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The political class in Ramallah is rife with conflicting interpretations of Abbas latest moves which center on his call for a meeting this month of the Palestinian National Council. Image Credit: AFP

Ramallah: Mahmoud Abbas, the ageing Palestinian president, may be paving the way for his exit from political life — or he may be trying to consolidate power by crippling all his rivals.

Abbas is said to be preparing a major speech outlining a new strategy for the Palestinian national struggle, though people close to him say that even they are not sure exactly what he might say. Or he might simply be trying to restore legitimacy to moribund institutions by replacing longtime cronies with fresh, younger faces.

The political class in Ramallah is rife with conflicting interpretations of Abbas’ latest moves, which center on his call for a meeting this month of the Palestinian National Council, a body of 700-plus members that has not had a regular session since 1996.

On Tuesday, Amin Maqboul, a leader of the president’s Fatah faction, said Abbas, who turned 80 this year, had informed the council’s central committee that he would not run again to be chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. But even that seemingly straightforward statement was parsed.

“He’s been resigning at a minimum since 2009, but it might be as far back as 2006; it’s hard to take it seriously,” said Diana Buttu, a Ramallah-based lawyer who once worked for Abbas and now is a consistent critic. “He just said he’s not going to nominate himself, but he didn’t say he won’t accept a nomination. He always leaves a door open.”

Qaddura Fares, a Fatah leader, insisted Tuesday that “this is not a ploy.”

“He is reaching the end of his career,” Fares told Israel Radio. “This is serious. These are not threats.” Using the president’s nickname, he added, “It seems that Abu Mazen is fed up.”

Abbas has not responded for months to requests for an interview. Several people who have met with him recently said he is indeed frustrated and exhausted, but also determined and focused on the PNC session scheduled for September 14-15, the annual United Nations General Assembly later this month and a November 29 Fatah conclave.

In the 10th year of a four-year term in the absence of national elections, Abbas has lost the public’s confidence, with a poll published on Tuesday showing trust in him falling to 16 per cent from 22 per cent in March.

The peace process with Israel that has defined his leadership is all but dead. A promised reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, its Islamist rival and ruler of the Gaza Strip, is also at the graveyard gates. The Palestinian Authority seems in perpetual financial crisis, while the economies of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are sinking.

With the United States, Europe and the Arab world consumed with the Iranian nuclear deal and the battle against Daesh, a state of Palestine has plummeted from the world’s priority list. A French proposal for a new UN Security Council resolution to end Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory has disappeared from the agenda.

So Abbas has turned inward. His aides say he intends to remove ancient members of the PLO executive committee and Fatah’s top ranks; critics see it as a purge of anyone who might support alternate contenders to the throne like Mohammad Dahlan and Marwan Barghouti.

A banner recently appeared in Ramallah’s central Manara Square that featured head-to-toe portraits of the president and his more beloved predecessor, Yasser Arafat, with the slogan, “We will remain with legitimacy against all internal and external conspiracies.”

“The Palestinians need to review their strategies and reshuffle their cards, and that requires renewal in the leadership and strengthening of our institutions,” said Ziad Abu Amr, the Palestinian deputy prime minister, who meets with Abbas frequently. “What we are doing with the PLO is part of getting ourselves better prepared to continue this ‘historic struggle’.”

Mohammad Shtayyeh, a Fatah leader who is also close to Abbas, said, “The message to the Palestinians is that we are bringing in new blood,” though he and several other senior officials declined to name any names. Shtayyeh said the president would speak to the public at or before the PNC conference.

“We need a new strategy, that’s what he will say,” he predicted. Asked what the new strategy was, he answered: “I don’t know yet.”

But some are worried the new strategy basically amounts to rearranging the deck chairs. Tawfiq Tirawi, a member of Fatah’s central committee for the past three decades, invoked an Arab villagers’ saying: “What is happening now is the grinding of the sesame seeds,” with no clarity about the oil it might yield.

“Changing people in order to implement different political plans and strategies, this is perfect,” said Tirawi, an Arafat acolyte who has long complained about Abbas’ focus on negotiations alone. “If it’s just to change the people without changing the plans and strategies, this is not good.”

Even changing who sits at the table may not be as simple as it sounds.

Abbas earlier this summer summarily dismissed Yasser Abed Rabbo from his post as the PLO’s secretary-general, replacing him with Saeb Erekat, the longtime chief negotiator. But Abed Rabbo may refuse to submit his resignation from the executive committee, and Erekat, who is among 10 of the 18 members who are resigning, may not be nominated for another term.

Nimer Hamad, Abbas’ political adviser, said a main goal of the upcoming leadership conventions is to finally tap a vice president. Erekat is one possibility; another is Majid Farraj, the Palestinian intelligence chief.

All of this may be lost on Palestinians worried about rising unemployment and poverty, and the lagging reconstruction of Gaza after last summer’s devastating war between Israel and Hamas. Al Quds, the largest-circulation Palestinian newspaper, posted a video last week in which people stopped in the streets of Ramallah struggled to name a single member of the PLO executive committee or to explain its role.

“I think for the most part the public is not buying into it,” said Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, whose quarterly polls have shown Abbas’ approval ratings between 35 per cent and 44 per cent over the past year.

Shikaki said Abbas has no answers to the public’s pressing questions: “Why is he failing to unify the West Bank and Gaza? Why is he failing to confront the Israelis and the Americans? Why is he failing to deal with corruption at home? Why is he picking fights with people inside Fatah and outside?”

So instead of confronting all these issues, he said, Abbas “is convening the PNC to try and consolidate power.”

The question remains: If that is the goal, to what end? Consolidate power to remain in office or to create an orderly succession to a hand-picked protégé? To press forward with a new political programme or stifle dissent about the lack of one?

“Anyone who can tell you anything about his state of mind is misleading you,” Ali Jarbawi, a former Palestinian minister who is now a professor at Birzeit University outside Ramallah, said of Abbas.

“This is not about ideas, this is about personalities. Basically, it’s just a struggle over power,” Jarbawi added. “I don’t think anybody who is in power, if it is left to him, would leave basically on his own.”

— New York Times News Service