Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestine National Authority (PNA) and the head of Fatah - the main constituent of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) for quite some time, is at the crossroads. Abbas has been in the driving seat by virtue of his predominant position within the PLO since the demise of Yasser Arafat in 2004 and the Fatah’s control of the PNA. Now, at the age of 81 years, Abbas is facing a crucial test. This challenge is consequent upon political pressures increasing from some Arab countries like Egypt to have a rapprochement with Hamas — ascendant in the Gaza Strip since 2006, the hardening of Israeli stance on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as many within Fatah posing challenges to his pre-dominant position.
The Fatah held its Seventh General Congress on November 29, 2016. The Central Committee elected a 130-member revolutionary council and reconstituted the organization`s 21-member politburo. Though initially there were expectations of substantial changes within the organization, the expectations were eventually belied with Abbas managing to ensure that a majority of members of the three tier plenary body – the general congress, the revolutionary council and the politburo, were his supporters. Notwithstanding the above, the weakness of Abbas lies in Fatah and PLO not being able to control Gaza and periodic confrontation with the Hamas led by Khaled Meshaal and his deputy, Ismail Haniyeh. Egypt as a tacit measure of support to Hamas recently opened a land crossing to Gaza at Rafah. While this was ostensibly for humanitarian support, it has even has gone to the extent of offering a free-trade zone comprising Egypt and Gaza.
Despite his apparently overwhelming domination of the Fatah and the PLO as evident from the outcome of the Seventh General Congress, Abbas has failed to totally suppress the rival Fatah faction led by the 53 year old Mohammed Dahlan, a former protégé of Arafat and ex security chief in Gaza. Abbas though did not formally nominate Marwan Barghouti as his successor, who is presently serving a prison term in Israel. There is a latent demand within the organization for Barghouti to be formally nominated as Abbas`s successor. All these factors portend a significant political challenge to Abbas in the near future.
In the above-mentioned backdrop, Israel`s intransigence on the Jewish settlement issue and the PNA president`s failure to extract any substantive political concessions from the Israeli government, will only serve to undermine his political stature within Palestine and that of the PNA. Israel has also been quite disparaging of Abbas. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has gone to the extent of questioning the legitimacy of Abbas in general, apart from describing him as a weakling, inciter and rejectionist. Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, by stating that Abbas was not a partner for final settlement, has hinted that his country will not be interested in working out a rapprochement with Abbas and the PNA headed by him. It is to be seen whether Israeli intransigence on the settler issue gets accentuated after Donald Trump assumes his country`s presidency.
The impact of all these developments on the Palestinian cause will have to be carefully monitored. Apart from Palestine becoming a political entity recognized by the United Nations with non-member Observer status in November 2012 and president of PNA given de-facto status of head of state — for which credit may be given to Abbas and his team, the political and economic status of the Palestinians has only worsened during the past few years. Issues are being raised in some quarters on the utilization of aid from a multiplicity of donors amounting to $23 billion since the Oslo Accords. In fact, some Palestinian NGOs have started working to achieve a direct networking of international donors virtually bypassing the PNA, to ensure a more transparent flow and utilization of the aid resources.
As indicated by PNA sources in February 2016, the PNA had received only $750 million assistance from the international community in 2015 and there was a huge uncovered resource deficit of more than $2 billion in its 2016 annual budget of $4.25 billion despite foreign aid being factored in. These tend to reflect on the lack of effectiveness of the administration in the West Bank under the PNA. Moreover, allegations against promotion of the enterprises and economic ventures of Abbas`s sons at the expense of claims of other Palestinians, have also surfaced in the Palestinian public domain.
Furthermore, the phenomena of usurpation of Palestinian Arab land by the settler Jews have gradually got accentuated. About 150 Jewish settlements have come into existence to the east of the 1967 Israel-Jordan borders. At present, the total Jewish settler population in West Bank territory exceeds 590,000. The formalisation of this illegal occupation and transformation of the habitation milieu therein is now on the anvil with a Knesset Resolution planned by the Netanyahu government to accord legislative sanctity to these settlements. There is little that Abbas and his PLO can effectively do to negate these developments, notwithstanding the international support enjoyed by them and the Palestine cause.
The unanimous adoption of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2334 on December 23, 2016 has come as a morale booster for the PNA and the PLO-Fatah leadership. The Resolution was supported with 14 members of the 15-member Council casting affirmative votes and the US interestingly, abstaining. The essence of this Resolution is the condemnation of change in demographic composition and character of Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory, enjoining on the Netanyahu government to cease further settlements and the declaration of all settlements established by Israeli governments after June 4, 1967, as illegal. A PNA presidential spokesman described the Resolution as ‘a great blow to Israel’, ’a historic day’ and as ‘a victory for international law’.
Even though President Barrack Obama had pledged in his Cairo speech of 2009 to bring about Palestine statehood — and had many times since then demanded of Israeli governments to institute a complete settlement freeze, he failed in his attempts to force Israel to act accordingly. The nature of US support to Israel meanwhile has remained unconditional. The Obama administration`s commitment of $38 billion to Israel for the period (2018-2028) is also noteworthy. However, during the UNSC deliberations, the US Permanent Representative to the UNSC insisted that settlements have no legal validity. Some observers note that Obama perhaps considered the UNSC resolution as an important if not the last possible occasion during the remainder of his term to exhibit even-handedness on the Israel-Palestine issue.
While Abbas and the Palestinian leadership for the time-being would benefit from the positive impact generated by 2334, the enforceability of the resolution is likely to remain an issue. In a posture of defiance, Israel`s Local Planning and Building Committee of West Jerusalem has approved three lots of Jewish settlements, viz., 2600, 2600 and 400, though there are also indications that the incumbent Netanyahu government will temporarily go slow in executing hard-line measures. The Israeli government would also be conscious that Resolution 2334 is a fact of international law and can be used as a surrogate to initiate a proposal for instituting an inquiry by the International Criminal Court to investigate violations of the directive conveyed to freeze settlements in West Bank and East Jerusalem. Of note here is the International Court of Justice`s advisory opinion of 2004 highlighting limitations for Israel vis-à-vis the occupied territories.
There are opportunities for the present Fatah leadership to keep the Palestine cause alive and at least not allow further de facto diminishing of Palestinian territory. However, the same may not be feasible without an inclusive approach within their organization and perhaps a gradual change of guard within a specified time-frame, with support of genuine well-wishers in the Levant and also from the European Union. While a fully neutral approach on the part of the US cannot be realistically expected, the new administration should at least continue to be even-handed henceforth on the issue of settlements, reckoning its long-term strategic repercussions and obviating opportunities for radical Islamists.
The author is a retired IDAS officer who has served in senior positions of Govt. of India and a State Govt.
The views expressed are the author`s own.