Abbas's rigged court system has already undermined Palestinian elections

Abbas's rigged court system has already undermined Palestinian elections
Comment: Abbas's manipulation of courts, laws, and institutions will only serve to keep Palestinians from their goal of genuine self-determination, writes Dalal Yassine.
6 min read
11 Feb, 2021
For the first time since 2005 there will be a contested presidential election [Getty]
Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas's January announcement that elections will be held later this year has raised significant questions about his intentions.

These are the first elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) in 15 years. It is also the first time since Abbas was elected in 2005 that there will be a contested election for the presidency.

While this may seem like a positive step for democracy and for good governance, Abbas has demonstrated little commitment to either since becoming president of the PA. Instead, he has worked to strengthened his extra-judicial powers and control over the Fatah movement, as demonstrated in his weakening of Palestinian institutions and control over the Palestinian judiciary.

In late December 2020, Abbas issued three decrees that represented unprecedented interference in the Palestinian court system. He forced the retirement of six judges before their mandatory retirement age, and promoted close allies to the High Judicial Court (HJC), including naming Issa Abu Sharar chief justice. The HJC is responsible for overseeing the independence of the Palestinian judiciary.

Abbas also established an administrative court that will oversee appeals related to the elections and he will appoint the judges. Although Palestinian human rights and legal organisations objected to these actions, their complaints have been ignored. 
Abbas was elected president to a four-year term after Arafat's death, but he has served for 15 years.

Four years ago, Abbas created the Palestinian Supreme Constitutional Court. Unlike the HJC, the Supreme Constitutional Court is responsible for ensuring that the Palestinian Basic Law is applied properly. But the judges are appointed to the court by Abbas and most are affiliated with Fatah.

In 2018, the court 
dissolved the PLC under pressure from Abbas due to the body's failure to convene since 2007. It also ordered new parliamentary elections within six months from the date of the dissolution. However, Palestinian Basic Law stipulates that the PLC's term ends only after the newly elected members are sworn in. In addition, Abbas waited more than two years after the court's decision to announce new elections, leading to the question: Why now? 

The short answer is the new US administration of Joe Biden. Indeed, Abbas owes his political life to the United States and Washington's intervention in Palestinian politics. The first elections for the PLC and the President of the PA were held in 1996, three years after the initial Oslo Accords were signed.

Although Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem voted with some interference from Israel, Palestinian refugees in neighbouring Arab states and those in the diaspora were not allowed to participate. The rationale was that the PLC represented Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.

Read more: Palestinian minister to visit 'presidential candidate' Marwan Barghouti at Israeli jail with 'election offer'

Palestinians around the world were told that they were represented by the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the Palestine Liberation Organization's (PLO) "government-in-exile." But this ignored that the PNC had not met on a consistent basis for over four decades and the seats 
were appointed and not elected.

Nevertheless, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat won the 1996 presidential election handily and his Fatah party dominated the PLC. But new presidential elections were not held until after Arafat's death eight years later. 

In the middle of the second intifada, the George W. Bush administration insisted on the creation of the post of prime minister. Washington also insisted that Abbas serve as the first PM. President Bush claimed that unlike Arafat, Abbas was not tainted by terrorism and was a reformer. Abbas was elected president to a four-year term after Arafat's death, but he has served for 15 years.

Even though Palestinian Basic Law places term limits on the presidency, this has been ignored by Abbas and the international community. With Biden in office, Abbas hopes to present himself as a democrat and reformer once again, in order to improve relations with Washington that soured during the Trump presidency.

Like Arafat, Abbas has concentrated more power in his hands. These powers were meant to be temporary, but the council has not met since 2007, and even then, the PLC was in limbo due to Hamas's surprise victory in the 2006 elections. In that contest, Hamas won 74 of the council's 132 seats, but the international community refused to recognise the results.

After 15 years, he has yet to demonstrate a single achievement for the Palestinian people

In addition, Israel has arrested more than a third of Hamas legislators after 2006, including the Speaker of the Legislative Council, Aziz Dweik. Seven legislators are still being held in Israeli prisons and four are administrative detainees.

Yet Israel's actions were not the reason for suspending the PLC. Instead, Abbas made this decision after Hamas seized control of Gaza by force in June 2007 and expelled Fatah members. After fourteen years of disagreement, it is unlikely that Abbas will now risk losing another PLC election to Hamas, especially considering his weak political standing and reliance on Israel and the United States.

Should the presidential election be held in late July as planned, Abbas faces several obstacles. After 15 years, he has yet to demonstrate a single achievement for the Palestinian people. Israel's occupation continues and the peace process has failed. The PA is ripe with corruption and is derided for security cooperation with Israel.

According to a recent 
opinion poll, two-thirds believe he should resign. In addition, 52 percent said they view him as the wrong choice to lead Fatah. But the only Fatah candidate more popular than Abbas is Marwan Barghouti, and it is unlikely Israel will release him from prison. Polls also show that Hamas's Ismail Haniyyeh has more support than Abbas, but it is unclear if Haniyyeh will run or if the US and Israel will attempt to overturn the election should he win, as they did in 2006.

To help ensure his victory, Abbas has maneuvered to prevent his bitter opponents, especially Mohammad Dahlan, from participating in future elections. In 2016, Dahlan was convicted in absentia of misappropriation of funds during the period he served as Abbas's national security adviser. Palestinian Election Law stipulates that candidates for office must have a non-conviction certificate and this would disqualify Dahlan. But at the age of 86 and in poor health, it is uncertain if Abbas can complete another term in office and who would replace him.

At the age of 86 and in poor health, it is uncertain if Abbas can complete another term in office and who would replace him

The final set of planned elections are for the PNC at the end of August. However, it is uncertain how they will be conducted and the history of the PNC does not inspire hope of an open election.

The last several PNC meetings have had questionable membership and legitimacy. Two years ago, Abbas personally selected Fatah members and claimed they were the PNC. Recent reports indicate that the number of PNC seats will be reduced from 765 to 350 and the members will likely be appointed, not elected.

Abbas's manipulation of the courts, laws, and Palestinian institutions appears designed to guarantee the desired results. It is also designed to please Israel and the United States, in the hope that they will save his failed presidency.

And so, even if elections are held, which seems increasingly unlikely, they will only serve to determine a leadership that will manage Israel's occupation rather than end it. And they will not achieve Palestinian unity or bring Palestinians closer to their goals of self-determination and returning home.

Dalal Yassine is a Non-Resident Fellow with the Jerusalem Fund/Palestine Center in Washington, D.C. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Dalal_yassine

The views in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.