A Palestinian court on Thursday postponed municipal elections scheduled for Oct. 8 because Palestine's two largest political factions, Fatah and Hamas, couldn't agree on terms. The stalemate has been in place since 2006, the last time Palestinians voted, and even led to an internecine war the following year. The Palestinians, split between two separate governments ruling the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, have never recovered.
For Fatah, which rules the West Bank, things are going from bad to worse. The canceled elections come on the heels of a large protest held last weekend in Nablus. An estimated 12,000 Palestinians took to the streets after the West Bank government's security forces reportedly beat to death Ahmad Halawa, a commander from the al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigade, a splinter of Fatah. Halawa's funeral quickly gave way to angry protests against the provisional government of President Mahmoud Abbas.
All of this should serve as a warning to the 81-year-old Mr. Abbas. The Nablus protest, in particular, conjures images of the First Intifada, which broke out after a funeral in 1987, gave way to massive protests against Israel, and in the end lasted for a half decade.
There was a time when Mr. Abbas would have tried to leverage public discontent. Today, a protest of nearly any size is too dangerous to harness for the aging Mr. Abbas, who has every reason to fear that any angry public gathering could quickly turn against him.
The Palestinian Authority, like any other autocratic Arab regime, has never welcomed spontaneous protests. But now Palestinian opinion polls show a majority of voters want Mr. Abbas to resign. What's more, since 2006, the only forms of democratic expression under the Abbas government has been a local election or student-council vote; and in each of those, Mr. Abbas's Fatah party has lost. As Mr. Abbas enters the 12th year of his four-year presidency, even minor elections are increasingly seen as referendums on his rule.
Exacerbating this instability is the uncertainty of who will succeed Mr. Abbas. The leader himself refuses to name a successor, which has inspired a heated debate among the Palestinian elite but also sporadic factional violence across the West Bank. Armed gangs regularly skirmish with Palestinian Authority forces, while Mr. Abbas's rivals, such as the exiled Palestinian leader Mohammad Dahlan, continue to foment opposition.
Ramallah has been particularly nervous about antigovernment protests since the Arab Spring of 2010, which brought down the governments of Egypt and Tunisia, prompted unrest, and sparked a civil war in Syria. It has so far managed to avoid the Arab Spring and its aftershocks, but under the one-man rule of Mr. Abbas, the Palestinian Authority is becoming brittle. The West Bank could be one protest away from the next full-blown crisis.
Palestinian unrest would obviously have deleterious consequences for Israel, which has managed to insulate itself from the instability of the Arab Spring. But it could also pose security challenges for neighboring countries such as Jordan, which has a significant stake in the West Bank's stability. This, in turn, could complicate a range of other initiatives, including the fight against Islamic State.
More pressing than an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is the need to reconcile and stabilize Palestinian politics. The West Bank government needs to begin planning for a future without Mr. Abbas, and to ensure that it delivers for its people.
Mr. Schanzer is vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Mr. Rumley is a research fellow.