Abbas Reelected Fatah Leader and Eyes More Mandates in Next PLO Meeting
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks at the United Nations Security Council on February 11, 2020 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Abbas Reelected Fatah Leader and Eyes More Mandates in Next PLO Meeting

The Palestinian Authority president is contemplating suspending Palestinian efforts to take Israel to the ICC, sources say

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was reelected as leader of the ruling Fatah party on Tuesday, a move meant to solidify his grip on the oldest Palestinian faction and pave the way for being chosen as head of the PA next month, circumventing popular elections, during the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Central Committee meeting.

Abbas holds the positions of chairman of the PLO, and head of its Executive Committee; head of Fatah, the dominating faction within the PLO; as well as president of the PA.

Dimitri Diliani, spokesperson of the Democratic Reformist faction within Fatah, affiliated with Abbas’ rival Mohammed Dahlan, told The Media Line that the latest moves by Abbas show a high level of desperation.

“His meetings with Israeli officials, and his attempt to shove his closest allies to top positions, is more proof of how detached Abbas is from reality and from where the Palestinian people view their leadership. At a time when the Palestinian people are collectively calling for Abbas to step down, he plans to stay in power longer, and appoint his people,” Diliani said.

These steps come weeks before an important meeting for the PLO of the Palestinian Central Council (PCC), which is the second most important body of the PLO.

The PLO was designed as a government in exile, with a parliament – the Palestine National Council (PNC) – chosen by the Palestinian people, as the highest authority in the PLO, and with an executive government elected by the PNC. But the once powerful umbrella of the Palestinian people has been systematically weakened by Abbas.

The PLO doesn’t include the Hamas movement that governs the Gaza Strip, nor the Islamic Jihad. These two factions are very critical of Abbas’ rule.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine has not made its decision public on whether it will attend the PLO Central Committee meeting, but a source in the PA who asked that his identity remain anonymous told The Media Line that “if they have to make a decision now, most likely they will not attend.”

The source said that non-attendance by the Popular Front will add to the belief that Abbas doesn’t have a mandate, and that he is not speaking for the Palestinians at large.

The National Council, which acts as the Palestinian parliament representing Palestinians from everywhere, has been engineered from the influential officials from Fatah, as well as the Central Council who are close and agree with Abbas,” Hasan Awwad, an expert on Palestinian affairs, told The Media Line.

At a time when the Palestinian people are collectively calling for Abbas to step down, he plans to stay in power longer, and appoint his people

With the absence of oversight from the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), the Palestinian parliament which Abbas dissolved in 2019, and a judicial system that is in bed with the executive branch, many say that Abbas is ruling with presidential decrees, fearing no accountability and turning the PA into a one-man rule.

“These is no doubt that he is an authoritarian ruler. All you have to do is look at all the legislation the he signs in the middle of the night,” Awwad said.

But tension is brewing within the Fatah movement over Abbas’ approach, and reports of who he is prepping to replace him.

“First of all, choosing him president of the State of Palestine, requires presidential elections from the Palestinian people, not a function of faction,” according to Awwad.

Since the death of former chief negotiator and Secretary General of the Executive Committee of the PLO Saeb Erekat, several top Palestinian officials aspired to the job.

Among them are current PA Minister of Civil Affairs Hussein Al-Sheikh, and senior Fatah leader Jibril Rajoub. A fierce battle is taking place between the two over who is more deserving of the significant and influential post.

Sheikh, one of Abbas’ most loyal advisors, was nominated on Tuesday for the PLO Executive Committee.

Since Erekat’s death, Sheikh has unofficially assumed many of his duties. He meets regularly with foreign delegations and has been overseeing the PLO negotiation division that Erekat once headed.

“Al-Sheikh’s membership to the PLO executive doesn’t automatically mean that he will succeed Abbas. He would like to keep all his positions, to gain from them as much as possible. But anyone with connection or associated with President Abbas is not electable in the next presidential elections because the popularity of these people is so poor that it would make it impossible to be electable,” Diliani said.

Sheikh accompanies Abbas on all his trips and, with Majed Faraj, the PA general intelligence services chief, enjoys an “open door” policy under which he can enter the president’s office or visit him at home wherever he likes. No one else enjoys this privilege.

This is the reason for the extraordinary effort made by PA media led by Palestine TV to glorify and magnify all the recent understandings with Israel, and to present Sheikh as being behind them, the source says. The most important of these understandings are the issue of family unification, work permits and economic help.

But, according to TML sources, Sheikh refuses to give up his position as civil affairs minister, as he wants to combine the two positions. There is fierce resistance to these moves, according to the source, from top members of the Fatah movement, Rajoub and Tawfiq Al-Tirawi. Abbas, who made Sheikh and Faraj part of his inner circle, supports Sheikh.

“The next meeting will not provide anything new, because it will be an “incomplete” meeting, according to Awwad, who added: “what do you expect from it? They will reproduce previous statements.”

Our next president will be elected; yes we live under an autocracy under Abbas with no elections, but after his death elections will be inevitable

Attorney Moien Odeh, who specializes in human rights and international law, and is an expert on Palestinian affairs, told The Media Line that Sheikh is well on his way to being appointed to Erekat’s post after the next PLO meeting.

Odeh says he is the strongest candidate to take over for Abbas, “and has Abbas’ full support.”

