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Abbas’ moves to consolidate Fatah’s dictatorial dominance over the Palestinian Authority

Maurice Hirsch, Adv.  |

On July 15, 2022 US President Joe Biden met with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. After laying out the efforts of his administration to renew its ties with the PA, President Biden added:  

“Now is the time to strengthen Palestinian institutions, to improve governance, transparency, and accountability. 

All of this work is critical. And it will help build a society that can support a successful, democratic future, and a future Palestinian state. And the United States will work with you, President Abbas, at every step.” 

[Website of the White House, July 15, 2022] 

While the aspirations of the US administration are clear, Abbas knows that any association between the PA and a “democratic future” for the Palestinians or to “strengthen Palestinian institutions, to improve governance,” is today, further than ever from being an achievable goal. 

Over the last three and a half to four years, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has made decisions and implemented fundamental changes in the Palestinian political system. The decisions merged, integrated, and replaced the Palestinian Authority institutions with those of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The cumulative goal of these decisions is to abolish completely the last remaining iota of the already almost non-existent Palestinian democracy.  

Facing the reality that he may, at any stage, be incapable of fulfilling his duties, and in an effort to guarantee that his Fatah party will continue to dominate the PA, Abbas has been busy fundamentally changing the Palestinian political system.  

The first change Abbas made was to make structural changes in the PLO that would grant him enhanced control. The Palestinian National Council (PNC) is the legislative institution of the PLO. Due to its size and the geographical dispersion of its members, the PNC almost never convened. In order to facilitate his control over the PLO, in May 2018, Abbas ensured that the PNC transferred its powers to a much smaller and more easily dominated Palestinian Central Committee (PCC). The move would later be used, in February 2022, by Abbas to push through the streamlined PCC, a decision ordering the PLO Executive Committee to reformulate the institutions of he PA   

The second change made by Abbas, in December 2018, was to dissolve the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), which functions as the PA parliament. The PA parliament, which has not functioned since 2006, is to the greatest extent, the embodiment of PA democracy. While Abbas promised new elections within 6 months, no such elections ever materialized. 

The dissolving of the parliament was followed in February 2019 by a subtle change. Since 2006, the introductory passages to legislation adopted by the PA had cited provisions in the PA “Basic Law” - seen as the PA’s constitution - as the source for legislative authority. After dissolving the parliament, Abbas decided to abandon the PA constitution as the source of executive power and replace it with the constitution of the PLO – a document drawn up solely by the PLO and for the PLO.  

Since the decision to restructure the PLO organs, dissolve the PA parliament, and abandon the PA constitution were completed in 2018 to 2019, it is clear that by then, Abbas had already made the decision that no more general elections would ever be held in the PA.     

Nonetheless, in January 2021 Abbas decided, ostensibly, to hold elections for the PA Parliament in May 2021 followed by elections for the position of PA Chairman in July 2021.  

Abbas did not want the elections, but was forced to call them by the US and the EU who demanded that the Palestinian leadership renew its legitimacy. However, when seen through the prism of the changes Abbas had already made prior to the decision to call elections, it would seem that calling the elections was merely a deceptive ploy, designed to hoodwink the international community and scapegoat Israel.  

And indeed, on April 29, 2021, just days after PMW reported that Abbas’ Fatah was doing all it could to lay the groundwork to cancel the elections, Abbas announced that he was indefinitely “postponing” the elections, blaming Israel. 

Abbas added another piece to his silent takeover of the PA in February 2022, when the newly empowered PCC adopted a decision ordering the PLO Executive Committee, also headed by Abbas, to reformulate the institutions of the PA. 

By replacing the PA institutions with the PLO institutions, Abbas is trying to guarantee that general Palestinian elections will never take place again and that Fatah, that controls the PLO, will continue to rule whatever remains of the PA. 

If Abbas’ plan materializes, the next Chairman of the PA will not be elected in open elections throughout the PA-controlled areas as Abbas and Yasser Arafat before him were elected. Rather, the next head of the PLO will automatically declare himself to be the “President of the State of Palestine.” The head of the PLO will unquestionably come from Fatah.  

Abbas’ moves should set off alarm bells for every country that donates aid to the Palestinians via the PA. While the donor countries would like to believe that they are providing aid to the Palestinian people, in reality, what they are doing is to sustain the PLO and entrench the Fatah hegemony.  

As recent Palestinian polls have shown, the Palestinians are sick of Fatah. Given the opportunity, the Palestinian people would elect the Hamas terrorists and rid themselves of Fatah/the PLO. 

