There is nothing unusual about a politician entering the ninth decade of his life, and announcing his desire to retire or at least reduce his workload. However, when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced his intention to quit his role as head of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), it was received with a mixture of understanding, concern and much scepticism.
For quite some time there has been an air of inevitability that, after more than a decade at the helm and celebrating recently his 80th birthday, the Palestinian political system might find itself looking for a new leader. The main concern is that when Abbas vacates his positon of leadership in the PLO and also in the Palestinian Authority (PA), it might lead to a period of extreme instability among the Palestinians and with Israel.
Nevertheless, there is also an element of doubt as to whether this veteran politician, who has so effectively used the threat of resignation on several occasions to galvanize his power, is pulling one more trick out of his sleeve, knowing that many would wish for him to stick around due to fear of the unknown in a post-Abbas era.
As a consequence of suspecting that he is trying to consolidate his power rather than resign, the PLO’s leadership decided to indefinitely postpone the meeting of the Palestine National Council (PNC), the PLO’s legislative body, where elections for a new executive committee were supposed to take place.
The convening of the PNC in Ramallah by itself raised many challenges. The PNC represents Palestinians living not only in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but also in the diaspora. Had the gathering taken place in Ramallah, many of the 740 PNC members would have not been able to attend for various reasons, including restrictions on movement and entry imposed by Israel.
This might have meant an inbuilt majority for those who support Abbas, and would have either encouraged him to stay and even increase his power, or would have elected a successor of his choice.
End of an era
Regardless of the postponement of the PNC meeting, Abbas’s intended resignation drew attention to the fact that his leadership is gradually drawing to a close. This will be the end of the era of those who founded the PLO, and subsequently oversaw the transition of the organization from a mainly military resistance movement to an internationally recognized political force.
For Abbas, it has been a long personal journey from being a 13-year-old refugee from Safed due to the 1948 war, to Yasser Arafat’s successor as leader of the PLO and the PA after his death in 2004.
Succeeding Arafat, the great symbol of Palestinian nationalist revival, has always been one of Abbas’ greatest challenges. The latter has actually utilized his image as a grey technocrat to his advantage, an image that is diametrically opposite to that of his predecessor.
At the time of Arafat’s death the second Palestinian uprising was still raging, resulting in bloodshed and one of the most oppressive periods of the Israeli occupation. Moreover, PA corruption repelled many Palestinians, and the dream of self-determination seemed as remote as ever. After decades of Fatah’s nearly complete monopoly over Palestinian politics, the rival Hamas movement was making great strides in becoming an electable alternative.
Abbas’s steady leadership helped stabilize the Palestinian ship. As one of the founders of the PLO, holding senior positions and influencing the most crucial decisions in the very topsy-turvy history of the Palestinian liberation movement, he brought with him enormous experience intertwined with mild-mannered prudence.
Appointing Salem Fayyad as prime minister forged a successful partnership in combating corruption and making the Palestinian government more efficient under difficult circumstances.
Abbas’s first two years in office were probably his most difficult. The Israeli government under Ariel Sharon treated him with complete disregard. It was dismissive of him as a political partner for peace, and unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip without first negotiating it with the PA.
Abbas’s intended resignation drew attention to the fact that his leadership is gradually drawing to a close. This will be the end of the era of those who founded the PLO.Yossi Mekelberg
It was an Israeli folly, considering that Abbas played a significant role in the PLO’s recognition of Israel in the 1980s, the Oslo peace process, and his continuous brave stand against indiscriminate violence in resisting the occupation. The manner in which Israel withdrew from Gaza handed a great moral and political victory to his main political rival Hamas, which won the 2005 parliamentary election.
This led to one of Abbas’s greatest failures, the division of Gaza and the West Bank. This in turn weakened the Palestinian cause for self-determination immensely, and to this day casts a long shadow over Palestinian politics.
He also failed to fully embrace the opportunity for peace when it came during Ehud Olmert’s premiership, though it might not have been entirely his fault. The window of opportunity was very narrow, and circumstances in Israel were not favorable at the time.
Still, in the last few years Abbas successfully managed to shift the struggle against the Israeli occupation and ever-expanding settlements to the diplomatic arenas of the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, parliaments around world, and international public opinion.
His recently declared intention to scale down his political leadership might reflect fatigue, or even a genuine will to pass the torch to the next generation. Palestinians and Israelis may find very quickly that they miss his leadership. However, whenever he leaves office, it is very unlikely that he will fulfil his great dream of presiding over an independent Palestinian state – a tragedy for him and his people, even if he bears relatively little responsibility for it.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.