In the Palestinian political arena, “national unity” is a critical catchphrase, evoking the illusion of collective strength against Israeli occupation. Of course, the reality—which Monty Python beautifully satirized—is that Palestinian politics have been historically fragmented, with the current Hamas-Fatah standoff the most dangerous, deeply divided incarnation yet.
But don’t tell that to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who apparently believes that “national unity” remains within reach. Speaking at an Arab League conference yesterday in Cairo, Abbas called for a new round of elections, declaring, “We are ready to immediately take this step to restore national cohesion.” According to his strategy, elections will provide the “democratic solution” for restoring political legitimacy in the Palestinian territories, and thus provide an opportunity for pursuing Israeli-Palestinian peace along the lines of the “Arab Initiative.”
Yet this strategy has been tried before—and has created immense peril for the Palestinians, as well as Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects. When Abbas won the January 2005 presidential elections with 62.5% of the vote, Hamas—which had boycotted the elections—was at the nadir of its power, with two of its top leaders recently assassinated and Israeli counterterrorism effectively curtailing its capabilities. But rather than using Hamas’ weakness as a pretext for disarmament, Abbas insisted on Hamas’ incorporation through their participation in the January 2006 parliamentary elections, arguing, “by engaging them to solve problems politically, there will be no need to resolve to military conflict.” Naturally, Abbas believed that Hamas would lose, and that the popular repudiation of Hamas’ extremism would force it to moderate. Of course, this didn’t quite pan out: Hamas won, and later used the popular affirmation of its extremism to seize control of Gaza.
Given these realities, it is hard to fathom why Abbas believes that this strategy will work now. Perhaps the pro-Fatah love-fest that greeted Abbas in Cairo—including the Arab League’s announcement that it would establish the Yasser Arafat Foundation in Ramallah—skewed Abbas’ perceptions. Indeed, Fatah will be working at a significant disadvantage if Palestinians return to the polls anytime soon—particularly in Gaza, where the PA-funded al-Ayyam has been banned for the past sixteen days after it published a cartoon mocking Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. Moreover, the prospect of early presidential elections seems particularly inviting of increasing Hamas’ power. After all, Abbas cannot point to any concrete successes in his three-plus years as PA president, while failures abound.
In turn, the likely consequence of early Palestinian elections would be the ultimate achievement of “national unity,” with Hamas likely reclaiming the parliament and winning the presidency. The Bush administration—which has long supported Abbas after judiciously boycotting Arafat—should ask Abbas whether this is the unity he has in mind, warning him that a PA unambiguously dominated by Hamas would jeopardize U.S. support for Palestinian statehood for years to come.