PLO convention affirms Abbas, 83, as unchallenged leader

Monday, April 30, 2018 file photo
The Associated Press

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — The PLO affirmed 83-year-old Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as its unchallenged leader, gave new powers to a decision-making body stacked with his loyalists and pushed out remaining dissenters in a carefully staged four-day convention that ended early Friday.

The decisions by the parliament of the Palestine Liberation Organization also opened the door to a possible path of succession — even though Abbas has blocked any discussion about what will happen when he leaves the political stage.

The session of the PLO parliament — theoretically meant to represent Palestinians everywhere — cemented the shift of power to the West Bank-based Abbas and his inner circle.

Critics say that in the absence of general elections, the PLO serves largely to lend a thin veneer of political legitimacy to Abbas’ increasingly authoritarian rule over autonomous enclaves in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

The parliament, or Palestinian National Council, also issued a series of political resolutions that — while seemingly dramatic — are unlikely to have a major impact on the ground.

The council said it has instructed another PLO leadership body to suspend recognition of Israel and declared that it is no longer bound by obligations stemming from interim peace deals with Israel.

Despite such declarations, Abbas and the PLO leadership have stopped short of ending the pillar of the current, practical relationship with Israel — security coordination in the West Bank against a shared foe, the Islamic militant Hamas.

The PLO parliament met during a particularly low point for Abbas and his elusive goal of negotiating the terms of Palestinian statehood with Israel. The political camp led by Abbas seeks a state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

Prospects for resuming negotiations with Israel after a decade of diplomatic paralysis are close to zero — at a time when Israel’s rightist government and the Trump administration pursue policies Abbas considers to be deal breakers.

Abbas suspended contacts with U.S. officials after President Donald Trump recognized contested Jerusalem as the Israeli capital in December. The U.S. plans to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by mid-May.

At the same time, Abbas’ bitter rivalry with Hamas has flared up again in recent weeks, making Palestinian reconciliation extremely unlikely.

Hamas, founded in the late 1980s, seized Gaza from pro-Abbas forces in 2007, a year after winning Palestinian parliament elections. Hamas is not a member of the PLO, which was founded in the 1960s and was later recognized by dozens of countries as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians.

In theory, the PLO still plays that role, though actual power has shifted to the West Bank autonomy government, or Palestinian Authority, as the provider of services to millions of Palestinians and conduit for foreign aid. Abbas is both head of the Palestinian Authority and the PLO.

In its final session this week, the PLO parliament — which has more than 700 members, including some living abroad — decided to delegate its powers to the mainly West Bank-based 121-member PLO Central Council, according to the closing statement.

The parliament’s main function has been to elect the top-tier decision-making body, the PLO Executive Committee. It did so this week, choosing a 15-member body.

From now on, the smaller Central Council which is stacked with Abbas loyalists can take over that role. It can be convened quickly, both to approve any leadership changes and Abbas decisions.

The more unwieldy PLO parliament last met in a full session in 1996. It seems unlikely it will meet again anytime soon, after it agreed to give up its main role.

The Central Council’s new powers of filling any vacancies in the PLO Executive Committee — including as a result of death or illness — could also open a possible path to succession, though this was not raised specifically at the session. Abbas was re-elected as the head of the PLO Executive Committee this week.

The previous path to succession, in which Abbas was chosen after the death of his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, has been blocked for more than a decade.

Under the old rules of succession, the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, the parliament elected in the Palestinian territories, takes over temporarily until elections are held.

For Abbas’ Fatah movement, this stopped being an option after rival Hamas won parliament elections and with it the role of speaker in 2006.

In this week’s session, the PLO parliament endorsed Abbas’ current political positions, providing backing in anticipated friction with the Trump administration.

Among other things, it rejected the idea of a Palestinian state within provisional borders. Palestinians fear such a “mini-state” will be the core of the Trump administration’s eventual proposal for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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