The controversial legacy of Mahmoud Abbas
Soon after rumours began to circulate about Abbas’ poor health, his advisor, Hussein Al-Sheikh, was quick to deny the rumours, calling it “yellow news.”
“An attempt to tamper with the internal Palestinian situation,” Sheikh tweeted.
The reality is that whether the 87-year-old Abbas - one of the world’s oldest leaders - is indeed ill is irrelevant.
To most Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, he is a de facto reality grudgingly tolerated. In Hamas-controlled Gaza, he is almost a non-existent figure and, when acknowledged, his rule is either harshly criticised or simply derided.
For the majority of diaspora Palestinians, he is viewed as an ever-evolving copy of most other Arab autocrats, a stick in the wheel of Palestinian democratic progression.
Mahmoud Abbas was one of the founders of Fatah in 1965. He became the PA’s first prime minister in 2003. The prime minister’s position was Arafat’s answer to mounting US and EU pressures for PA reforms.
''From the outset, Abbas has been a proponent of political dialogue with Israel as opposed to armed resistance, and as such, he was one of the ideal architects of the Oslo agreement and continues to be one of its ardent supporters. It is this Oslo track that separates him, and his close entourage, from the general public. Or rather, it is what frames Abbas to most Palestinians as detached from reality.
Frustrated with Arafat, the US, and Israel, Abbas soon resigned, only to be internally elected as Arafat’s successor following the latter’s death in 2004. He is now the PA’s president, as well as the head of Fatah and the PLO.
Since taking office in 2005 his popularity has been steadily in decline, reaching a tipping point in April 2021 when he called off the first Palestinian elections in 15 years. The polls that soon followed saw 80% of Palestinians wanting him to step down.
From the outset, Abbas has been a proponent of political dialogue with Israel as opposed to armed resistance, and as such, he was one of the ideal architects of the Oslo agreement and continues to be one of its ardent supporters.
It is this Oslo track that separates him, and his close entourage, from the general public. Or rather, it is what frames Abbas to most Palestinians as detached from reality.
27 years since Oslo, Palestinians have become unequivocally convinced that the agreement was but a legalistic and political tool aimed mainly to free Israel of its commitments as an occupying force.
The true Israeli effort was poured into demonising the prospect of a Palestinian state and depicting it to the its public as a threat to Israel’s existence.
What eventually transpired and became normalised, was low-cost, “managed occupation.” Any notion of a Palestinian state now does not exceed the prospect of an “economically viable entity,” without geographical congruity, sovereignty, or demographic unity, one perpetually subordinate to Israel.
None of this is yet to prove sufficient for Abbas to stop singing the same old two-state choir that is no longer viable.
More critically, in its current structure, the PA under Abbas has grown into an enabler for the occupation, a tool for its own subordination. This happens mainly in two ways: security coordination with Israel and political corruption.
Abbas sees security coordination as “sacred” and necessary for the running of Palestinian affairs, and the only acceptable alternative to a third Intifada which could lead to the PA’s collapse. It also grants the PA credibility before the international community as a partner of peace with Israel.
For reasons related to legal obligations under Oslo, international pressures, and the asymmetrical power relations with Israel, the PA has no choice but to coordinate Abbas’ apologists claim.
However justifiable, none of the final results of such arrangements seem to benefit the Palestinian national goals.
Through security coordination, the PA - with 45% of its workforce dedicated to security services - has arguably become a subcontractor entrusted with the protection of the occupier and its interests. And through that, it has become entrapped between two non-reconciliatory paths: state-building and national liberation. The first falls within Israel’s matrix of control and the second outside it as part of the self-determination project.
Nevertheless, not all can be blamed on Israel. Much of the PA entrapment could have been avoided had it not been for Abbas and his inner circle’s self-interest and lack of accountability. 90% of Palestinians believe that the PA is a corrupt institution and benefits only an elite few.
Incrementally in the past years, the executive authority has been chipping away at the judiciary; increasingly stifling the efforts toward accountability. The case of Nizar Banat, the Palestinian anti-corruption activist, who was tortured to death last year by the PA’s security forces is one example illustrating the PA’s procedural and political corruption.
The situation was made worse when Abbas began issuing decrees to maintain the status quo, including keeping officials in their positions for personal interests.
That said, at this very moment, Palestinians are becoming hyper-aware that Abbas’ rule is in its final days. With that comes the apprehension about what might happen the day after Abbas’ departure, whichever way he may step down.
The most disastrous scenario is an internal crack within Fatah and the PA, leading to isolated and competing bodies of governance. This would likely further fragment and disunite Palestinians, which could also result in the PA collapse and the increase of Hamas’ influence in the West Bank.
The most likely scenario, at least in the immediate, is a peaceful transfer of power without the process of a general election.
After Yassir Arafat’s death, Palestinians upheld the Basic Law and Abbas was appointed the transitional leader of the PA for 60 days in preparation for the presidential election. Today, because of the existence of two central authorities - Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip - this power transfer mechanism is suspended, if at all workable. Therefore, Abbas’ successor will likely be selected internally within Fatah and the PA, and with the support of the Fatah-dominated Executive Committee of the PLO.
The stability and continuity of the new government will probably be subject to some - and the same - Arab states and international community’s recognition and support. This practically means that the Palestinian decision-making will continue to be tied up to external pressures, dictations, and political blackmail, thus unable to break free from the current impasse and move toward the collectively aspired national goals.
The final say in making or breaking the new government, as always, will be in Tel-Aviv. The Israeli categorisation of the Palestinian government as “cooperative” or “antagonistic” will entirely be based on this government’s full or partial loyalty to the security needs of the Jewish state and the outsourcing of the occupation.
In all these scenarios, the Palestinian people’s needs and aspirations seem secondary. To some, even with such a gloomy perspective, a glimmer of hope is that a political reshuffle, no matter how aesthetic or minor, can open the door to some change.
Others are not so optimistic. The majority remain disenchanted and frustrated.
Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.
Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.