While the notion of “Palestinian democracy” has always been an oxymoron, if the international community does not step in and demand that Abbas roll back his anti-democratic moves, the result will be to further entrench the dictatorial rule by Fatah over the PA-controlled areas in Judea and Samaria, while Hamas will continue to rule the Gaza Strip.        

The following is a broader explanation of the moves made by Abbas

Since the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords - a generic name for the accords signed between 1993 and 1996 between Israel and the PLO - many countries have come to see the PA - created as part of the accords - as the embodiment of the Palestinian leadership. For that reason, the international community has poured tens of billions of dollars of aid into the PA, enabling it to form ministries and institutions, and empowering it to assume the mantle of Palestinian democracy.  

Among the institutions created was the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), which functioned as the PA Parliament. Elections for the PLC, in which the Palestinian people would be able to elect their representatives, were to be held every 4 years. While the first elections were held in 1996, the next elections were only held in 2006 – ten years later. Since then, no elections for the PLC have been held. In the 2006 elections, Hamas – an internationally designated terrorist organization – won the outright majority of seats, both in Gaza and in Judea and Samaria. 

Abbas, now almost 87 years old, was elected as PA chairman in 2005, and is now in his 18th year of his first 4-year term. As Palestinian Media Watch has already noted, when Abbas leaves the scene, the Palestinians are likely to face a leadership vacuum that will most probably precipitate instability and even potential turmoil.  

From Abbas’ perspective, the situation is further complicated by the fact, as PMW exposed, that Palestinian polls predict that if general elections are held, his Fatah party, which has controlled the PA since its creation, would lose control and Hamas would most likely win the majority of seats in the PA Parliament. If elections for the position of PA Chairman were held, either Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh or convicted terrorist murderer Marwan Barghouti - who is in an Israeli prison serving 5 life sentences for his part in the murder of 5 people - would be elected chairman. 

To deliberately confuse the situation, Abbas made some of the decisions in his capacity as Head of the PLO (referred to within the PLO as “Chairman of the Executive Committee”) while making others in his capacity as Chairman of the Palestinian Authority.  

Possibly with the goal of hiding his true intentions, some of the decisions Abbas made were widely publicized, while others were more subtle and were taken and implemented far from the public eye so that most Palestinians and, more importantly, the international community would not be aware of the change.  

Change one: Dissolving the PLC and the approval of “Laws by Decree” 

One of the most important and brazen moves made by Abbas was his decision in December 2018 to dissolve the PLC. This decision was quickly followed by a decision to officially abandon the law seen as the PA’s constitution - The PA Basic Law - and replace it with the PLO constitution as the basis for legislating temporary laws and as the basis for their ratification. While the decision to dissolve the parliament was very public, the second decision was implemented in a manner that was mostly hidden from public view. 

In order to understand the changes made, one must first understand some of the complexities of the Palestinian political system and the previous situation.       

Since the mid 1970’s, the PLO was internationally recognized as the “sole representative of the Palestinian people”. Accordingly, when Israel entered into the Oslo Accords, its counterpart was the PLO. 

The Oslo Accords, particularly articles III, IV and V, of Chapter 1, of the 1995 Israel-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (the Interim agreement) provided for the creation of the PLC and the PA “Executive Authority” (later referred to by the Palestinians as the “PA cabinet”).  

Article II(1) of the Interim agreement provided the foundation for the elections of the PLC and the “Ra’ees” (an Arabic term that can mean President, Leader Chairman or Chief): 

“In order that the Palestinian people of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip may govern themselves according to democratic principles, direct, free and general political elections will be held for the Council and the Ra'ees of the Executive Authority of the Council…” 

Once established, the PLC legislated a number of laws, the most relevant in this context being the PA “Basic Law” as amended in 2003 and 2005 which, inter alia, set the fundamental principles of the PA political system.   

Echoing the Oslo Accords, Article 2 of the Basic Law provides:  

“The people are the source of power, which shall be exercised through the legislative, executive and judicial authorities, based upon the principle of separation of powers and in the manner set forth in this Basic Law.” 

The PLC 

Article 48(1) of the Basic Law, as amended in 2005 by Abbas himself, provides for the election of the PLC: 

“The members of the Legislative Council shall be elected in general, free and direct elections in accordance with the provisions of the Elections Law, which shall determine the number of members, electoral constituencies and electoral system.”  

Article 47(3) of the Basic Law, as amended in 2005 sets the term of the PLC: 

“The term of the Legislative Council shall be four years from the date of its being elected and the elections shall be conducted once each four years in a regular manner.” 

