Mahmoud Abbas, the 80-year old chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and president of the Palestinian Authority (PA)—whose rule over the post-Oslo, post-Intifada years has come under increasing criticism for his inability to end Israel’s occupation or to hold elections for more than ten years—will resign next month. But he will remain president of the PA, and his resignation from the PLO chair is only temporary.
Abbas’s critics say the step is a gambit. He is trying to initiate a legalistic reshuffling of top positions in his government that could oust his chief rivals.
Joining Abbas, five other members of the PLO Executive Committee also declared Saturday their intent to bow out of the government. In order to call a vote to refill the positions, Abbas will need a total of 10 of the 18 members of the caucus to resign. Once he and the other committee members vacate, the PLO’s legislative branch, the Palestinian National Council (PNC), will then swear in new members. While those close to Abbas cite the elections as a reinvigoration of the PNC and PLO, critics consider it a one horse race balloted by a defunct legislature, citing the fact that the PNC has added new seats twice since electing its representatives over two decades ago.
“There is a plan, or let’s say an ongoing discussing on convening a PNC meeting on September 21st,” said Ashraf Khatib, a spokesperson for the PLO and an advisor to Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat, one of the executive committee members who also plans to resign. “We’re still trying to get everybody on board,” Khatib added. As of now, no resignations have been made official.
“These things are still in the pipeline,” Khatib noted, “he [Abbas] is trying to facilitate this move, he is trying to pump new blood into the PLO.”
Other observers say Abbas’s hands are tied and he will be unable to fill the PLO with up and coming leaders. Former PLO spokesperson Diana Buttu pointed to PLO regulations that forbid new candidates outside of the PLO from throwing their hats into the race, limiting the pool of candidates to those already serving in the government.
“He is trying to make it seem as though he is actually legitimate by having one of the Palestinians’ policy bodies re-elect him, and he is trying to get rid of those who openly dissent,” Buttu said. “He is using an illegitimate mechanism to make him legitimate.”
When Abbas convenes the PNC next month, it is expected that his majority faction will re-elect him as chairman and dismiss Yasser Abed Rabbo, a detractor and until one month ago Abbas’s second in command. Abed Rabbo was the Secretary-General of the PLO, a position regarded as a stepping stone to head the PLO; Abbas held the same office under the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. With no clear succession path in place for Abbas, who is keen to tighten power around him rather then prepare conditions for a replacement, Abed Rabbo was seen as a possible next-in-line.
“We have no idea what will happen next when this man will finally decide to say goodbye,” Buttu said. “We are getting to the point where everything is consolidated to him.”
Over the past year Abed Rabbo has publicly decried Abbas’s leadership, which has perhaps cost him a continued role in Palestinian politics. He was removed from theSecretary-General position on June 30th, on the personal order of Abbas, bypassing PLO protocols on firings and hirings for public offices, and Saeb Erekat—a key Abbas ally—was appointed to the job.
Speaking to al-Monitor, Abed Rabbo lamented the confused process that ended his term as Secretary-General, but kept him in the executive committee. “It was just a paper signed by the president and is not a legal way of appointing. This will create problems for him,” Abed Rabbo said. Further elaborating on his rift with Abbas, Rabbo told al-Monitor he did not see their differences as so significant as to warrant plucking him from government. Abed Rabbo also rejected murmurs that he had conspired to build momentum inside of the PLO to unseat Abbas.
“There were rumors in the media about a plot or a coup. This is hallucination. We don’t exclude some differences concerning how to solve the division of Gaza. Maybe we differ on freedom of expression and freedom of trade unions, but this doesn’t justify anything to take such measures. We differ, and we don’t belong to one party. The composition of the PLO is a coalition of different parties from right to left. This is normal. I have been in the PLO for 40 years, and we always had this tradition of trying to find common ground between different positions. We cannot substitute the concept of a coalition of a national front by a kind of one-man rule, and everyone should obey,” Abed Rabbo said.
Last week Abbas again shortened Abed Rabbo’s political career in a rare move, by shutting down his non-governmental organization, Palestinian Peace Coalition (PPC), a partner of the Geneva Institute that advocates for a two-state solution based on the pre-June 1967 line with limited land swaps and East Jerusalem as a future Palestinian capital.
The PLO Executive Committee decides policy for the Palestinian people in the international area. Over the past three years it has passed a flurry of orders to open a new diplomatic front with Israel in order to secure a recognized Palestinian state and an end to Israel’s occupation of the territory conquered during the June 1967 war.
In 2012 through the PLO, Abbas won non-member observer status for “the State of Palestine” at the United Nations. Last winter the group opened an investigation into Israeli war crimes with the International Criminal Court (ICC). Looking forward, the PLO intends to submit a second proposal to the United Nations Security Council to set a deadline on an end to the Israeli occupation. Israel is fiercely opposed to the idea.