Image Credit: Niño Jose Heredia/©Gulf News

Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian National Authority (PNA) are currently at a critical juncture. While Israeli leaders are warning of the possible collapse of the PNA, Abbas’ Fatah contenders are jockeying to replace him, with rumours abounding about his failing health. In turn, he is retaliating, unfortunately though, using the same tired and predictable rhetoric which he is accustomed to.

Although intended to inspire his Fatah Party followers, a televised speech by Abbas on the 51st anniversary of the group’s launch highlighted instead the unprecedented crisis that continues to wreak havoc on the Palestinian people. Not only did Abbas sound defensive and lacking in any commitment or new initiatives, but his ultimate intention also portrayed his glaring desire to maintain his position of power.

In his speech on December 31, he tossed in many of the old cliches, on occasion chastising Israel, although in carefully-worded language, and insisting that any vital decisions concerned with “the future of the land, people and national rights” would be “subject to general elections and [voted on by the Palestine] National Council [PNC], because our people made heavy sacrifices and they are the source of all authorities”.

The sad reality is that the ongoing fight within Abbas’s Fatah Party is entirely factional, and largely motivated by ambitions of individuals within the group, as opposed to being inspired by the welfare and future of the Palestinian people.

Splits within Fatah date back many years to the Black September movement, itself an outcome of the Jordan civil war in 1970, and included the armed conflict in 1983 when Colonel Abu Mousa led a mutiny against Yasser Arafat in Lebanon, which involved Syria and other Arab countries. Abu Mousa and others had serious concerns, including massive corruption and nepotism within Fatah, but the outcome was disastrous. Syria used the group’s division to further its own interests and to downgrade Arafat’s power in Lebanon even more, only a year after the Israeli invasion of that country.

Things never settled down for the group, but Fatah and Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) legendary leader, Arafat, managed to keep the party together, through the use of his famed arbitration skills, as well as cracking down on others. Since Arafat’s death in 2004, however, the chasm within Fatah kept on growing. Ironically, it was the fight between Hamas and Fatah that provided the latter with a nominal reason for unity. Additionally, billions of dollars of international funds kept Fatah afloat, but constant scuffles within the movement regularly pervaded the news.

Currently, one of Abbas and Fatah’s greatest struggles is their lack of legitimacy within the PNA and also within the once unifying political platform, the PLO.

Abbas presides over the PNA with a mandate that expired in January 2009. Furthermore, his Fatah party, which refused to accept the results of democratic elections in the Occupied Territories in 2006, continues to behave as the ‘ruling party’ with no mandate, aside from the political validation it receives from Israel, the US and their allies.

As for the PNC, mentioned by Abbas in his speech, it served as the legislative body of the PLO until the PNA was established in 1994. The PNA was initially formed as a means to an end, that being ‘final status’ negotiations and a Palestinian state. Instead, it became a power in itself and within its institutions, maintaining the status quo, which largely reflected the political interests of a specific branch within Fatah. It replaced the PLO, the PNC, and all other institutions that expressed a degree of democracy and inclusiveness.

Real mission

Whatever PLO structure that symbolically remained in place after the PNA soft coup is now a rubber stamp that does not merely reflect the wishes of a single party, Fatah, but is rather an elitist group within the once-leading party. In some ways, Abbas’ current role is largely to serve the interests of this group, as opposed to charting a path of liberation for the entire Palestinian collective, at home, in refugee camps or in the diaspora.

Nothing was as telling about Abbas’ real mission at the helm of the PNA than his statement in his speech of December 31, where he completely ruled out the dismantling of the PNA. Oddly, Abbas described the PNA as one of the greatest achievements of the Palestinian people.

‘Oddly’ because the PNA was the outcome of the now practically defunct Oslo ‘peace process’, which was negotiated by Abbas and a few others in secret with Israel, at the behest of Arafat. The entire initiative was founded on secrecy and was signed without taking the Palestinian people into account.

But aside from the historical lapses of Abbas, who is now 80 years old, his words — although meant to reassure his supporters — are in fact a stark reminder that the Palestinian people, who have been undergoing a violent Intifada or uprising since October, are practically leaderless. Aware of the possible collapse of the PNA and the possibility that the Intifida will give rise to a new leadership, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently called on his government to prepare for such a likelihood. Abbas retaliated, insisting that only a Palestinian state can replace the PNA, but it seems that the man’s fight to ensure his authority’s survival at many fronts, is weakening his grip.

Abbas’ political strategy has been largely predicated on creating a relationship of economic dependency between him and his people — i.e. financial stability and pay cheques at the end of each month — and symbolic ‘victories’ regarding the promised Palestinian state.

Meanwhile, his commitment to Israel’s security remained strong despite the many threats of ending security coordination between his PNA police and the Israeli army. In the background of all of this, the official PNA speech never ceased to refer to the ‘peace process’ and apply the ‘necessary’ diction needed to win favour with Washington.

In fact, t The PNA’s chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, recently announced that talks between the PNA and Israel are still taking place — a terrible omen at a time when Palestinians are in desperate need of a complete overhaul of their failed approach to politics and national liberation.

However, the problem is bigger than Mahmoud Abbas. Once the ageing leader is no longer on the political scene, the problem is likely to persist, if not addressed.

True, Abbas is an essential character in the sorry episode which led to the Oslo fiasco in 1993, however, the burgeoning political culture that he partly espoused will continue to operate independently from the aspirations of the Palestinian people, with or without him.

It is this elite class, fed with US-western money and perks and happily tolerated by Israel, which must be confronted by Palestinians themselves, if they are to have a real chance at reclaiming their national objectives once more.

The current wisdom conveyed by some, that today’s Intifada has superseded the PNA, is simply untenable. No popular mobilisation has a chance of succeeding if it is impeded by such powerful groups as those invested in the PNA, all unified by a great tug of self-interest.

Despite his desired stronghold, Abbas is soon to depart the political scene, either because of an internal Fatah coup, or as a result of old age. Either way, the future of Palestine cannot be left to his followers, to manage as they see fit and to protect their own interests. The future of an entire nation is at stake.

Dr Ramzy Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story. His website is: ramzybaroud.net.