which he was elected (and that really not causing much of an irritation among those who seek a free and democratic Palestine more than a stray eyelash in one’s eye), for over a decade there’s been great internal strife among Fatah and the PA as to who will succeed Abbas. In a truly democratic environment nobody can predict much less choreograph these things (if evidenced only by the current US candidates), nobody seems to think twice about their simply designating a successor for if and when Abbas is no longer able or willing to serve.

But with one “candidate” in exile because he has run afoul of Abbas and another in prison serving five life sentences for his role in terror attacks that have murdered Israelis, it may be easy to see how one might overlook Abbas staying in office for almost two times longer than his initial term for which he was elected was.

Reprinted with permission of the author.  Jonathan Feldstein was born and educated in the U.S. and immigrated to Israel in 2004. He is married and the father of six. Throughout his life and career, he has been blessed by the calling to fellowship with Christian supporters of Israel and shares experiences of living as an Orthodox Jew in Israel. He writes a regular column for Charisma magazine’s Standing With Israel. You can contact Jonathan at firstpersonisrael@gmail.com.