How Long Can Mahmoud Abbas Hold On?
With Palestinian politics riven by infighting, President Mahmoud Abbas only has one last hope for saving his credibility.
RAMALLAH, West Bank — It was an unusual setting for a remarkable acknowledgment. At an Orthodox Christmas celebration in Bethlehem on Jan. 6, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said that the most recent Palestinian initiative at the U.N. Security Council came out of despair: “We have given up on all other options to reach a solution,” he told politicians, clergy, and media gathered at the Church of the Nativity.
Just a week earlier, the Palestinians had approached the 15-member council, via Jordan, to set a timetable for Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories and the establishment of an independent state.
The proposal failed by one vote. The next day, Abbas held an emergency meeting with party leaders and other members of the PLO Executive Committee in which he signed an application to accede to the Rome Statute, which paves the way for the Palestinians to join the International Criminal Court (ICC), the legal body based in The Hague that prosecutes war crimes cases. For the past several years, Palestinian officials have used the threat of joining the ICC and suing Israel for war crimes as a trump card, only to be played as a last resort. On New Year’s Eve, the papers were finally signed, allowing accession to the court on April 1, 2015.
This course of action was taken after exhausting all options, Palestinian officials said. Fruitless U.S.-led negotiations came to a halt in April 2014, with Washington unwilling to invest more time and diplomatic effort until after Israeli elections in March 2015. As Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations, told the Security Council on Dec. 30, 2014, “The Palestinian people and the world can no longer wait.”
But it might be Palestinian politicians, not the Palestinian people, who can no longer wait. A combination of factors drove Abbas to the ICC: A recent poll put his approval rating in Gaza and the West Bank at 35 percent, down from 50 percent before last summer’s Gaza war. Reconstruction in the Gaza Strip has stalled amid allegations of corruption and mismanagement. He is constrained by the international community, which funds his government under the auspices of security coordination with Israel. Other Palestinian political parties, in addition to some within his party Fatah’s own ranks, are losing faith in him. Israel continues to be an intransigent partner, offering Abbas little in exchange for long negotiations. His government’s recent decision to use what may be its last leverage reveals Abbas’s increasingly bleak set of options.
“[The ICC move] is about assuring his survival.… He knows nobody is buying into the old game of ‘back to negotiations’ and making threats to quit,” said Ramzy Baroud, a U.K.-based Palestinian author and political columnist. “He needed something so impressive, a grandstanding type of gesture that would assure supporters that there is something different and new, and that should win him a bit of time.”
The Israeli government’s latest punishment for Ramallah’s ICC move was to freeze the transfer of tax revenue it collects on the Palestinians’ behalf. That could potentially affect the paychecks of approximately 160,000 Palestinian Authority (PA) employees. With more than 60 percent of the West Bank controlled entirely by Israel, Palestinians are unable to rely on sectors like agriculture or manufacturing, leaving many depending on the aid-supported PA for their incomes.
To make matters worse, Abbas has been dogged by rumors of ill health and has been confronted by political foes both within his own party and outside. “Abbas knows that new challengers are springing up. After the Gaza war, Hamas’s numbers shot up in the polls; Mohammad Dahlan is trying to stage a comeback; and others are trying to offer themselves as alternatives to Abbas,” Baroud said. Dahlan, 53, once a close Abbas confidant, was ejected in 2011 from Fatah, the West Bank’s ruling party, which is headed by the Palestinian president. This expulsion came following Hamas’s takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007, which wrested control of the territory from Dahlan’s forces. Dahlan is also facing corruption charges.
Dahlan now lives in the United Arab Emirates, but despite having made his home outside Palestine for almost four years, he still casts a long shadow in the Palestinian political arena. On Jan. 12, he revealed on his Facebook page that he had secured the opening of the Rafah border crossing through talks with Egyptian authorities. If this Gaza-Egypt border crossing actually opens after months of closure, this breakthrough would suggest that Dahlan can deliver where Abbas has failed.
Although Dahlan has been touted as a possible successor to Abbas, he is not the only name in the hat. One name is former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, a U.S.-trained economist and former International Monetary Fund staffer who is known for his mammoth efforts to reform the PA, especially its economic and security sectors. Fayyad is a darling of the international community, and important Western donors and diplomats would gladly receive him as a new Palestinian leader. In 2012 Fayyad told the Washington Post that he might try his hand at the presidency one day.
Abbas seems to have taken notice of the potential challenger. In August 2014, Palestinian security forces questioned two employees working for a Ramallah-based nonprofit organization founded by Fayyad. The investigation took place at an odd time: during the height of the Israeli war in Gaza. The employees were also asked whether the organization, called Future for Palestine, had any political ambitions.
