Abbas is destroying democracy to ensure his successor supports Israel

Palestinians lift placards as they protest the meeting of the PLO's Central Committee in Ramallah (Abbas Momani - AFP)

Dalia Hatuqa

Foreign Policy  /  March 24, 2022

The status quo of military occupation is working well for those at the top of the PLO.

On Feb. 8, videos began to emerge on social media of an incident that had taken place earlier that day in Nablus, the second largest Palestinian city in the occupied West Bank. Shaky mobile phone footage showed a shared taxi and a gray van near a silver car, with bullet holes piercing the car’s windshield. The driver of the silver car was slumped over, his bloodied passenger sitting lifelessly next to him as a third man lay across the back seat. All three Palestinian men were dead, their car riddled with more than 80 bullets.

According to witnesses, their murder happened quickly and in broad daylight: Israeli special forces driving Palestinian-plated vehicles entered Nablus, cut off the silver car, and opened fire, killing the men inside immediately.

The assassinated men were later identified as members of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the armed offshoot of Fatah, the ruling party of the Palestinian Authority (PA), which administers small parts of the West Bank. The PA’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates called for an international probe into the killings, which the cabinet of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas described as a “heinous crime.”

For its part, Israel said the three people were militants who had previously been involved in recent attacks across the West Bank against Israeli settlers and soldiers and were on the way to carry out another when they were intercepted. Shortly after the men were killed, local Fatah officials in Nablus called for a “response in the field” to what Palestinians viewed as an extrajudicial assassination—including a day of mourning with commercial closures and marches. At the men’s funeral later that day, Fatah and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade’s yellow flags flapped in the wind, masked gunmen carrying rifles sprayed extended volleys into the air, relatives wailed, and calls for revenge echoed among the marchers.

The killings come at a time when the PA is under intense criticism from Palestinians for maintaining security coordination with Israel. This relationship has repeatedly facilitated the capture and killing of Palestinian fighters, wanted for attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers. This might explain why Abbas made a rare recording that was played by a senior Fatah official at the mourners’ gathering, in which he condemned the killings and vowed to not let the incident “go idly by.” “We will not allow them to reoccur, nor will we remain quiet,” Abbas said. However, the PA president did not appear at the funeral, nor did he issue a public statement or make a TV appearance denouncing the killings.

It’s difficult to imagine a scenario playing out wherein the PA would actually retaliate—after all, the authority itself only exists because its occupying rulers permit it to. Indeed, security coordination with Israel has been advantageous to the PA for some time. Since the mid-2000s, the PA has worked closely with Israel’s intelligence and military to crack down on Hamas and other common enemies throughout the West Bank. As part of security coordination, which Abbas once dubbed as “sacred,” Israeli forces often give their Palestinian counterparts a heads up before a raid.

The killings also come at a time when Palestinians have watched Abbas consolidate power in top Palestinian political institutions. Over the last month, Abbas has all but filled the senior positions in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)—which he also heads—with his most trusted advisors. The move raised eyebrows among many and reinforced fears that the octogenarian leader is paving the way for a trusted heir to take the reins following his demise.

The meeting where Abbas stacked the PLO took place in the Palestinian Central Council (PCC)—an intermediary body between the Palestinian National Council (the legislative body of the PLO) and the PLO Executive Committee, its highest decision-making body. The other Palestinian factions denounced the move as an unabashed power grab, reinforcing Abbas’s control of what is supposed to be a check on the PLO.

The gathering was itself a sham: The PCC, which last met in 2018, has historically had a monitoring role and was never designed as a forum to fill top positions in the Palestinian leadership from. It also went into a session despite a boycott by several Palestinian political factions, the largest among them being the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

“By refusing to convene the National Council, by holding the PCC meeting under Israeli occupation, and by setting an agenda that [Abbas] knew would result in either the boycott or docility of those attending, he ensured the meeting would be nothing more than a rubber-stamp of personal decisions he had already taken,” said Mouin Rabbani, a researcher and analyst of the contemporary Middle East and co-editor of the online magazine Jadaliyya.

To make matters even stranger, the council hadn’t met in four years. Renowned Palestinian leaders like Hanan Ashrawi, who had resigned from her position in the Executive Committee in December 2020, did not participate while others called for a boycott of the meeting. The PCC ended its two-day meeting on Feb. 7, the day before the Nablus shooting, by recommending the suspension of diplomatic recognition of Israel and security coordination with Israeli authorities—no doubt to assuage intense pressure from the general public resulting from other poor relations.

Many Palestinians do not believe that PCC recommendations will be carried out, or that solid action against Israel will be taken. The PCC had previously made the same recommendations in 2018, but the PLO Executive Committee did not implement them. This time around, the policy proposals come as the PA continues to hold meetings with high-level Israeli officials—something that hasn’t taken place in years.

The PA tried to sell the PCC meeting to the public as an opportunity to set a national agenda that would meet the current political impasse. Palestinians face a political stalemate and a deteriorating economy. They see their homes demolished by Israel as illegal Israeli settlements expand rapidly. Expulsions of Palestinians in places like Sheikh Jarrah, in occupied East Jerusalem, continue to be a flash point. But nothing from the PCC meeting addressed these issues.

