In a recent leaked recording, Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, was heard hurling a slew of insults at the world. “[obscenity] China, [obscenity] Russia, [obscenity] America, and [obscenity] all the Arabs.” Surprisingly, Israel was absent from the inclusive lineup. Abbas was also reported early April to have refused a call from US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, asking for the call to come instead from the Oval Office. Such incidents, coupled with the rising tension in Jerusalem and the indefinite delay of the Palestinian elections, expose a simmering frustration among the Palestinians and are alarming signs for a brewing storm.
Throughout the last year, a series of regional developments coupled with a lack of realistic expectations and traditional Palestinian intransigence caused deep frustration among Palestinian politicians and the general population. The Deal of the Century, the Abraham Accords and a deep financial crisis have created further embitterment and resentment. The ill-conceived announcement of the Palestinian elections last January was largely an attempt to bypass what seemed to be a domestic, regional and international Palestinian stalemate.
Yet, since the very beginning, heavy shadows of doubt already haunted the promise of Palestinian elections. Rightfully cynical Palestinians and external observers doubted that the Palestinian elections would actually take place, due to the unresolved conflict between Fatah and Hamas. Moreover, with the aggressive regional effort aiming for the complete political immobilization of the Muslim Brotherhood headed by the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, it was clear that major regional backers did not look favorably at elections that had a high likelihood of giving Hamas more power. This serious consideration was even voiced by the White House, which also expressed its understanding in advance if the PA decided not to hold elections. In other words, soon after Abbas announced the elections and his aim at uniting Palestinians ranks, many agreed that he was setting himself a trap.
Abbas’s decision to effectively cancel the elections while saving himself from a risky gamble only aggravates the situation as once again the PA sets expectations it has no way of meeting. Hamas already condemned the decision and declared it a “coup.” The only way the PA can avoid popular discontent and lack of support is, yet again, through channeling the built-up anger against Israel and claiming that Israel’s refusal to allow Arab Jerusalem residents to vote is the reason for the cancellation. “No elections without Jerusalem,” said Abbas. The fact that this entire episode is taking place during the holy month of Ramadan and its amplifying effect of religious and national sentiments only made the situation worse, which resulted in Palestinian anger and violence in Jerusalem.
Abbas made a series of mistakes. He decided to hold elections with impossible timing, he failed to create the necessary political atmosphere for such elections to actually happen, he then canceled the elections and is mistaken in not preparing a new generation of young Palestinian leadership to take control. In doing so, he is further risking whatever remained of the Palestinian Cause that is no longer a wider Arab priority. His way to challenge his anger against “China, Russia, America and all the Arabs,” shows an old and embittered leadership that holds no political agenda, no vision and no tools but the reliance on inflamed mass anger and protests. This risk is heightened by the devastating economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the outbreak last year, income from tourism, trade, and transformers plummeted to its lowest levels since the Second Intifada. The UN reported that COVID cost the Palestinians 7% to 35% of their GDP and unemployment rose about 30%. The economic effects are mostly felt in the large informal economy.
The growing popularity of the Palestinian cause and increase of anti-Israel bias in international human rights organizations and among the foreign policy establishment in Washington does not make things any better. The growing Western voices singing odes to Palestinian victimhood may only empower the most negative and destructive tendencies among the Palestinian society. Such irresponsible behavior from the supposed guardians of the international order is not expected to change any time soon; as a matter of fact, it is only likely to get worse.
Israel must not underestimate the rising volatility of the situation in the Palestinian Territories. A continued rise in anger under COVID conditions and continued political failure of the PA pose a serious security risk. Hamas leadership and their Iranian patrons are no doubt aware of the potential for violent actions. On the other hand, the UAE already expressed a clear interest in keeping the flames low during the latest episode of unrest in Jerusalem and Egypt is keen on keeping Muslim Brotherhood groups away from power. Israel cannot solve domestic political problems for the Palestinians—perhaps no one can—but it should note that the conditions are becoming increasingly fertile for a popular explosion of Palestinian anger.
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