Mahmoud Abbas's resignation is a ruse to tighten grip

Mahmoud Abbas's resignation is a ruse to tighten grip
President Mahmoud Abbas says he is resigning from the Palestine Liberation Organization's top leadership body, a move seen as an attempt to tighten his grip on power.
7 min read
24 August, 2015
Could Abbas' resignation further marginalise his political opponents in the PLO? [Getty]
President Mahmoud Abbas resigned as head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization Executive Committee Saturday, along with eleven committee members.

"These resignations are needed to renew the work and legitimacy of the PLO Executive Committee," said Ghassan Shaka’ah, a commitee member who had stepped down.  

The Palestinian National Council, or Palestinian parliament, will reportedly hold an emergency meeting in the next few weeks to elect new members to the PLO Executive committee.

Ahmad Majdalani, one of the committee members who stepped down, told Maan overnight Saturday that different PLO institutions would witness major upcoming changes.

Many initially speculated that this move could pave the way for Abbas' resignation as President from the Palestinian Authority, espeically considering his recent set-backs; negotiations with Israel have reached an impasse, and the Palestinian Authority is losing more legitimacy than ever.  This has also fueled much speculation as to who would succeed him.

However, far from being a withdrawal from power, this latest move may suggest that the snap elections may take place to the benefit of Abbas, and serve to reassert his power.  

PLO: representative of the Palestinian people?

Whereas the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority purportedly represents Palestinians in the territories, The Palestinian Liberation Organization is the official representative of the Palestinian people, including the diaspora.  

The organization initially sought the liberation of Palestinian though armed struggle, however, over the years it was moderated until its power was replaced by the Palestinian Authority after the signing of the much-critiqued Oslo accords.

As the PLO has barely changed its political make-up since the 80s or held elections, Hamas and Islamic Jihad are excluded.

"Over the years there were many calls to reform and re-invent the institutions of the PLO, including the PNC, and also to invite other parties as Hamas to join", Alaa Tartir, program director of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, and LSE lecturer.

"However, such calls were never taken seriously by the current leaderships of Fatah or Hamas," he added.  

Following Abbas’ announcement, many fear that these elections may further worsen the representativeness of the PLO.  

As the elections in the PNC have been called quickly - to be held within three weeks, many members may be left out from the meeting and unable to vote.  

As the meeting will take place under extreme circumstances, the vote will be held only those who are able to attend.  Many are speculating that that the PNC vote will be dominated by those who are sympathetic to Abu Mazen.

In 2009, Anis Mustafa Al-Qasim, who drafted PLO bylaws, wrote of his concern about the upcoming elections - held as six members of the executive committee had died - saying that the National Council elections will be without ensuring the participation of
     Posters of Mahmoud Abbas and the former head of the PLO,
Yasser Arafat
 political parties covering the
spectrum, without steps being made to contribute to the revival of the organization that suffered a "clinical death" since the Oslo agreement.

He also discussed the legal applicability of being able to hold a session without all atendees, as this can only happen in a "state of emergency".

In this recent case, the "state of emergency" was created by the national committee themselves; most of those who resigned are thought to be affiliated with Abbas.

"In an attempt to use 'an almost dead body' for factional and personal reasons, Abbas decided to go ahead and call for the emergency PNC meeting," said Tartir.

Despite the catastrophes that have befallen Palestine during the last 20 years, and the signing of peace agreements that were never put forward to all Palestinian factions, the last such emergency meeting was held in 2009 (also to replace vacant positions in the council) and the last elections for the council were held in 1996.

A new (even less representative) PLO executive committee might also worsen the state of the PNC, as candidates for the latter are nominated by the committee.  Following this, the candidates must be elected by a majority of the PNC membership.  

Therefore, the PLO ensures its own continuing political uniformity. 

Fighting in Fatah

One possible reason for this political move could be struggles within Fatah between Mahmoud Abbas and former head of preventative security in Gaza and Fatah strongman, Mohammad Dahlan.  

In June, Abbas dismissed Yasser Abed Rabbo, a long-time critic, from secretary general - second most-senior job in the PLO.

