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Abbas quits to tighten his grip

The Palestinian leader is capitalizing on public frustration to solidify his base and handpick loyalists

August 26, 2015 2:00AM ET

On Aug. 22, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and nine of the 18 members of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee resigned, in a move largely seen as an attempt by Abbas to strengthen his hold on the group. The decision by Abbas, who serves as the chairman of the committee, and his colleagues brought action and suspense to a largely forgotten body. It gave the Palestine National Council (PNC), the PLO’s legislative organ, which elects the executive committee, new powers, as it has been asked to intervene.

PLO rules state that if two-thirds of the executive committee members resign, an emergency meeting of those who are able to attend should be convened without quorum to elect a new committee. That meeting is scheduled to take place within a month.

Some members who resigned last week want to see young and new voices leading the Palestinian liberation movement, believing that the Palestinians’ future should not be tied to any single person. This could usher in a new phase and fresh leadership in the Palestinian struggle for statehood.

“I would like to see the PLO reformed and revitalized,” said Hanan Ashrawi the day after she resigned from the committee. “It has become a depleted dysfunctional organization that badly needs new blood, new ideas and, therefore, new elections.”

Ashrawi, who was elected in 2009 to the culture and communications portfolio, insisted that she would not seek re-election. She said that the aging organization needs new leaders and has lost the respect of many Palestinians, even as the Palestinian government has received more.

But Abbas’ recent actions to oust the PLO’s secretary-general and replace him with a close ally suggest that he wants to replace independent members holding key positions in the organization with his loyalists. He is capitalizing on public frustration with the lack of progress on the peace process to solidify his base and consolidate his powers.

Israel-Hamas truce

Abbas’ threats of resignation are not new. He warned of it as far back as 2009. But his hand was forced when he realized that Hamas was not interested in national reconciliation. Hamas is reportedly looking to strike a separate long-term deal with Israel. It comes at a time of Palestinian failure to resolve a split between Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah that opened in 2007, after pro-Hamas candidates swept key positions in the 2006 elections and Hamas fighters routed pro-Abbas security forces and took control of the Gaza Strip. Repeated efforts to reconcile the two factions and organize national elections have failed.

The differences were exacerbated by reports of possible indirect talks for a long-term truce between Hamas and the Israeli government. The deal was reportedly engineered by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who until May served as special Middle East envoy for the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia. Blair has made two visits to Hamas Chairman Khaled Meshaal in Doha, Qatar, in recent weeks. The deal apparently includes the end of Israel’s blockade of Gaza via the opening of a water corridor with Cyprus in return for a long-term cease-fire. (Israel has denied holding direct or indirect talks with Hamas, but Meshaal has confirmed engaging in indirect negotiations with Israel.)

In the event that Abbas’ resignation sets the stage for his exit from the PLO, it would be the end of an era for the founding leadership of the movement.

The PNC’s emergency session will not resemble the reconstituted PLO largely because invited representatives of Hamas and Islamic Jihad will not attend. Abbas is counting on traditional PLO supporters from Fatah and allied nationalists and independents that constitute the majority of the organization. If two-thirds of the PNC’s 760 members attend the meeting in Ramallah, the session will have more powers to tackle major policy issues and give direction for the Palestinian liberation movement. Many observers expect Abbas to be re-elected as chairman — with an even stronger mandate and less opposition.

Succession plan

In the event that Abbas’ resignation sets the stage for his exit from the PLO, it would be the end of an era for the founding leadership of the movement.

The founding fathers, who were once celebrated for unifying Palestinians behind one liberation strategy, are now blamed for failing to end the occupation and realize Palestinian statehood. To their credit, these leaders have tried every means possible, all without any discernible success — armed struggle (under Yasser Arafat), violent resistance (under Hamas) and political negotiation (under Abbas).

Ideally, any succession plan should evolve naturally and be decided on within the existing political structure. The new Palestinian leaders could come from Fatah and the PLO movement, such as Palestine Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction head Mohammad Shtayyeh or former security head and football federation director Jibril Rajoub, or from outside those groups, such as former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad or independent businessman Munib al-Masri. Many others will be considered and need to fight their way to these important positions.

While much attention has been given to internal politicking in Ramallah and among the Palestinians in the occupied territories, a more logical process would be to mobilize the larger PLO base to create a strong leadership that can represent, support and benefit all Palestinians. Only through such a framework could the final push for Palestinian statehood and liberation be accomplished.

Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and a former Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton University.  

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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