Breaking the Palestinian impasse

With his term as PA president expired since 9 January, Mahmoud Abbas is now trying to cling to power with his position as PLO head. (Thaer Ganaim/MaanImages)

To end the Palestinian political impasse, elections for the Palestine National Council (PNC) should be the top priority for all Palestinian parties. The 669-member Palestinian “parliament-in-exile” has not held a meeting since 1998 and its members have never been elected. Once a central body of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), what is left of the PNC lacks all legitimacy.

Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Meshal caused an uproar recently when he stated that in its current form the PLO is no longer a reference point for Palestinians. Mahmoud Abbas, whose term as president of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority expired on 9 January, reacted with fury. Having himself lost all legal and political legitimacy, Abbas told a crowd in Cairo that “There will be no dialogue with those who reject the PLO.”

Of course Meshal did not reject the PLO, but he asserted that the PLO has become “a center of division for the Palestinian household.” Speaking to Al-Jazeera on 30 January, Hamas spokesman Osama Hamdan clarified that the “PLO represents a good framework that can be used to solve a lot of our problems and disputes.” Hamdan added that the body “is the only organization that is capable of continuing the negotiations and the signing of political agreements with internal factions and external sides alike.” Fawzi Barhoum, another Hamas spokesperson, said that when Hamas made the suggestion to create “a new representation” it was not meant to suggest the creation of an alternative to the PLO. “We want to add opposition factions to the PLO, factions that are still not included within the body,” he told reporters.

Yet Abbas’ own reaction to this challenge to reactivate and democratize the PLO demonstrated why the once iconic organization has lost so much credibility. Trying to shore up the appearance of legitimacy, Abbas summoned the surviving unelected members of the PNC for an emergency meeting in Ramallah. Only a handful of opportunistic relics showed up. PNC speaker Salim Zanoun urged Hamas to withdraw its statements. Salih Rafat, the secretary-general of Fida, a tiny pro-Oslo splinter of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, suggested that the PLO could hold “internal” elections — whatever that means — and expand itself to include all Palestinian parties. Indeed, the 2005 Cairo agreement between Abbas’ Fatah faction, which long dominated the PLO, and the other groupings including Hamas, called for reform and democratization. But for four years, Fatah has used its dominance of the PLO to stubbornly resist reform. Such undemocratic tactics have a long history.

Before the PLO began secret negotiations with Israel in Oslo in 1992, the old Fatah leadership refused to mobilize the PLO’s various dispersed constituencies, in the words of the late Edward Said, “to attract its people’s best talents.” Already in 1993 Said wrote: “Central to the opposition’s thought is the desperate need for internal reform within the PLO, which is now put on notice that noisy claims for ‘national unity’ are no longer an excuse for incompetence, corruption, autocracy.” He added that “such opposition cannot, except by some preposterous and disingenuous logic, be equated with treason or betrayal” (“The lost liberation,” The Guardian, 9 September 1993). Said had harsh words for Yasser Arafat, Abbas’ predecessor.

“By signing an agreement with Israel to be Israel’s collaborator in occupation,” Said wrote, “[Arafat] left the PLO — a body that did in face once represent Palestinian aspirations and, throughout the Third World, was seen as a peculiarly beleaguered but nevertheless authentic liberation organization, acknowledged as such by Nelson Mandela himself — to dry up abroad” (Edward Said, Peace and its discontents (London: Vintage), p.167).

During Israel’s recent massacres of Palestinians in Gaza, Palestinians in the West Bank who tried to demonstrate in solidarity with their sisters and brothers under siege faced a brutal crackdown by Abbas’ security forces. The blatant use of the police for party political advantage and crushing opposition has fueled Palestinian anger and resentment and demonstrates clearly that the Fatah criticized by Said has changed only for the worse. Abbas’ armed militias are funded and trained by Western governments and aided and abetted by Israel to play the role of the occupation’s native enforcers. While the vast majority Palestinians no matter where they were felt outrage and wanted to express solidarity with Gaza, the Ramallah regime was obsessed with maintaining good relations with its foreign donors, which meant repressing its own people. Israel holds Abbas responsible for keeping the West Bank safe for prolonged military occupation and colonization, turning Abbas in the eyes of his people into a Palestinian Buthelezi (the Zulu leader who allied himself with the apartheid government of South Africa).

In the process of serving Israel, Abbas has lost all legitimacy and support among Palestinians — except those whose loyalty is purchased with European Union-funded salaries. Abbas, instead of putting all his efforts into national reconciliation and PLO reform, visits Strasbourg, London, Paris and Rome and gives speeches to European parliamentarians and officials and receives more support from them than he does in Gaza, Nablus or any other place where Palestinians reside.

With his term as Palestinian Authority president expired, Abbas now uses his title of head of the PLO as a way to cling to power. But the only way he can maintain it is to ensure that there is no democracy and no accountability. And while blocking any reform, he still insists that the rusting hulk of the PLO that he leads is the “sole legitimate representative” of the Palestinian people. Other than preserving Abbas and his entourage in place, there is no reason why PNC elections could not be held. Only a PLO that gains legitimacy through an elected PNC can represent all Palestinians — including those living in exile and as well as under occupation in Palestine — and can formulate and endorse a common strategy for liberation.

Arjan El Fassed is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and the author of Niet iedereen kan stenen gooien (Uitgeverij Nieuwland, 2008).