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15
Aug
2017

Abbas’ Political Battles Escalate


Mahmoud Abbas addressed the Palestinian National Council in Ramallah in 2009. (Abbas Momani/AFP Photo/Getty Images)

Reliable Fatah sources say that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ deteriorating health, coupled with the alliance Hamas has forged with his bitter political rival Muhammad Dahlan, have forced him to focus on the domestic Palestinian front. Abbas has also come to realize that no salvation for the Palestinians is on the way from the Trump administration, which, in his view, is biased in Israel’s favor.

Abbas has indeed decided – unofficially – to take a timeout from diplomatic issues and the possibility of renewing negotiations with Israel. He has decided to freeze all contacts with Israel, including security coordination, and put forth a set of conditions for rescinding his decision – first and foremost, Israeli recognition of the two-state solution.  

Abbas is well aware that the right-wing Israeli government will not accede to his demands. Hence, in an attempt to pressure Israel and thereby improve his weak status among the Palestinian public, he is deliberately opting for a situation of diplomatic stalemate.

Widening the Struggle against Hamas and Dahlan

The understandings that Hamas reached with Dahlan in Cairo are very worrisome for Abbas. They diminish the Palestinian Authority’s status and restore Dahlan to the center of the Palestinian political arena as a sort of foreign minister in Gaza. Two million Palestinians live there, and Dahlan has also been put in charge of Gaza’s economic development and relations with Israel.

Initially, Abbas considered reconciling with Hamas as a way of stopping Dahlan. Egyptian President Sisi proposed a national rapprochement between the PA and Hamas along with an end to the rift between the West Bank and Gaza. The two sides announced their consent, but eventually, Abbas changed his mind and gave Hamas a counterproposal that it rejected.

Abbas is now stepping up his measures against Hamas, including:

  1. The forced early retirement of 7,000 civil servants in Gaza.
  2. The cessation of PA salary payments to 277 freed security prisoners affiliated with Hamas who were serving prison sentences for terrorism.
  3. The arrest of five Hamas-affiliated Palestinian journalists in the West Bank on a charge of “providing information to hostile elements.”

A Meeting of the Palestinian National Council

Abbas is seeking to revamp his legitimacy. With no possibility of general elections because of the West Bank-Gaza rift, he is planning another move that will afford him legitimacy as head of the PLO.

Abbas is calling a meeting of the Palestinian National Council, which constitutes the parliament of all the Palestinians in the territories and the diaspora. He wants to be reelected as chairman of the PLO and elect a new PLO Executive Committee that will enable him to take measures to lessen the clout of Hamas and Dahlan.

Abbas wants to hold the PNC meeting in Ramallah in the first half of September, before the convening of the UN General Assembly.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad are against holding the meeting in Ramallah because of Israel’s security control of the West Bank. Abbas, however, ordered his people to ignore their opposition and start preparing for the gathering. He says the PNC members who cannot come to Ramallah can participate by video conference from Beirut.  

After the PNC meeting and Abbas’ reelection as PLO chief, say Fatah sources, he is looking to disband the PNC and thereby remove the basis of Hamas’ and Dahlan’s legitimacy.

At present, the parliament includes an entire Hamas faction as well as 15 Fatah delegates who are affiliated with Dahlan.

The Palestinian National Council Is a Two-Edged Sword

The PNC has already held an initial meeting in Gaza in which the pro-Dahlan members took part. Dahlan, who is himself a member of the PNC, participated by video conference.

Because Abbas fears that the PNC will pass resolutions against him, he wants to move up its meeting and then disband it. 

According to Fatah sources, the disbanding of the PNC will automatically strip its Hamas and pro-Dahlan members of their immunity. Abbas will then be able to take the legal step of declaring them “hostile elements,” arresting and interrogating them, and putting them on trial. 

Abbas is also planning to freeze his adversaries’ bank accounts so that no financial assistance can reach them.

Abbas, whose political days are numbered, is taking off the gloves against Israel, Hamas, and Dahlan. He is also planning, next month, to ask the UN General Assembly to grant “Palestine” full UN membership, to appeal to the International Criminal Court regarding the settlements, and to have the “state of Palestine” join 28 new international organizations.

Abbas believes his new oppositional policy will gain him greater support from the Palestinian street. When the time comes, he will then be able to retire from the political arena as someone who confronted Israel and managed to defeat his bitter enemy Muhammad Dahlan. 

About Yoni Ben Menachem

Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as Director General and Chief Editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
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