Palestinian elections: The gateway to a new middle east

From 2006-2021, Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) has clung to power while the lives of the Palestinian people have gone from bad to worse. The Arab world has now started moving on without Palestine. As time passes this becomes a problem of the Palestinians and the Israelis.
Marwan Barghouti

It was a dark winter day in 2005 and there was a small gathering of senior former Israeli and Palestinian officials at the Four seasons Foggy Bottom in Washington DC. What united these friends, this evening was a common objective, to convince the White House that the biggest threat to the Middle East peace process was holding the imminent elections in Palestine, which the Hamas would most certainly win. A prospective Hamas victory was a death knell to any peace in the Middle East and would effectively wipe out the meager gains from the Oslo peace accord that survived Rabin’s assassination. This was the main point of discussion, but each one of these veterans had lingering questions which they would vocalize, what would a Hamas victory essentially mean? Would it mean that the Palestinian people essentially do not want their leaders to recognize Israel? In all cases, the group was sure of the fact that if Hamas won, the US and the EU would effectively stop negotiations with the Palestinian Authority as neither could continue negotiating with the Hamas, a terrorist organization. With that the Israel-Palestine question would go back into being a status-quo, a problem for the Israeli’s and Palestinians who had to live through the difficulties of the lack of a clear solution while their leaders battled it out with words and occasional violence. In the days that followed everyone weighed in informally, from Shimon Peres to Abu Ala-the then Palestinian Prime Minister, but Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, was immovable. The answer was direct and simple, President Bush wanted elections as did the EU and democracy must have its way.

15 years later the world is a different place from that somber day in Washington. Mohamed Abbas is still the President of the Palestinian Authority. Gaza is now a humanitarian nightmare. Most importantly the middle east has changed radically in the past 12 months for the first time since Oslo. The two Arab countries which had recognized Israel then, Jordan and Egypt have been relegated to a backseat, much to their frustration. The Abraham accords have led to a vibrant new partnership between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain with recognition from Sudan and Morocco. The Arab embargo of Israel is all but history with a petulant young prince in Saudi Arabia the final linchpin of Israeli acceptance into the Middle East, if he manages to succeed his octogenarian father, surviving his own political blunders and the byzantine politics of the Saudi Kingdom. The United States has finally moved its embassy to Jerusalem, the US president does not have to do that awkward political shuffle while he signs another extension of the move of the embassy for another six months.

Palestine is once again at an election, the first since that fateful election in 2006. While the Israelis have had their fill of elections probably for a generation, in the past two years and keep getting the same Prime Minister in Bibi Netanyahu with a more extreme right coalition every time, Palestine has seen governments come and go, the rhetoric continue, but no elections. Mohamed Abbas and his coterie continue to rule, sharing power with the Hamas in an uncomfortable co-living arrangement while Gaza suffers the brunt of the corruption of its leaders and the rest of the territories follow closely. Even the Palestinians are finding it a challenge to blame everything on the Israeli occupation, to them its painfully evident that a large part of their problems come from their own leaders’ inability to govern and grow and endemic corruption.

While the world continues to move on it seems that Israel and Palestine are both stuck in their own political deadlocks. The status-quo in Palestine is much a result of external interference as a result of the lack of initiative on the part of both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships. The new breakthrough with the Abraham accords have brought in new ideas and enthusiasm into a new Middle East, Israel risks that the Palestinian problem finally becomes Israel’s own exclusive cross to bear, with the Middle East and the rest of the Arab and Muslim world having recognized and adopted Israel to the fold.  Also with the Sunni monarchies allying themselves with Israel increases the risk of Palestinian factions being used by Iran and other enemies of Israel as proxies.

For years, the Egyptians and Jordanians have guarded their strategic positions jealously. Their recognition and  “cold” peace with Israel and close relationships with the Palestinian factions have made them power brokers between the Palestinians and the West. With the Abraham accords now the UAE, which for years financed and bankrolled Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian authority, has a renewed interest in a new peace deal. The oil dollars Abu Dhabi brings to the table makes a huge difference in its negotiating position, especially when it is backed by tacit Saudi approval. However with its funding and global goodwill, Abu Dhabi will also root for its candidate, Mohamed Dahlan, to replace Mohamed Abbas as President. While Dahlan, an old Oslo hand, may be a consensus candidate between the newly wedded Israeli and Emirati political spectrum, his credibility on the Palestinian street leave much to be desired. Any peace he potentially negotiates will not be accepted by the majority of Palestinians.

This election could make a real difference to the Palestinian problem, it could be the start of a quick solution and peace bringing in fresh blood and ideas. The various actors need to stop stage managing it. It is the attempt to stage manage the Palestinian people which has led it this issue to fester and go nowhere. All the stage managing is to avoid the Hamas coming to power eventually comes to a naught because despite the allergy Egypt and the Sunni monarchies have to the Muslim brotherhood, Hamas is a reality that needs to be reasoned with.

The only realistic candidate who will ensure that the Palestinian authority remains credible, Marwan Barghouti, is incarcerated in an Israeli jail. Barghouti is not a horse anyone would like to back, neither do the Israeli’s want him running the show in the PA nor does the UAE or Qatar for that matter. Surprisingly he is the only candidate that the Hamas will back in a Presidential election, because they know that opposing Barghouti will hand them electoral defeat. After the mess the Hamas has made out of Gaza, an electoral defeat will be a crushing blow to the group that in 2006 78% of the Palestinians expected would end corruption. The only way to bring Hamas to heel is by the electoral vote and to get there, the candidate needs to be someone who is a legend of the Palestinian cause, who has not compromised his integrity  and that candidate is Barghouti. The Abraham accords have brought about a new urgency between the Fatah and Hamas to reach a real agreement on their power-sharing. The insecurities on how both will fair in the parliamentary elections if Barghouti and Dahlan float lists, will create some kind of tacit personal understanding between them. Abbas wants to remain in power, however if Palestine and the region need to take advantage of the Abraham accords as well as the new occupant in the White House it is now and Abbas needs to be gracefully pensioned off.

Releasing Barghouti on parole, before the elections, allowing him to contest with his list, will put a spoke in every wheel in Ramallah and Gaza. Marwan is a young leader with broad grassroot support and is a brilliant political strategist. He understands the Palestinian youth, their hopes and dreams. He accepts the changed political scenario today and will appreciate a second chance after 18 years of incarceration.

With a catholic US President in a hurry to set right the errors made by his predecessors even in the holy land and the honeymoon between Israel and its new allies, Bibi actually has the possibility of his own Nobel Peace Prize. Releasing Barghouti and getting a partner who actually understands the price of freedom and is hungry to establish his legacy will help solve a deadlock which otherwise risks escalating with another Hamas win. No one expects Netanyahu to take bold steps to peace, his new coalition will rely on right wingers who do not see peace as a necessity. But it is time that Bibi used the enthusiasm and the support peace has in the middle east to take the first step and resolve the most complicated issue that plagues Israel and weighs socially, morally, economically on its existence and its security.

Israel is the legendary land of miracles and one can hope for a miracle for the sake of the Palestinians, the middle east and the rest of the world.