The Ra’ees

 Article 34 of the Basic Law set out the manner of election of the Ra’ees, referred to in the law as the “President”: 

“The President of the Palestinian National Authority shall be elected in a general and direct election by the Palestinian people, in accordance with the Palestinian Election Law.” 

Article 36 of the Basic Law, as amended in 2005, prescribed the term of the “President”: 

“The term of the presidency of the National Authority shall be four years. The President shall have the right to nominate himself for a second term of presidency, provided that he shall not occupy the position of the presidency more than two consecutive terms.”  

Article 43 of the Basic Law provided for a temporary situation in which the PLC was “not in session” and “cases of necessity that cannot be delayed” required emergency legislation. In these instances, the Basic Law granted the President with the prerogative to issue “decrees that have the power of law,” but required that the decrees be approved by the PLC within a prescribed period of time: 

“The President of the National Authority shall have the right, in cases of necessity that cannot be delayed, and when the Legislative Council is not in session, to issue decrees that have the power of law. These decrees shall be presented to the Legislative Council in the first session convened after their issuance; otherwise they will cease to have the power of law. If these decrees are presented to the Legislative Council, as mentioned above, but are not approved by the latter, then they shall cease to have the power of law.” 

While decrees based on article 43, were meant to be the exception to the rule, starting in 2007, Abbas made extensive use of the provision. 

As noted above, the 2006 elections for the PLC were won by Hamas. Following the Hamas kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit (June 2006), Israel arrested many of the Hamas members of the PLC and the Hamas government. Facing funding difficulties, as the international community objected to funding the Hamas government, Abbas disbanded the Hamas government and replaced it with a so-called technocrat government to again become appealing to foreign donors. Hamas responded to Abbas’ decision, in July 2007, by forcibly seizing control of the Gaza Strip.   

Since those events, the PLC ceased to function. In the absence of the PLC, Abbas has since 2007 issued scores of “decrees that have the power of law.” These decrees and other regulations, appointments and notices are all published in the PA’s Official Gazette.  

Until Abbas dissolved the PLC in December 2018, the preamble to these laws by decree, noted their legislative basis, opening each time with the words "on the basis of the provisions of the amended Basic Law of the year 2003 and its amendments.”  

Immediately after dissolving the PLC, Abbas decided to shed the limitations of the PA Basic Law - and indeed the entire framework and mechanisms of the PA -  and update the source of his legislative authority. Since then, since issue 152 of the Official Gazette, issued on 19 February 2019, the preamble to the laws by decree has changed to "based on the statute of the Palestine Liberation Organization." 

As opposed to the act of dissolving the PLC, this change was not reported and is only noticeable to those who follow the publications in the PA’s Official Gazette.        

As PMW explained, at the time, Abbas decided to dissolve the PLC as a means to avoid the “Speaker” – who was from Hamas – filling the position of PA Chairman, should Abbas become incapacitated, as was required by article 37 of the Basic Law. 

The quick change in the wording to the preamble should have raised a red flag, since Abbas promised that the dissolution of the PLC would be followed with new elections within 6 months. If the new PLC was to be convened within that framework, why would Abbas need to change the preamble with such haste – only 2 months into the 6-month period? Needless to say, no such elections ever materialized.  

The quick change, so it would appear, was not random or coincidental, but rather a deliberate piece of Abbas/Fatah’s plan to rid themselves of the PA institution - over which they would have no control - and replace it with a PLO institution - over which they would have full control.  

While the PLO is, in theory, a conglomerate of Palestinian organizations, the largest and most dominant faction is Abbas’ Fatah. The PLO members also include internationally designated terror organizations such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Hamas, Abbas' and Fatah’s main rival, is not a PLO member.  

The second change – PLO organs empower Abbas to reorganize the PA 

While the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) is the PA parliament elected in general elections, the Palestinian National Council (PNC) is, theoretically, the main governing body of the PLO. Despite this theoretical task, its size (currently 747 members) and the geographical dispersion of its members, prevented, and continue to prevent it from convening regularly. In order to address these difficulties, in 1977, the PNC decided to create the Palestinian Central Council (PCC) to function as an intermediary body between the PNC and the PLO Executive Committee.  

The last meeting of the PNC took place in May 2018. This was the first full quorum meeting since 1996, when it, inter alia, officially decided to establish the PA. In the that meeting, the PNC officially transferred its jurisdiction, between sessions - including the power to elect Executive Committee members - to the PCC. 

