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At PNC, Abbas fails to chart a new course for his people

May 08,2018 - Last updated at May 08,2018

Last week’s convening of the 23rd ordinary session of the Palestine National Council (PNC) in Ramallah was all about one man: Mahmoud Abbas. The 83-year-old Palestinian leader brushed aside opponents and forced his way to hold the PNC, the closest thing to a parliament, in the occupied territories. He ignored calls to hold elections for a new PLO executive committee and imposed his own list of candidates. And he expanded the power of the Palestine Central Committee to be similar to that of the PNC; thus making it easier and faster for him to adopt resolutions. He was “unanimously” elected as both president of the state of Palestine and chairman of the PLO.

The conference was boycotted by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which is the second largest faction in the PLO after Fateh. But Abbas announced that he had left three positions vacant in the 18-member executive committee for them to join “if they embrace national unity”. Almost all members of the new committee are Abbas loyalists, while those who were replaced were mostly critics of the Palestinian leader and his policies.

Adding to the list of controversies is the fact that for some “mysterious reason”, as put by one Abbas aide, a statement calling for an end to punitive measures against Gaza was dropped from the final communiqué. But Abbas did announce that the Palestinian Authority will resume payments of salaries to its employees in Gaza, adding that suspension of such payments was due to “technical reasons”.

The PNC did recommend that the executive committee suspend recognition of Israel in response to its settlement activities and refusal to conclude peace talks. It also declared that the Oslo Accords and other agreements were no longer relevant and that transitional solutions were not acceptable; underlining its rejection of setting up a state in Gaza. Furthermore, the PNC called on the executive committee to end all kinds of security coordination with Israel and to restore national unity. It also rejected and denounced US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to relocate the US embassy there.

Those who boycotted the meeting rejected its outcome. Hamas called for a new PNC meeting to take place adding that the Ramallah gathering does not represent the Palestinian people.

What Abbas hoped to achieve from this spectacle, other than to solidify his grip over all Palestinian institutions, is an open question. Certainly, the meeting did nothing to end the Palestinian rift or adopt a new strategy to deal with the Israeli occupation. And to make things worse for Abbas, his two-hour speech at the opening of the PNC landed him in the centre of an international uproar and overshadowed whatever gains he hoped to achieve. It remains a mystery why he chose to delve into the contentious history of the Jewish people and their suffering in Europe. His ill-chosen references to Jewish mercantile activities in pre-World War II Europe were quickly denounced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman as anti-Semitic.

The western media pounced on his statements and soon Abbas found himself being rebuked not only by his opponents, but by his western friends as well. He was criticised by the UN chief, the EU and the White House. Three days later he was forced to issue an apology, describing the Holocaust as “the most heinous crime in history”, but the damage has already been done.

Since the rupture took place between the US and Abbas, following Trump’s Jerusalem decision, the Palestinian leader attempted to present himself as a maverick. He rejected all attempts to restore communication with the Trump administration; insisting that the US reverses its Jerusalem move first, and departed from diplomatic norms by using colloquial swear words to attack both Trump and his ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. Some Palestinian pundits believe the aging Abbas is trying to write a legacy as an uncompromising nationalist leader to overshadow more than three decades of futile peace negotiations with Israel, which had championed from the beginning. He now realises that his approach had led to nothing, and even made things worse for the Palestinians.

But even as he tries to paint a new image for himself he has failed to put Palestinian national struggle on a much-needed new course. He is yet to achieve Palestinian unity, which may have suffered further after the Ramallah meeting, and by accumulating power he has denied young Palestinians the opportunity to take over once he is gone. The average age of members of the newly-formed executive committee is 68, with only one woman represented.

For a nation that has been struggling for decades to achieve statehood, the Palestinians have too many executive, legislative and governing bodies. But as the PNC meeting proved last week higher decisions are taken by one man; a stestament to an evolving autocracy.


The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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