These incidents come at a time when some Palestinians accuse the president of cracking down on dissent. In a recent poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR), only 30 percent of Palestinians said those in the West Bank are free to criticize the PA. The PA has done little to dispel such fears. On Nov. 6, 2014, the West Bank’s largest labor union, representing some 40,000 civil servants, was outlawed after a series of strikes calling for better wages. Two high-ranking union officials were jailed for a week. The PA cabinet, which banned the union, said that the union was never officially registered and that the continuous strikes paralyzed government institutions. But the crackdown was received badly by the public: 65 percent of respondents in the same poll called it “unacceptable or illegal.”
“This affects the popularity of the PA,” said Khalil Shikaki, PCPSR’s director, who conducted the poll. “It affects the level of satisfaction with Abbas. It affects the support for Fatah, which he heads.”
Defenders of the head of the union, Bassam Zakarneh, soon found themselves in murky waters. On Dec. 2, Palestinian police forces surrounded the parliament, which has not been in session for almost a decade, to prevent its dismissed secretary-general, Ibrahim Khreisheh, from entering the premises. Critics said Abbas relieved Khreisheh of his post in November for publicly voicing support for Zakarneh.
“There is a case of exclusivity in decision-making at the top echelons,” said Najat Abu Baker, a member of parliament from Fatah. “Instead of using a public forum to deal with personal spats, efforts should be taken to resuscitate the parliament. Otherwise it should be dismantled.”
But dealing with the question of Palestine’s parliament could also create a more open political debate, helping to give ammunition and voice to would-be successors. Abbas, 79, has no clear heir apparent, which has fueled a frantic jockeying for power to fill the void when he eventually steps down or falls ill.
Within Fatah there have been voices critical of the president, the most noteworthy being that of Marwan Barghouti. The Fatah leader, serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison for his role in the Second Intifada, has remained politically active, issuing several communiqués critical of PA and PLO policies. Barghouti still enjoys broad support on the Palestinian street despite — if not because of — his stance on Fatah and his time in prison.
Fraught internal politics have even intruded on attempts by Fatah to hold its seventh party convention. Originally scheduled for Jan. 17, the event has been postponed because of internal squabbling, according to a party member familiar with the proceedings. Fatah is supposed to hold internal elections before the convention. This year, however, the internal elections were only held in the West Bank, not in Gaza. Attempts to hold these elections in the Strip in recent weeks have not yet materialized because of infighting. “Every time a Fatah regional election is scheduled to take place in Gaza, pro-Dahlan and pro-Abbas members start fighting,” the Fatah member said. “We cannot hold the convention when there’s such a schism.”
Amin Maqboul, the secretary-general of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, the movement’s monitoring body, denied in an interview with the Jerusalem-based newspaper Al-Quds that internal politics played any role in the decision, saying it was made for logistical reasons. But the Fatah member also said that the convention was postponed to avoid controversy. “A lot of contentious issues would be raised, including the question of Abbas running for Fatah’s leadership. Keep in mind that conventional wisdom has it that whomever leads Fatah also leads the PA and the PLO.”
The internal Fatah clash comes at a time when the party celebrates the 50th anniversary of its creation. With posters in tow bearing the party’s emblem and the Palestinian flag, members hit the streets in Ramallah on Dec. 31, the same day the Palestinians signed up for the ICC, preparing for the celebrations. Among the collection of placards were sepia-toned pictures of a young Yasser Arafat and posters declaring “Fatah: 50 years of resistance and building.”
That slogan looks increasingly out of touch. The late December rally came roughly 10 years since Abbas was elected (and six years since that mandate expired) and 20 years since the U.S.-sponsored peace process began, illuminating the sclerotic status quo of Palestinian politics. Fatah will have to account for these 20 years of exhaustive negotiations that have seen the rise of the Israeli settlement population to approximately half a million and a division that has pitted Palestinians against one another for almost eight years.
This reality will weigh heavily as Palestinians look back at Abbas’s legacy and forward at any possible successor. With clouds gathering on the horizon, Abbas’s options have dwindled, and the “internationalization” of the conflict is all he has left, save dismantling the Palestinian Authority and ceasing security coordination with the Israelis. However, relying on diplomacy will be questioned by other parties, the Palestinian populace, and even members of his own party like Barghouti, who in November called for “resistance.” Nonetheless, the Palestinian president announced he would seek to resubmit the Palestinian statehood bid to the U.N. Security Council even after it failed the first time.
“It is really difficult to believe that Abbas, close to the age of 80, has decided to carry out a fundamental change of course” in the struggle for Palestinian independence, Baroud, the political columnist, said. “It’s all about winning time and creating distractions, but is it a strategy towards a specific end? I don’t think so.”
Photo credit: MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images