Abbas pledges reform as embattled PLO holds rare meeting

PA President Mahmoud Abbas (Reuters)

The National  /  February 7, 2022

Calls are growing for elections as Palestinians have not been to the ballot box for 16 years.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas pledged commitment to reform on Sunday as the embattled Palestine Liberation Organization, of which he is chairman, held a rare meeting to name new key leaders.

The PLO, given the task since its creation in 1964 of steering the struggle against Israel for Palestinian statehood, has faced growing questions over its relevance in recent years and criticism for failing to hold regular elections to fill leadership roles.

“We pay great attention to the reform process, which is a continuous process, and we are ready to do what is necessary to make it successful,” Mr Abbas said.

Sunday’s meeting of the PLO’s 124-member Central Committee — the first in four years — was expected to fill several executive committee vacancies, including that held by former chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, who died in 2020 after contracting the coronavirus.

Highlighting Palestinian frustration with the PLO and Mr Abbas, Sunday’s meeting was boycotted by several leftist factions, and protests demanding his resignation were held in the occupied West Bank and in Gaza, which is ruled by Hamas militants.

Ghassan Khatib, a political scientist at Birzeit University in the West Bank, said that “the very significant questions about the legitimacy” of the PLO have been fueled by “the lack of elections”.

Mr Abbas has been accused of maintaining a tight grip over the PLO, an umbrella group representing various Palestinian factions, and the Palestinian Authority, which has civilian control over parts of the West Bank.

Mr Khatib said the fact that Sunday’s decisions would be made only by Mr Abbas’s inner circle “will further deepen the debate and the question over legitimacy”.

Palestinians have not been to the ballot box for 16 years, and their aspirations for a two-state solution are strongly rejected by Israel’s right-wing nationalist Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

Violence flares almost daily in the West Bank, while Mr Abbas’s support has dived to historic lows in opinion polls. He was accused of autocracy in rare street protests last year.

Widely tipped to take over from Erekat is Hussein al-Sheikh, the Palestinian Civil Affairs Minister who has the job of dealing with Israel.

Analysts have speculated that Mr Al-Sheikh could be Mr Abbas’s preferred choice as a presidential successor, with the vote offering a chance to raise his profile.

The meeting was also due to fill the executive committee slot left by Hanan Ashrawi, who resigned in 2020 saying Palestinian politics needed “renewal and reinvigoration”.

Hamas is not part of the PLO, which has been a source of friction with Mr Abbas’s secular Fatah movement that has in part hindered unified Palestinian governance.

At the Gaza protest against the Ramallah meeting, Hamas official Mashir al-Masry said the PLO’s central committee had “no legitimacy” and was out of touch with “the will of the Palestinian people”.

He reaffirmed Hamas’s demand for Mr Abbas to call elections across the Palestinian territories.

Mr Abbas has said he scrapped the elections that had been scheduled for last year because Israel refused to allow voting in annexed East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want to claim as their future capital.

But analysts said he probably baulked when polls showed Fatah would be soundly beaten by Hamas.

Mr Abbas again on Sunday said he was committed to elections “as soon as we are able to hold them in Jerusalem“.

Israel bans Palestinian political activity in the city, which it regards as its “undivided capital”.