U.S., Israel Seek To Delay P.A. Elections

By Ori Nir

Published December 23, 2005, issue of December 23, 2005.
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WASHINGTON — Alarmed by growing indications that the Islamist organization Hamas might win the upcoming elections for the Palestinian Authority’s legislative council, the Bush administration and Israel are exploring possible ways to postpone the elections. The elections are currently scheduled for January 25.

According to diplomatic sources in Washington, administration officials have discussed possibilities for postponing the elections with Israeli government officials and with senior officials in the Palestinian Authority.

One issue that could delay the vote is Israel’s objection to polling in Jerusalem. Israeli officials told European Union diplomats this week that they will not allow elections in Jerusalem because of Hamas’s participation in the vote, Ha’aretz reported on Wednesday. Palestinians insist that elections cannot be held without polling in Jerusalem, the PLO’s chief of mission in Washington, Afif Safieh, told the Forward.

The administration is hoping that a delay could buy time to reverse the trend of Hamas’s surge in popularity by strengthening Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, sources said. Abbas, despite pressure to postpone the elections both from outside and from within his own Fatah movement, is reportedly reluctant to do so. Hamas has threatened to resume anti-Israeli attacks if Abbas unilaterally postpones the elections.

Even if such a delay is obtained, Israeli and American experts said, the chances of reversing the trend are slim at best. A delay is at least as likely to backfire and boost Hamas’s popularity, the experts said.

“This is a very big problem, which everyone is waking up too late to handle,” said reserve Brigadier General Michael Herzog, a veteran Israeli intelligence officer who is now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The Hamas surge reflects not just the extremist group’s popularity, several experts said, but a growing resentment of infighting and corruption within Abbas’s governing Fatah faction. “Fatah is messing up, and Hamas comes out as the cleanest and most organized,” said Samar Assad, executive director of the Palestine Center, a pro-Palestinian think tank in Washington. “People want to punish Fatah.”

This phenomenon played out in a manner that stunned even Hamas leaders in city council elections last week in several West Bank towns. Hamas drubbed Fatah and won an absolute majority in three key towns, including Nablus, a Fatah bastion.

The chaotic infighting within Fatah peaked several days before the municipal polls. One hour before the December 15 deadline for submitting slates for the January parliamentary elections, Fatah split into two factions, divided by generation. In an ironic twist, both slates were headed by Marwan Barghouti, the young charismatic leader serving five life-sentences in an Israeli prison for masterminding the murder of Israeli citizens.

The embarrassing turn of events was the culmination of a long power struggle between Fatah’s old guard, once led from abroad by Yasser Arafat, and younger leaders who grew up under Israeli occupation. The young guard, headed by Barghouti, won a decisive victory in the Fatah primaries held earlier this month in the West Bank. Its showing was not reflected in the slate prepared for voters, however.

Elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council are conducted under two parallel systems. Sixty-six of the 132 legislators are to be elected locally as individuals, regardless party affiliation. The other 66 are to be elected as members of party slates, chosen proportionally.

After Fatah’s young guard prevailed in the primaries, Abbas assigned the young leaders to local seats, saving the more secure seats on Fatah’s proportional slate for his old-guard colleagues. Barghouti and his friends threatened to split if they did not receive a larger portion of secure seats. When Abbas refused, Barghouti carried out his threat and submitted a separate list, causing a de-facto split.

The split will probably weaken Fatah further, strengthening Hamas, experts say. Hamas could be further strengthened by a backlash if international donors threaten to withhold financial support for the P.A., said the Palestine Center’s Assad.

In Washington last week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 397 to 17 to approve a resolution warning of funding consequences if Hamas joins the Palestinian government. Congress can block as much as $250 million budgeted for the Palestinians this fiscal year. The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, also warned this week that Europe will rethink its aid to the P.A., an expected $312 million for 2006, if Hamas wins the elections.

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