Until Abbas Steps Aside, Peace Will Remain Elusive

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal after meeting in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on February 7, 2007. With Palestinian municipal elections set for October 8, Elliott Abrams writes, those who wish to contest elections should be forced to choose between bullets and ballots. Suhaib Salem/reuters

This article was first published on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

Municipal elections are scheduled for October 8 in the West Bank and Gaza.

Hamas has reversed its previous position and is now participating, and it may win—not as Hamas, per se but by putting forth "fellow traveler" candidates known to be close to Hamas. The elections will likely be close.

The unpopularity of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the ruling Fatah Party due to corruption, incompetence and growing repression helps explain why West Bank voters might choose Hamas.

In other cases, voters may prefer Hamas's Islamism to Fatah's brand of secularism—or may prefer Hamas's manifest desire to kill Israelis over Fatah's and the PA's tamer stance.

And there is another factor: In many areas, Hamas is presenting a single candidate, while the non-Hamas vote is split among rival contenders. As The Times of Israel reported about Hebron:

These are the first elections in more than a decade in which voting is taking place at the same time in both Gaza and the West Bank, and Hamas and Fatah are going head-to-head....

As in the other cities in the West Bank, the trouble in Hebron is that because there are so many secular slates of candidates, there is a reasonable chance that the more moderate camp of Fatah and groups of its ilk will split the secular vote, paving the way for victory by Hamas candidates.

Déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra is said to have said. In the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, most of these same conditions existed, and the result was a narrow Hamas victory in the popular vote (44 to 41 percent) that produced a much larger Hamas majority in the parliament (74 to 45).

There is one difference from 2006 that is very much worth mentioning. The myth exists that the United States forced the Palestinians to hold those elections over the objections of the PA leadership. That's false (as I explained at length in my book about Bush administration policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Tested by Zion).

In fact, the Palestinians had held a successful presidential election in January 2005 whose purpose was to establish the legitimacy of Mahmoud Abbas as Yasser Arafat's successor. They wanted parliamentary elections, again to strengthen Fatah's legitimacy, and were confident they would win. We did not force them to hold the 2006 elections.

Today, at least that argument is over: No one is claiming that the elections of 2016 are being demanded by the United States and imposed by the Obama administration on a reluctant PA leadership.

But the similarities to 2006 are very striking, including the most fundamental one: allowing a militant group, Hamas, to contest the election without the slightest nod to stopping its attacks or giving up its rule of Gaza.

This is wrong for many reasons, but here are the top two. First, Hamas may win power in a number of West Bank cities, but Fatah will not be able to contest elections as freely in Gaza. In this sense, the dice are loaded. Or, to mix metaphors. Hamas can say heads I win in the West Bank and tails you lose in Gaza.

Second, those who wish to contest elections should be forced to choose between bullets and ballots. This is what happened in the Northern Ireland agreements, where the IRA had to end its guerrilla war and could then run for office.

It is a mistake with global implications to allow extremist groups to have it all: to run for office like peaceful parties but continue their violent activities. That was the mistake we made in 2006, and it is being repeated.

There is an argument for holding these elections, of course, and a powerful one. There have been no parliamentary or presidential elections in the West Bank and Gaza since 2006, and these elections provide at least a taste of democracy. They will tell us a good deal about Palestinian public opinion. And perhaps in some cases they will produce better (meaning more responsive and competent) municipal governments.

But perhaps their clearest achievement will be to show that nothing has changed since 2006 and indeed for decades more: Fatah and Hamas are implacably at odds, Palestinians are split, the Palestinian "national" government and national movement are hopelessly divided, Hamas's brand of rejectionism and violent extremism remains widely popular, and a negotiated peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is nowhere in sight.

Well, one thing has changed since 2006: Abbas is 10 years older, and his time in office is closer to its end. Until succession issues are dealt with, the notion of serious Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is completely unrealistic—whatever happens at the United Nations, whatever the French suggest or the Russians try, and whatever the Obama administration or its successor believes.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.