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President Abbas at the Helm again: A Way Forward for Palestinians

by Munshi Zubaer Haque, Intern, Beirut Center for Middle East Studies

President of Palestinian Authority (PA) and Chairman of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Mahmoud Abbas has been re-elected as head or chairman of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), a move that clearly seems to be a further consolidation of his authority in the Palestinian political space. Amidst international condemnation over his controversial remarks that were deemed ‘Anti-Semitic’, his staunch loyalists in PLO re-elected him for the position, a position that he has held since death of Yasser Arafat since 2004. In the context of disintegrated Palestinian political space that is fraught with rivalry between PLO and Hamas, President Abbas   seized this opportunity to deal a decisive blow to his rivals within the PLO when he ousted two political heavyweights, former PLO Executive Committee member Yasser Abed Rabbo and Ahmed Qurei, former Prime Minister of Palestinian Authority (PA). Irrespective of the fact that Palestinian people exercised their mandate in Palestinian presidential elections for the last time in January 2005 when Abbas was elected for a four-year term till 2009, President Abbas continues to maintain his strong foothold at home and abroad without democratic mandate of people, in lieu of his chairmanship of PLO, that is considered as the ‘sole’ legitimate representative of Palestinian people. His re-election was preceded by the historical convening of the Palestinian National Council (PNC) or the Palestinian parliament in exile for the first time in 22 years in Ramallah, the seat of Palestinian government in Israeli ‘Occupied’ West Bank. Although Hamas, Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and few other factions in PLO boycotted participation in Palestinian National Council (PNC) meet over political differences, President Abbas left scope for their participation by choosing to keep three seats unfilled for them. He also gave a symbolic mark of respect in his speech to imprisoned Palestinian icon of resistance, Ahed Tamimi, during the same occasion by offering her honorary membership of the Council.

However, without any prospects for ‘Palestinian National Unity’ in the midst of an elusive pursuit of ‘just’ and ‘lasting’ peace for Palestinians, re-election of Abbas paves the way forward for Palestinians in a turbulent political scenario that seems to be a fallout of US President Trump’s recent declaration of ‘Jerusalem’ as capital of ‘Israel’.

Popularity ratings of President Abbas have sharply declined over the period, more than 60% of the population today in ‘Israeli’ ‘Occupied Palestinian Territories’ of West Bank and Gaza disapprove his rule and an alarming percentage also views the government of Palestinian Authority (PA) as ‘corrupt’. Given the problematic actions of US led peace efforts under Trump Administration and their blatant disregard for Palestinian aspirations, President Abbas is being confronted by incremental challenges to continue the Palestinian national struggle for ‘self-determination’. One of the key achievements in establishing peace between Israel and PLO was the historic signing of Oslo Accords in 1993. More than two decades since the signing of Oslo Accords in 1993, there has been no viable and contiguous Palestinian state so far; moreover; the latest US-led Peace Initiative collapsed in 2014 and initiation of any other peace initiative has been successful till now because of Israel’s refusals. In the recent times, President Abbas has repeatedly reiterated that Palestinians can longer be bound by Oslo Accords as Israel has never actually implemented the terms and conditions of the agreement, so, the PLO Executive Committee has an important decision to make in the coming future to take any significant decision that will warrant unilateral termination of Oslo Accords by Palestinians. Israel does not seem interested to terminate the Oslo Accords because for long, it’s ‘Colonial’ ‘Annexation’ of ‘Occupied Palestinian Territories’, it’s security interests have largely benefitted from ‘Security Coordination’ with National Security Forces (NSF) of Palestinian Authority. The wider Palestinian public have vehemently opposed this controversial ‘Security Coordination’ and President Abbas has often announced plans to halt this ‘Security Coordination’ to hold Israel accountable.