“No Palestinian or even foreigner took [the PCC meeting] seriously,” said Nasser al-Qudwa, former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s nephew who has been a Palestinian National Council member since 1975 and heads the National Democratic Assembly. Together with Marwan Barghouti, another senior Fatah leader who has been in an Israeli prison since 2002, he formed the “Freedom” list to run in the May 2021 legislative elections, which Abbas ultimately shelved.

“Legally, politically, administratively—it was a sin on the part of those in control to insist on convening the meeting in spite of the public positions by many political organizations, in addition to Palestinian independent personalities or dignitaries who decided to boycott the meeting,” Al-Qudwa said.

In addition to what will likely amount to empty words about changing the PA’s relationship with Israel, Abbas used the PCC meeting to appoint his right-hand man, Hussein al-Sheikh, to the PLO Executive Committee. Sheikh, a senior Fatah official, has been slowly carving a name for himself as one of Abbas’s closest confidantes. He has also been communicating and holding meetings with Israeli counterparts, perhaps to pave the way for himself as a contender to succeed the 86-year-old Abbas.

Sheikh lacks popular support, but his appointment to the Executive Committee is widely believed to be a step toward taking on the role of senior negotiator with Israel—a post previously held by Saeb Erekat, who died from COVID-19 complications two years ago. Most recently, Sheikh met with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in his capacity as PA civil affairs coordinator. During his time as coordinator, he was also in charge of the office that provided Palestinians with coveted work permits to enter Israel. He has also been meeting with European and U.S. officials to discuss bilateral relations as well as means to engage with Israel to revive the moribund peace process, sidelining the Palestinian foreign minister, prime minister, and PLO and Fatah officials officially charged with international affairs.

“The primary reason for al-Sheikh’s elevation is that he is a loyal apparatchik, who does his master’s bidding and is thoroughly subservient to him and his every whim,” Rabbani said. “It is for Abbas also vitally important that al-Sheikh enjoys the support of Israel, the United States, and the Europeans.”

Abbas’s brazen political jockeying and power centralization is meant to erode fledgling Palestinian democratic institutions to cement the president’s office as an all-encompassing autocratic base of operations—making it even more difficult for Palestinian civil society to craft a representative political model in the future.

The Palestinian street is aware that the PCC meeting was a gathering to benefit a few that have little to no legitimacy with the masses. They believe the PLO no longer represents the broad spectrum of Palestinians inside the occupied territories and in the diaspora. In a 2018 poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 70 percent of respondents reported being dissatisfied with the PLO Executive Committee’s ability “to represent Palestinians at home and in the diaspora.”

“It feels like the death of the PLO, honestly,” said a Western diplomat in Ramallah, the West Bank, who asked to remain anonymous as they were not authorized to comment on the situation. “Putting in place those who don’t enjoy popular support, in the absence of any electoral process, seems like a pretty clear way of making the organization irrelevant over the long run. It’s really unfortunate. The leadership is not doing a service to its people.”

Meanwhile, tensions have been simmering. Price hikes and deep economic woes have sent Palestinians onto the streets in protest, prompting violent clashes with PA security forces in West Bank cities like Hebron. Also in that contested city, clan feuds have led to exchanges of fire without PA security forces being able to intervene. Overall, incidents like these reveal the wide rift between the Palestinian populace and leadership in Ramallah, which has not been able to keep matters under wraps.

As Abbas approaches the age of 90, the question of who will succeed him remains the most important issue in Palestinian politics. His consolidation of power is made with an eye on the future and will likely set the course for the PA’s post-Abbas era. That his loyalists have the approval of the Israeli and U.S. intelligence and security establishments has immense consequences for the Palestinian cause’s future.

While the approval of their U.S., European, and Israeli counterparts will help get the Palestinians to the negotiating table, that has never been the problem. Abbas and Erekat negotiated for years with successive Israeli administrations and came out with very little to show for their efforts. Indeed, for Abbas and the Palestinian political elite in his orbit, the existing political system is working well.

Like Arafat before him, Abbas has made it clear he will not name a single contender to succeed him; instead, he seems to be satisfied pitting several officials with an eye on the throne against one another. A free and fair election, which should be the sole determinant of a successor, now seems out of reach. On and off for around 15 years, Abbas called for national elections, the last in May, which he postponed indefinitely, fearing defeat by members of Hamas in the West Bank and even rivals within his own Fatah faction.

“Thinking that any conspiracy regarding succession, arranged between 10 to 15 guys sitting in a dark room full of smoke, should be enough to lead to someone presiding over the Palestinian people is total nonsense,” said Al-Qudwa, whose movement was running against the official Fatah list in the called-off elections.

Conspiracy may be too strong of a word to describe the political machinations playing out on the public stage; however, it is clear that Abbas’s moves are meant to safeguard the political status quo in Palestine. And—in a bitter reality for many Palestinians—part of that means securing a leader who is dedicated to protecting Israel.

Dalia Hatuqa is a multimedia journalist based in the United States and the West Bank