While the PCC’s membership includes, among others, representatives of the PNC, the PLO‘s Executive Committee, and the PLC, it is dominated by Abbas’ Fatah. 

To complete Abbas’ plan for the PLO to usurp the standing and jurisdiction of the PA, in its recent meeting, in February 2022, the PCC instructed the Executive Committee to reformulate the institutions of the PA, ostensibly to reflect the development of the PA into institutions of the “State of Palestine.” As part of this move, Abbas also decided to subjugate the General Secretariat of the now dissolved PLC, under the responsibility of the Speaker of the PNC. In a show of complete dominance, the PCC now holds its meetings in the building of the PLC.   

In this manner, Abbas completed his PLO coup over the PA. 

To further complete the move, Abbas recently appointed his close confidant Hussein Al-Sheikh, who is also a member of Fatah’s Central Committee and Head of Civil Affairs in the PA, as the PLO Executive Committee Secretary:  

 “[PA] President Mahmoud Abbas issued a decision to appoint Hussein Al-Sheikh to the role of PLO Executive Committee secretary starting from the date of the decision.” 

[Official PA daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, May 27, 2022] 

The result of Abbas’ moves 

Step by step, starting essentially in May 2018, Abbas has apparently been implementing a plan to ensure that the Fatah-dominated PLO maintains unlimited control of the PA. After first consolidating his authority within the PLO, Abbas then began the process of replacing the PA institutions with those of the PLO.  

Abbas and the PLO institutions have ostensibly explained and justified the moves by claiming that the PA was only created for an “interim period” and that that period has now come to an end. According to this narrative, the UN decision in 2012 to admit the “State of Palestine” as a non-member observer state, was the catalyst for the dismantling of the PA and its replacement with the institutions of the national movement internationally recognized as the “sole representative body” of the Palestinian people - the PLO.  

While the US and EU, apparently unaware of Abbas’ moves, in late 2020  required Abbas to call for general elections and elections for the position of PA Chairman, since dissolving the PLC in December 2018, Abbas has had no intention whatsoever to hold any elections for the PA institutions - neither the PLC nor the position of PA Chairman. 

In this manner, when Abbas dies, or is incapable of performing his duties, the PLO Executive Committee will elect its new chairman. That person, in his capacity as Chairman of the PLO Executive Committee, will also assume the title of “President of the State of Palestine.” In the transitional period, it is possible that the newly appointed PNC Speaker, Rawhi Fattouh, will assume some of Abbas’ roles. In doing so, Fattouh will again perform the duties he carried out as PA Chairman in the transitional period after the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004, and the election of Abbas. At that time, Fattouh was Speaker of the PLC, and his temporary replacement of Arafat was in line with the PA Basic Law.        

Abbas and his Fatah comrades are probably hoping that these moves will at least be tolerated, if not accepted, by the international community, since genuine general elections for either the dissolved PLC or the position of PA Chairman, will most likely result in a win for Hamas. Abbas’ hope is that international community will ignore the fact that the PLO has replaced the PA and accept the PLO/Fatah dominance, as it has, albeit tacitly, since 2006 when Abbas deposed the democratically elected Hamas government.  

At least as regards the EU, Abbas and Fatah have reason to be optimistic that the changes will go if not unnoticed then at least unchallenged. The EU’s "2017 - 2020 Joint Strategy Towards a democratic and accountable Palestinian State” declared that the strategy had certain foundation stones that were “non-negotiable principles” The “non-negotiable principles” included “Democratic principles” and the “holding of elections.” While Abbas and the PA failed to implement these “non-negotiable principles,” EU support and funding for the PA continued to flow.  

On the other hand, after announcing its recent decision to renew funding to the PA, the EU Representative, Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff, met with PA Prime Minister Mahmoud Shtayyeh. In a statement following the meeting, Von Burgsdorff explained that while the renewed EU aid for different projects “are tangible steps on the ground to improve the lives of Palestinian people” they are neither sustainable nor sufficient “in the absence of fundamental political changes: a democratically elected national political leadership is indispensable for establishing a representative and accountable government for the entire occupied Palestinian territory.” 

But as long as the EU positively adopts a policy of willful blindness, duping itself into believing that the Palestinian leadership truly believes in democratic principles, and that, against all odds, new Palestinian elections will be held, Abbas and the PLO have reason to be optimistic.  

The catalyst for the above analysis was a new study published by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) written by Jehab Harb, titled: With Recent Shifts in the Structure of the Palestinian Political System, What Choices Remain for a Safe Succession Process?