Omar Karmi
The National
October 26, 2009 - 12:00am

It was widely expected, but the presidential decree issued on Friday calling for presidential and parliamentary elections will nevertheless put into sharp focus Palestinian divisions and represents something of a gamble.

Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, president of the Palestinian Authority and leader of Fatah, probably did not have much of a choice. Unity negotiations with Hamas are long-stalled and Egyptian efforts to reconcile Hamas and Fatah with a compromise agreement also seem to have failed.

Moreover, and according to the Palestinian constitution, as Mr Abbas told a meeting of the PLO’s Central Council in Ramallah on Saturday, elections have to be called three months before they are held, and should be held every four years, hence the date in late January.

Hamas officials have angrily rejected the move and point out that Mr Abbas himself received special dispensation to prolong his own presidential term by a year in order to hold parliamentary and presidential elections simultaneously.

As such, Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, told AFP the presidential decree “is an illegal and unconstitutional step because Abu Mazen’s [Mr Abbas’s] tenure is over and he has no right to issue any decree concerning this”.

For his part, Mr Abbas accused Hamas of not wanting elections and of not wanting to give up control of the Gaza Strip. Nevertheless, he said Fatah would continue to purse a unity agreement with Hamas.

“We will continue with reconciliation, the political process and negotiations as per what we have committed ourselves to and we will continue to move forward. We take the matter very seriously. These are not tactical moves, nor were we manoeuvring when we issued this [elections] decree.”

A certain amount of manoeuvring cannot be excluded, however.

There is little doubt that one aim of the decree is to put pressure on Hamas to sign onto the Egyptian proposal. That proposal, which Fatah has signed, sets a date for elections at the end of June rather than January.

Mr Abbas also likely hopes that the move will see Hamas put in the position of having to choose elections or not, and by extension the democratic process that brought the movement to power in 2006 and afforded the movement regional, if not global, legitimacy.

Absent a unity agreement, however, which would see Hamas reject elections, Mr Abbas’s decree leaves him with little choice but to proceed with a vote only in the West Bank, which is also highly problematic.

While he will likely win such elections and see his party Fatah run without a serious challenge, Hamas will discount such a vote as illegitimate, and it is hard to see how it can do anything other than deepen the division between the West Bank and Gaza and set the two areas of occupied Palestinian territory on separate courses for the foreseeable future.

It will also fail to convince particularly those in Israel who say Mr Abbas, having lost control of the Gaza Strip, is too weak a leader to negotiate peace with.

Mustafa Sawwaf, a Gaza-based analyst and a close observer of Islamist movements, said he thought the decree was issued mainly to pressure Hamas into signing the Egyptian unity proposal. That, however, was unlikely to happen.

“I don’t think Hamas will be pressured into anything. On the contrary, the move is likely to backfire on Abbas. If he holds elections only in the West Bank, they will be neither comprehensive nor representative and will instead strengthen Hamas’ legitimacy, who will be seen as the only party that continues to hold onto Palestinian constants.”

Mr Sawwaf said the presidential decree could only exacerbate Palestinian divisions and deepen the divide between the West Bank and Gaza.

But some analysts say that is exactly the point.

“It is naive to think that relations between the West Bank and Gaza will go back to what they were before Hamas took control,” said Ziyad Abu Zayyad, a Jerusalem-based analyst. “What needs to be done now is to reconsider the constitutional relationship between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, to maybe have two parliaments and some kind of federation between the areas. This will be the only way to preserve some kind of unity.”

Mr Abu Zayyad rejected the notion that elections in the West Bank alone would be a blow to Mr Abbas’s legitimacy.

“Everyone knows that national reconciliation is not a possibility at the moment. Abbas can declare the Gaza Strip a rebel territory in which elections cannot be held and then proceed with elections in the West Bank,” he said.

Such a scenario would not significantly affect the popularity of either Hamas or Fatah, said Mr Abu Zayyad, because both factions’ supporters are too deeply entrenched.

There also remains the possibility that the Palestinian Central Elections Committee will itself call for a delay in holding elections should it find that for practical reasons such elections are difficult to hold. Such a delay would afford both Fatah and Hamas more time to reach some kind of understanding, still the preferred stated option for both.

“I don’t think the January date is set in stone,” said Mr Sawwaf. “Elections have been postponed before [in the Palestinian areas] and they will be postponed again. Elections without Hamas will just not be seen as legitimate.”

Also yesterday, the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, , in an interview published in The Washington Post, said his government was determined to complete building a structure of a future Palestinian state by 2011. “We’ve committed ourselves to a path of completing the task of institution building,” Mr Fayyad said.


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