The Oslo Accords I and II and its associated agreements deals with many important political rights, the most important of which is paving the way for establishment of an autonomous “Interim” Palestinian “Self-Government” Authority and preparatory transfer of power and responsibilities from the then existing Israeli Civil Administration that functioned under the control of Israeli military. It is perplexing that as to why Oslo Accords which was mutually agreed and signed upon by Israelis and Palestinians, did not relinquish full control of affairs related to security and law enforcement in West Bank and Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority (PA), because undoubtedly, one crucial instrument of state autonomy would always be security. Despite all these mandated administrative transfers, the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) and the Israeli Civil Administration (ICA) continued to maintain its official presence in the Palestinian West Bank with the primary role of administering Israeli settlements, neither did Israeli settlement building cease with Oslo Accords nor were any settlements removed from Occupied Territories. Although Oslo Accords did not expressly prohibit settlement construction by Israel; Israeli settlements were rather relegated as issues pertaining to ‘Final Status’ negotiations that would commence once the Interim Period of Oslo Accords would be over in 1999. In fact, prominent Palestinian political figures within and outside the PLO, most importantly, Hamas sharply objected to the Oslo Accords at the time of signing. Palestinian scholar Edward Said has famously called this Oslo Accords as “Palestinian Versailles” or ‘an instrument of surrender’.

With his re-election and because of his wide-ranging experience of years of negotiations with Israel in previous capacities as Palestinian Chief Negotiator, PA Prime Minister, President Abbas can be expected to make a balanced political judgement on how to deal with Oslo Accords in the future framework of peace negotiations, arguably, he is the best suited Palestinian politician to make such a mammoth decision. President Abbas has rightly denied accepting the legitimacy of the US as mediator in Palestinian-Israeli Peace Process because top US officials has been repeatedly favoring Israel’s concerns and insisting on Israeli talking points over internationally recognized rights of Palestinians, this can also be seen in terms of US decision to halt a substantial percentage of annual humanitarian aid to UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Alarmingly, the US State Department’s report on human rights does not term ‘Palestinian Territories’ as ‘Occupied’. Although US President Trump’s ‘deal of the century’ is yet to be unveiled and the newly relocated US Embassy in Jerusalem is expected to inaugurate shortly on 14th May, President Abbas has rightly condemned US unequivocally and has also sought a promising alternative to peace negotiations in the framework of international conference like Iranian Nuclear Deal in which US can be one of the parties. His bid to continue joining international organizations, such as, International Criminal Court (ICC) and not accept any more conditions from US in this regard, is a correct strategy to indict Israel for its actions against Palestinians through International Criminal Justice system.

Another contentious issue faced by President Abbas as the chairman of PLO Executive Committee is whether to suspend recognition of Israel, a key issue of deliberations during the recent meeting of Palestinian National Council (PNC). Given Israel’s intransigence to recognize a Palestinian state on 1967 borders in reciprocation of PLO’s recognition of Israel in 1994, PLO Central Council has taken a positive step in recommending to ‘freeze’ or ‘withhold’ recognition of Israel. President Abbas must steer Palestinians out of this debate and should tread the bold and courageous step to ‘de-recognize’ Israel, as Israel continues to relentlessly pursue construction of new ‘illegal’ settlements in ‘Occupied’ West Bank, which raises concerns of Israel’s plan to pave a way forward from ‘Occupation’ to ‘Annexation’.

On the question whether President Abbas represents political consensus of all sections of Palestinians, President Abbas must not be held responsible for failure of the recent national reconciliation initiative with Hamas like any other previous initiatives, because neither Hamas has agreed to relinquish full control of ‘Israeli’ ‘Occupied’ ‘Gaza Strip’ to Palestinian Authority (PA) nor has it agreed to disband its military wing. As ‘Great Return March’ continues in Gaza and number of Palestinian victims of Israeli aggression continues to rise, President Abbas must continue to ensure that humanitarian interests of the civil population in Gaza are not held hostage to his political interests, for the time being, he can consider withholding few punitive measures against Hamas that might have an impact on civilian population in Gaza. But he must continue to seek international assistance for measures that will finally dismantle the ‘illegal’ rule of Hamas in ‘Gaza’ and forcibly dislodge all Hamas affiliated institutions out of power in the besieged strip, seemingly, this can be a successful step towards ensuring his legitimacy across the Palestinian political spectrum by sidelining of political rivals, in the absence of any prospective elections for Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC).





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