Abbas's Troublesome Election Call

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Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair was one of the last people Mahmoud Abbas needed to show up in Ramallah on Monday to heap praise on the Palestinian president's call for early elections. The British leader's hearty endorsement of an election to get rid of the Hamas-led government democratically elected just 11 months ago to govern until 2010 was an unfortunate reminder that the Palestinian political showdown has been brought about by outside pressure. Indeed, Abbas has long made clear that his efforts to create a new Palestinian government are the result of the financial siege imposed on the Palestinian Authority by Israel and Western governments led by the U.S. and Britain, who insist that it won't be lifted as long as Hamas governs and maintains its refusal to recognize Israel and renounce violence. Abbas's declaration Saturday that he plans to dissolve the government and call new elections unless Hamas submits to his terms for a unity government has sharply escalated the shooting war in Gaza between gunmen from his own Fatah movement and those of Hamas. Blair's arrival to support the election call will simply underscore the sense that the Palestinian political landscape is being traumatically reengineered in response to Western pressure. And that perception is unlikely to help Abbas either on the streets or at the ballot box.

Abbas's call is, of course, a brinkmanship tactic to force Hamas to relent and accept terms for a unity government that would satisfy Washington's preconditions for calling off its financial siege. But if Hamas refuses, Abbas will have left himself no choice but to carry out his threat. Much of the pressure to dissolve the government has come from Fatah activists, many of whom are in government employ and were directly and painfully affected by the chokehold on funds imposed after Hamas's election victory in January. What's more, many Fatah leaders were never happy about ceding the power of patronage that followed their electoral defeat and have long supported toppling the Hamas government — a government that is also an obstacle to Abbas's own efforts to negotiate a peace agreement with Israel.

The outcome of the Fatah-Hamas showdown may be quite different from that desired by the U.S. and Abbas, however. For one thing, it's far from certain that Abbas can prevail at the polls. Palestinian polling in recent weeks has found Fatah narrowly ahead of Hamas in legislative elections, but puts Abbas and Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh neck-and-neck in a presidential race, with 9% undecided. Particularly if Hamas ran against Israel and the U.S. in the election campaign, Abbas and Fatah could well lose again.

Nor is there any guarantee an election would even be held. Hamas has furiously rejected any move to dissolve its government only 11 months after it was democratically elected, and it will appeal to the unmistakable reality that the West is repudiating the choice of Palestinian voters. Though in polling last September, 54% of Palestinians said they were dissatisfied with Hamas's performance in government, two-thirds of respondents nonetheless backed its refusal to bow to the demand that it recognize Israel. It seems unlikely that the voters who put Hamas in power in January will vote to oust the party now, particularly when that choice is so clearly framed — by the statements both of Hamas and of U.S. officials — as a foreign demand that the Palestinians change their minds. Hamas on Monday vowed to boycott the proposed election, a step that would undermine the legitimacy of any resulting government.

Abbas has set no date for an election, and the Palestinian Electoral Commission has reportedly told him that it would need up to six months to make logistical arrangement for one. That long lead time, and the fierce fighting raging on the streets of Gaza between militants of both sides, suggests that the Palestinians are more likely to find themselves in a civil war than in a new election campaign. Grassroots leaders on both sides are using ever more murderous language to describe the leaders of their rivals, and gunmen on both sides are targeting political leaders. Although the U.S. is rushing to beef up the Fatah security forces — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday she would ask Congress for tens of millions of dollars to strengthen forces answerable to Abbas — Hamas may have an advantage on the streets, where its organizational structure has survived the buffeting of the last year better than Fatah's has.

Whether the Palestinians' political contest is to be settled with ballots or with bullets, Hamas remains a fact of life because it represents a proportion of Palestinian society too large to be wished, legislated or blown away. And yet it is a fact unacceptable to Israel and the Western powers. Therein lies the root of the increasingly brutal stalemate, which is unlikely to be broken by Abbas's election call.