Abu Mazen calling for elections (screen capture: al-Arabiya)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called in an interview with al-Arabiya TV for Palestinian elections to be held under international and Arab supervision. He further called for the results of the election to be honored, and promised to surrender power in the event that Hamas should win. This could represent a breakthrough in the stalled and deteriorating intra-Palestinian political scene, and an opportunity to create a formula for all sides to agree on a way to overcome their growing differences. As my colleague Brian Katulis recently noted in a guest post here, Prime Minister Salam al-Fayyad had been one of the only major Palestinian politicians supporting holding the elections. If Abu Mazen is now on board, then the ball will go into the courts of both Hamas and Fatah.
Let's hope so, because intra-Palestinian politics have been getting worse recently. Tension between Hamas and the PA is particularly high over a series of mutual accusations of alleged armed groups operating in their respective territories. Palestinian Authority security forces have been rounding up alleged Hamas operatives in the West Bank, seizing cash and making arrests. Hamas officials in Gaza, including Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, have countered with allegations that the PA has been setting up a network of saboteurs to cause trouble in Gaza (reminiscent of the unfortunate Dahlan episodes of a few years ago).
Meanwhile, the talks in Cairo seem endlessly stalled over the deep, fundamental disagreements between Hamas, Fatah, and the PA (and don't assume that Fatah and the PA represent the same interests these days). The last round of talks broke up after less than a day, with yet another round scheduled for the end of this month. But with insults and verbal attacks steadily escalating, along with the reciprocal arrests and accusations of subversion, the atmosphere is hardly improving. It's leading commentators to almost literally throw up their hands -- the leading Saudi journalist Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed today suggests boycotting the selfish, bickering Palestinian leadership on both sides, while the Jordanian liberal Jamil al-Nimri suggests simply that the Arabs impose a reconciliation deal on the dueling Palestinian factions since they can't achieve one themselves.
Abu Mazen's interview may signal the possibility of achieving a minimal agreement on a caretaker government charged with preparing for new elections -- an idea which has been around for a while. That may be the only way to move forward, at this point, since the two sides simply disagree so fundamentally about the real balance of power on the ground and on core political issues. The elections are supposed to be held in January 2010, at which point Abbas loses his tenuous legal mandate (the Palestinians are already operating without a functional Parliament, and Salam al-Fayyad's government is technically illegitimate). Such a government could then facilitate reconstruction aid into Gaza regardless of whether or not it meets the standards of the U.S. Congress (there's a lot of other money out there which has been pledged, after all, especially if the U.S. doesn't actively try and block its distribution).
But this in turn would only work in the context of clear progress towards a two-state solution. Suggestions to postpone Israeli-Palestinian talks until after the Palestinian elections should be absolutely rejected. Without clear evidence of progress, Hamas would likely be in a position to score much greater gains... which would frankly be a useful point of leverage in the negotiations, just as impending elections strengthened the hand of Iraqi negotiators in dealing with the U.S. during the SOFA talks.
Holding such elections wouldn't be easy, as this new paper from IFES makes clear. And it would carry serious risks for all sides, including of course the possibility that Hamas would win again. But without them, I fear we are drifting towards a bloody civil war and endless political stalemate. Such elections may be the only way to translate recent improvements in security and internal movement into greater political legitimacy and more stable political institutions -- and to get past the destructive cycle of recrimination, self-interest, and hostility in which the current batch of Palestinian leaders are trapped.