On Thursday, Abed Rabbo’s NGO was finally shut down after a lengthy PA lead investigation into allegations of corruption.
     In an attempt to use 'an almost dead body' for factional and personal reasons, Abbas decided to go ahead and call for the emergency PNC meeting

Palestinian media reported that the motivations for the dismissal of Rabbo could be due to his connection with Mohammed Dahlan, with whom Rabbo was accused of meeting in the United Arab Emirates. 

The UAE, who back Dahlan, was also thought to be funding Rabbo’s NGO.  

However, Rabbo did not go quietly and questioned the legitimacy of such a move.  

"There was no voting in the Executive Committee, and I don’t want this to be a precedent", he told al-Monitor last month.

The interview also touched on Rabbo's suggestion to bring Hamas and Islamic Jihad under the PLO umbrella purportedly to solve the ongoing rift with Gaza.

There have also been reports of Dahlan arming supporters in the West Bank and refugee camps in Lebanon, as well as establishing contacts with certain Hamas figures in a bid to work together against Abbas.  

Considering this, the move could be dubbed a "counter-coup" against any Dahlan influences, or indeed any united attempt by Abbas’ opponents to counter him.

Rabbo said that he did not attend the meeting on Saturday night, as it was a "silly play".

"What we are witnessing today is primarily another illustration of the intra-Fatah crisis and the competition on who will rule after Abbas," said Tartir, adding that "the current leadership can 'solve' its problems only through marginalisation and exclusion."

Further marginalization 

The election results may also further marginalize members from parties other than Fatah; the committee also includes those from leftist factions such as Abdul Rahim Mallouh from the Popular Front of the Liberation of Palestinian and Tayseer Khaled from the Democratic front.

A Hamas spokesman said on Sunday that the move constituted a "coup" against the reconcilliation agreement, and an explicit call to to sustain divisions.

He added that calling for the National Council "is proof of the continuation of Fatah's dictatorship and the lack of any true intentions for reconciliation".

Musa Abu Marzouk, a senior Hamas official, said that the purported resignations were designed to pave the way for allowing Abbas to have exclusive control over the process of decision-making.

Rabah Mohanna, a leader in PFLP, said that "Abu Mazen wants to structure the Palestinian institutions according to his vision"

Grant Runley, an expert in Palestinian politics at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told al-Monitor last month that the lines between Fatah, the PA and the PLO are becoming "increasingly blurred". 

Saeb Erekat, widely perceived to be allied with Abbas has now been appointed as new secretary-general of the PLO, and Runely cited his succession as demonstration Abbas' consolidation of power.

On July 20, Abbas reshuffled the cabinet of a unity government, a move that Hamas and Islamic Jihad also described as a "coup against reconilliation".

The reports also come in the wake of reports of a Hamas long-term truce agreement with Israel.  The Palestinian Authority have continually complained about the talks, accusing Hamas of attempting to create a separate State in Gaza, and acting without a proper mandate. 

Analysts have noted the Palestinian Authority’s insecurity surrounding the increased international recognition of Hamas that the negotiations may suggest.  

As the PLO is the official representative of the Palestinian people in the UN, an assertion of power by Mahmoud Abbas, maybe an attempt to reassert his authority in the eyes of regional and international players.

However, the call for snap elections doesn’t entirely rule out speculation that Abbas may step down.

Last month, PLO officials dismissed rumors of the Abbas resignation from the PA, although Maan news reported that sources close to him did not deny the possibility, saying that "important, and maybe dangerous, decisions" are likely to be made in September, coinciding with the UN General Assembly's 70th session.

Yet, these developments may allow Abbas to retire with a show of renewed legitimacy, leaving his political allies in power behind him.

Meanwhile the recent news has lead to renewed calls for radical restructuring of the PLO and formation of new national council to ensure the representation of all forces, factions, national and Islamic parties, in line with the 2012 Cairo reconcilliation agreement.  

It also dredges up another question that has been plaguing Palestine since the establishment of Israel in 1948; who, or what institutions, represents the Palestinian people?

"The move [snap elections] is legally, politically, and nationally flawed, and is detrimental for the aspirations of the Palestinian people who are seeking unity not further fragmentation," said Tartir. 

"Such approach will not only marginalise and exclude the opposing voices to Abbas, but also marginalise and neglect the Palestinian people as a whole who should be the core element in any political system."