Duplicity is a diplomatic game, but not one to play with Palestinian elections

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It has often been said, somewhat in jest, that diplomats are people who are sent abroad to lie for their country. But they can also lie at home, or be disingenuous if a more diplomatic description is preferred. The problem with such a tactic is that it not only damages American credibility abroad and at home, it also can undermine our professed values and ability to achieve our goals. 

A good example of this diplomatic double-talk occurred at the State Department’s April 29 press briefing. Journalists repeatedly asked about the U.S. government’s reaction to the announcement that Palestinian legislative elections, which were to be held this month, had been postponed indefinitely. The official response, which the State Department press spokesperson was forced to repeat five times, was: “The exercise of democratic elections is a matter for the Palestinian people and for the Palestinian leadership to determine.” 

That answer is untruthful on two counts: The Palestinian people were not consulted, and those who made the decision cannot be considered the only Palestinian leaders. Palestinians have not had an election for 15 years. That they want them is demonstrated by the fact that 93 percent of eligible Palestinians are registered to vote. (In 2016, only 70 percent of Americans cared enough about their democracy to register.) Thirty-six groups submitted lists of candidates for the Palestinian legislative elections. The decision to delay the election was announced by President Mahmoud Abbas the day before campaigning by these groups would have begun officially. 

Abbas said he had been informed by the United States, European Union and some Arab countries that Israel would not allow the elections to take place in Jerusalem because “Israel can’t make a decision because there is no government in Israel.” Following Israel’s fourth election in two years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been unable to cobble together a coalition of parties to form a government.   

Prior to the announcement by Abbas, Alon Bar, a political adviser to the Israeli foreign minister, said that “Israel will not prevent the elections in the Palestinian Authority from happening. The Palestinian elections are an internal Palestinian matter, and Israel will not intervene.” In other words, duplicity is a diplomatic game that many can play, and it is no stranger in the Middle East. 

The real reason Abbas refuses to hold elections is that Fatah, his political party, is in disarray. It has splintered into several factions and has a history of corruption and incompetence. The decision by Abbas must have been a relief to Netanyahu. The latter cannot afford to lose even the most extreme, far-right parties as he searches for a way to form a parliamentary majority. Allowing East Jerusalemites to vote would hint that someday Netanyahu just might agree to the creation of a Palestinian state that might have a small part of Jerusalem as its capital. That would lose him the support of the ultra-nationalists who have won seats in the Knesset and believe that Israel should annex the entire West Bank and that Palestinians who don’t accept being second-class citizens should emigrate.   

The U.S. response to the game Abbas is playing was to make statements that are as pious as they are untrue. The Palestinian people had no say in the decision and the small part of the ruling elite that Abbas represents cares mainly about its grip on power. 

Sometimes taking an obviously disingenuous position is seen as necessary to protect American interests. In this case, there is the fear that Hamas, which the U.S. still considers a terrorist organization, could take control of the Legislative Council. Having had control of Gaza for years, it has grown corrupt and complacent, so that by no means is assured. 

Denying Palestinians the right to choose their leaders will not help move that part of the Middle East toward greater stability. Renewing the economic aid to Palestinians that former President Trump cut off also will not buy peace. Palestinians are desperately in need of new leadership and the change that elections can bring. American interests would be better served by being true to American values and really supporting democracy. 

Dennis Jett is a professor in the School of International Affairs at Penn State University and a former ambassador to Peru and Mozambique. Follow him on Twitter @DennisCJett.

Tags Benjamin Netanyahu Donald Trump Israeli–Palestinian peace process Mahmoud Abbas Palestine–United States relations Palestinian elections Palestinian nationalism

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