Mahmoud Abbas and the PLO

Palestine′s office-weary regent

Dissatisfaction with Mahmoud Abbas – including within his own party – is growing. His political programme has remained for the most part unsuccessful. Many politicians have therefore begun to consider the possible aftermath of the president′s political departure. An analysis by Ingrid Ross

A political disaster almost took place in Ramallah last week: Fatah could have staged a coup using the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) - the only internationally recognised representatives of the Palestinians - to install one of their own as a successor to President Abbas. Such a "cloak and dagger" move would have had a hugely negative impact on the reputation of the PLO, deepening the rift between Hamas and Fatah.

Several members of the PLO executive committee resigned from their posts in August to clear the way for new elections to the PLO′s highest decision-making panel by the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the PLO′s legislative body.

The PLO′s significance should not be underestimated. Even if the organisation has lost its clout since the emergence of the Palestinian Authority (PA) with the Oslo Accords in the 1990s, it is still the only internationally recognised representation of all Palestinians – regardless of whether they live in the Palestinian territories or abroad.

The estimated number of Palestinians worldwide is thought to be 11-12 million (about one third live in the Palestinian territories). While the PA takes care of the administration of Palestinian public affairs, the PLO is the authority that decides on political strategies to further the attainment of national self-determination – or in short: on war and peace.

While the PA′s Palestinian parliament has not met for more than eight years, and therefore does not serve as a forum for non-partisan exchange, the PLO′s executive committee is the only organ in which (almost) all Palestinian movements are represented and in which controversial discussions regularly take place.

The PLO′s loss of legitimacy

A Palestinian boy waves the national flag in front of the UN office in Ramallah (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Limited success: "The campaign for UN membership won recognition of the State of Palestine, but not UN membership. The hoped-for domino effect of unconditional bilateral state recognition by key European nations has not yet occurred", writes Ross

As time has gone by, the PLO′s representative credentials have been increasingly called into question: it was originally intended to serve as a platform for all Palestinian political movements. The inclusion of newly-formed forces – alongside Hamas, this meant the Islamic Jihad movement and the Palestinian National Initiative (Al-Mubadara) – may have been decided as part of the reconciliation agreement between the political factions – most recently the 2014 "Beach Camp", but such reform (with the exception of the inclusion of Al-Mubadara in March 2015) has not however taken place.

Another of the organisation′s shortcomings is the lack of legitimisation through elections. The representation of member parties is much more the outcome of a succession of historic, informal political negotiation processes. Elections to the PNC have not taken place at any point during the organisation′s 50-year history.

If one takes current opinion polls on the support for various political movements among Palestinians within the 1967 borders as a basis, it quickly becomes clear that there is a huge gulf between the movements they favour in reality, and the actual balance of power. Seventy-four percent of all Palestinians are convinced that democratic elections to the PNC would be of great significance.

A frustrated president

Evidently the background of the hastily convened meeting of the PNC in Ramallah in September was President Abbas′ apparent weariness in office. The question of who will succeed the 80-year-old leader remains open. His political programme′s lack of success – the internationalisation strategy and negotiations with Israel – is likely adding to his personal frustration.

The campaign for UN membership won recognition of the State of Palestine, but not UN membership. The hoped-for domino effect of unconditional bilateral state recognition by key European nations has not yet occurred. Accession to the International Criminal Court is registered as a success, but this did not immediately result in the launch of criminal proceedings against Israel.

Building an Jewish settlement in Maale Adumim (photo: dpa/picture-alliance)
West Jordan and the building of Jewish settlements continues apace: tangible political successes have thus far failed to materialise. Instead, dispossession and expulsion continue in the West Bank, the deprivation of rights and the occupation goes on and Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip are denied any kind of sustainable development

Tangible successes have thus far failed to materialise. Instead, dispossession and expulsion continue in the West Bank, the deprivation of rights and the occupation goes on and Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip are denied any kind of sustainable development.

"The Day After" – a Palestinian Hamas president?

Dissatisfaction with the president – including within the ranks of his own party – is growing. The Chairman of the PLO holds both the office of the President of the Palestinian Authority (since 2013 renamed the office of the "President of the State of Palestine") and the chairmanship of Fatah. Many politicians are therefore considering what might happen on the day after – following a possible sudden withdrawal by the president.

Fatah politicians want to ensure that the most important post in the political structure remains in their hands. The Palestinian constitution does not allow for the post of a PA vice president. If the president should suddenly depart, the office would be taken over by the speaker of parliament. Since 2006, this office has been occupied by Aziz Dweik, a politician with the Hamas movement. It is unlikely that he would be recognised by Fatah – or the international community. The future of the PA is also uncertain, against the backdrop of the division between Hamas and Fatah, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, not to mention a chronic financial crisis.

Should the PLO chairmanship post suddenly become vacant, the Secretary General of the PLO Executive Committee could take over the job. This means that until July of this year, the politically independent Yasser Abed Rabbo would have become the successor to Abbas. But he was then dismissed by President Abbas.

The gathering of the National Council was therefore intended to provide legitimisation for the man earmarked for the post - Saeb Erekat, a close associate of Mahmoud Abbas. This was how leading Fatah politicians intended to ensure that the highest office in the Palestinian political system remained in the hands of Fatah. The thinking behind this was that the PLO is superior to the PA and in case of any doubt, will outlast the latter. Finally, the PLO is the contracting party on an international level and called the PA into being with the Oslo Accords.

Saeb Erekat (photo: dpa/picture-alliance)
Heir 'presumptive': "The impression arose that, by choosing to host the meeting in Ramallah and summoning the PNC at such short notice, Abbas had been aiming to keep critical voices from Gaza and abroad at bay, thereby securing rapid legitimisation for Saeb Erekat as the Executive Committee′s new secretary-general."

But the plans were met with harsh criticism, from Hamas just as much as from within the ranks of Fatah and other PLO member movements such as the PFLP (Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine), which called into question whether a PNC gathering in Ramallah could muster the necessary quorum of 2/3 of its 700 or so members. The impression arose that, by choosing to host the meeting in Ramallah and summoning the PNC at such short notice, Abbas had been aiming to keep critical voices from Gaza and abroad at bay, thereby securing rapid legitimisation for Saeb Erekat as the Executive Committee′s new secretary-general.

Disaster averted – or simply postponed?

Last week, however, it was the voices of those who advocate comprehensive reform of the PLO, taking all Palestinian forces into account, which won the upper hand. Doubtless, a meeting of the PLO would offer the possibility of overcoming the inter-Palestinian division and agreeing on a common strategy.

Following several consultation meetings, the PNC session has now been postponed for three months. It remains doubtful, however, whether this will allow sufficient time to prepare for the Herculean task of reforming the organisation and to win agreement from Hamas for new elections to the Executive Committee. If the PNC should manage to convene in the most representative form possible, this meeting would also have to take place outside the Palestinian territories or using video conferencing technology. After all, Israel still decides who is allowed to cross the border and travel to Ramallah. As the legitimisation deficit of all institutions within the political system continues to grow and the ageing of the political elite continues apace, the future of the Palestinian leadership also hangs in the balance.

Ingrid Ross

© Qantara.de 2015

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Ingrid Ross is director of the regional office of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in East Jerusalem.

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