This week marks the tenth anniversary of Mahmoud Abbas’s election as President of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). Far from being a time of celebration, Abbas’s 10-year anniversary calls for serious reflection and Palestinian demands for better representation.
From the outset, it should be noted that Abbas’s term, like that of the Palestinian Legislative Council, expired long ago. Although Abbas’s term legally ended in 2009, he continues to sit and act as the elected president, despite that he is now in his third term in office and that he was elected only for one.
Abbas’s continued hold over the “presidency” (a misnomer given that the office’s effective powers are little more than those of a mayor) results from the continued Fatah-Hamas split — a divide that shows no sign of bridging. For this reason, presidential and parliamentary elections remain on hold with no prospect for a new, representative leadership being elected in the near future. Abbas continues to rule over the West Bank by presidential decree, with no legislative oversight over his decisions. The Palestinian parliament has failed to convene in years and has not enacted any new law or pushed for new strategies, despite the fact that its ‘members’ salaries continue to be paid and benefits continue to be handed out by Abbas. Far from pushing for an end to the Fatah-Hamas split or pressing for new elections, Abbas seems content to continue to rule without legislative or any other effective oversight and, worse still, without any prospect for new leaders or successors.
For example, should Abbas resign, become incapacitated or die, it is unclear how a new leader will be chosen. This is not due to a vacuum in the Palestinian Constitution, but due to Abbas’s systematic destruction of Palestinian institutions, including his own Fatah party. In other countries, this would be classified as a dictatorship, but owing to Abbas’s continued kowtowing to US interests, he continues to be honoured by western powers as the Palestinian “leader”. Yet, as western powers continue to laud Abbas, at home, he has undertaken repressive measures to silence dissent, including imprisoning political activists and even punishing Palestinians for Facebook posts critical of his rule — all for the sake of demonstrating that he is capable of “controlling” Palestinians, even as Israel continues to eat up Palestinian land.
But it is not just Palestinian democracy that has taken a battering over the past 10 years. The Gaza Strip and the West Bank are, today, further apart than they were before Abbas’s rule. Even though Israel has committed three massacres in the Gaza Strip since the Hamas-Fatah split in 2007, Abbas continues to treat the Gaza Strip as though it is a separate country, happily attending farcical marches in Paris rather than tending to the needs of the 1.8 million Palestinians affected by Israel’s brutal assaults on the Strip. Reconstruction of the Gaza Strip remains on hold and Abbas barely utters a word condemning Israel’s ongoing siege and blockade of the Strip. The silence does not stop there. Abbas also conveniently ignores the plight of Palestinians in Israel, who remain colonised and discriminated against in their homeland and appear oblivious to the vast majority of Palestinians — the millions of refugees that were ethnically cleansed from their homeland by Israel in 1948 and remain in exile all over the world. For these Palestinians, while Abbas asserts that he is the “sole, legitimate representative”, his conduct reveals him to be little more than a mouthpiece for US interests, proclaiming that Israel must “agree” to a “solution” for Palestinian refugees and that the circumstances faced by Palestinians in Israel are an Israeli “domestic issue” for which the Palestine Liberation Organisation has no say.
Abbas has refused to press for widespread boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel, or even to push for Israel’s international isolation. Rather, he prefers to engage in a systemically doomed negotiations ‘process’ and empty diplomatic manoeuvres, with the effect of further isolating Palestinians from decision-making. In short, these efforts foil any real liberation struggle. Abbas seems content to establish a small West Bank Bantustan, without ever holding Israel accountable for its ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
This is not to lay the blame for all of Palestine’s ills at Abbas’ door, for clearly he is not the sole responsible party. Israel cannot be absolved of responsibility for its crimes of continued ethnic cleansing, apartheid and colonisation of Palestine. Poor Palestinian leadership does not give any country the excuse to continue to maintain such racist, colonial policies, nor does it absolve the international community of putting an end to Israel’s apartheid rule. But Abbas is guilty of reposing faith on a failed negotiation process, believing that the US will moderate its policy of acting as Israel’s main supporter and continuing to provide security to Israel, our occupier. Abbas’s term has taught Palestinians that liberation will never come through backroom channels or by appealing to the oppressor. One can only hope that the damage caused by his term will not be irreparable.
Diana Buttu is a Ramallah-based analyst, former adviser to Palestine Liberation Organisation chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian negotiators and policy adviser to Al Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network.