“It looks like Hussein al-Sheikh is on his way to become the next PA president climbing the Fatah and PLO ladder to get there,” he said.

Odeh adds that Sheikh enjoys the backing of Israel and the US, which will lessen any opposition from other officials who are eyeing the top seat.

In fact, according to Odeh, Sheikh “has good relations” with Israel, the US, Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf states.

Abbas won a five-year presidential term in 2006, and continues to serve though there have not been presidential elections since.

Fatah’s rival, the Islamic group Hamas, seized Gaza from Abbas’ forces in a bloody power struggle in 2007.

What is now happening, Awwad says, is “preparation for the post-Abbas era.”

Meanwhile, the 85-year-old leader seems to be backing down from his unusually harsh speech; he has changed his tone of voice lately and has met with several Israeli government officials.

“Our next president will be elected; yes we live under an autocracy under Abbas with no elections, but after his death elections will be inevitable,” Diliani said.

After recent rare meetings with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, and the resulting understandings focusing on the economic track, rather than the political track, many observers say Abbas is counting on these meetings to revive the peace process and negotiations with Israel. But Prime Minister Naftali Bennett poured cold water on Abbas’ wishes by repeatedly declaring that there will be no meeting between him and the Palestinian Authority president, insisting that Israel’s relationship with the PA is based solely on security coordination.

The Palestinians are currently working to have Israel tried for war crimes at the International Criminal Court (ICC), an effort that began in 2015.

One Israeli demand that keeps coming up during Abbas’ meetings with Israeli officials, among them Gantz, is to stop the ICC investigation against Israel.

“It’s been made clear to us, that (US President Joe) Biden, and the Israelis want Abbas to call off the ICC probe against Israel,” the PA official told The Media Line. “This, according to the Americans, will help thaw the freeze between the Palestinians and Israelis.”

The PA official says that Abbas is inclined to “temporarily suspend” the Palestinian efforts to put Israel on trial in the ICC.

But Abbas’ office denied the reports when contacted by The Media Line, saying the decision will be left to the Palestinian Central Council meeting next month.

The US administration believes that the Palestinian issue is economic and financial only, and almost all of the meetings between US officials and Palestinian officials, including Abbas, have centered around helping the Palestinians financially.

One of Abbas’ advisors who sat on a recent meeting between national security adviser Jake Sullivan, told The Media Line that the “Biden administration made it clear that they are working on managing the crisis, and they are not interested in applying any pressure on Israel to reopen its consulate in Jerusalem, or push it to restart the peace process.”

Dr. Issam Abdeen, a Ramallah-based expert on human rights law and a lecturer at Birzeit University, told The Media Line that these reports are taking place “in light of talk of a Jordanian, Egyptian, Palestinian joint effort in an attempt to relaunch the political track.”

“The issue of The Hague was undertaken by Palestinian civil society organizations, and then the PA caught up with them so that they would not be embarrassed in front of the public,” said Abdeen, who explains that the PA was concerned that these nongovernmental organizations could take over its role. “This explains the punitive steps Israel has taken against these civil institutions,” he added.

In October, Israel declared six civil society organizations in the West Bank as terrorist organizations.

According to the anonymous PA official, the decision to suspend going to the ICC will be made by Abbas, Sheikh and Faraj, but none of them want to publicly state that.

However, Abdeen explains that another reason may be behind the suspension decision:  the fear of the PA and its senior officials that they will themselves become suspects.

“The PA is involved in the systematic torture of Palestinian prisoners of conscience, and it can be classified as a war crime or a crime against humanity,” according to Abdeen.

The US administration is irritated by the escalation of Abbas’ rhetoric, especially his recent speech at the United Nations General Assembly.

A frustrated Abbas threatened to withdraw recognition of the Israel-Palestine 1967 border and to press charges in The Hague if Israel doesn’t withdraw from territories the Palestinians claim for a future state within one year.

Washington also is unhappy about Abbas and the PA going to the International Criminal Court. In addition, Washington believes that Abbas has lost much of his legitimacy in the recent period, and that his grip on power is questionable.

Abbas still speaks the language of negotiations. All this verbal escalation is meant for public consumption. He doesn’t mean a word of it. He is very weak, and he has nothing to offer.

Abbas’ postponement of presidential and legislative elections last year, and the death of activist Nizar Banat at the hands of PA security forces, as well as the general crackdown on Palestinian political dissident, led to widespread demonstrations in major cities in the West Bank.

Recent polls found that 78% of Palestinians think that Abbas should resign as president.

Abbas has worked diligently and maliciously to marginalize his rivals within Fatah and the PLO.

Abbas repeatedly has said that he wants the PCC to act on his demands and threats, and he sent a letter to US President Joe Biden informing him of the PCC meeting scheduled for January.

But a Palestinian official close to Abbas divulges that Washington has warned the PA leader that his steps will “harm” the seemingly improved and new phase of relations between the PA and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government.

Abbas’ tough talk reflects widespread Palestinian frustration with the stalled peace process. But many say his rhetoric aims at uniting the street around him, and is an attempt at raising his low poll numbers.

“Abbas still speaks the language of negotiations. All this verbal escalation is meant for public consumption. He doesn’t mean a word of it. He is very weak, and he has nothing to offer,” said Awwad.

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