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Abbas: Talks with Israelis serve our interest, but ‘no substitute’ for peace process

In rare gathering of PLO leadership, PA president pledges ‘reform,’ but analysts say conference mostly aims to nominate politicians close to Abbas to fill key positions

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses a rare meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Central Council, on February 6, 2021. (WAFA)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses a rare meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Central Council, on February 6, 2021. (WAFA)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told a rare gathering of the Palestine Liberation Organization leadership on Sunday night that recent meetings between senior Israeli and Palestinian officials served Palestinian interests but were not a substitute for the peace process.

“This will not be an alternative to our demands for a political solution according to international law and an end to the occupation,” Abbas said. “We are holding contacts with Israeli ministers and officials…to solve issues that serve our people’s interests.”

There have been a series of meetings between top Israeli ministers and PA leaders since Israel’s new government took over last year, most notably Defense Minister Benny Gantz hosting Abbas at his home. It marked the first time the Palestinian leader held talks with a senior Israeli official in Israel since 2010.

Israel has said the meetings focused on security coordination and efforts to improve the economic situation of the Palestinians. While the Palestinians also insisted that talks dealt with “creating a political horizon.”

Israel’s government, a shaky coalition of right, centrist, left and Islamist parties have said it will not move forward with a peace process with the Palestinians as long as the current government holds.

The peace process has been largely moribund for over a decade.

Abbas made his remarks at a meeting of the PLO’s Central Council, which is meeting to fill vacant leadership roles in the pan-Palestinian organization. But most of the Palestinian political spectrum are not attending, and some prominent factions announced their intention to boycott the gathering.

The most important position up for grabs is a seat on the PLO Executive Committee — the group’s highest decision-making body — formerly held by the late PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat. Alternately admired and reviled by his Israeli counterparts, Erekat died of COVID in late 2020.

Senior Palestinian officials attend a rare Palestine Liberation Organization leadership conference on Sunday, February 6, 2022 (WAFA)

Abbas’s speech, unlike the rest of the conference’s opening session, was not streamed live on official Palestinian Authority television. After around forty minutes in which officials called roll and gave preliminary speeches, the feed cut away before the octogenarian leader began to speak.

According to a transcript, Abbas pledged that he would take seriously calls to reform the Palestinian Authority. Critics charge that Ramallah has become increasingly authoritarian and corrupt.

“We would like to emphasize that we attach great importance to the comprehensive reform process and take it seriously,” Abbas said.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken discussed “the need for reform” in the Palestinian Authority last week during a phone call with Abbas last week, according to State Department spokesperson Ned Price.

But while Abbas pledged reform in his remarks, analysts described the conference as an attempt to empower those close to the aging PA president. At least two Palestinian officials close to Abbas are expected to be promoted to senior positions in the PLO during the conference.

Civil Affairs Minister Hussein Al-Sheikh, one of Abbas’s most trusted advisers, is set to be nominated for the PLO Executive Committee seat vacated by Erekat. Rawhi Fattouh, another politician considered close to Abbas, will likely take over the Palestinian National Council, another PLO branch.

“It isn’t as if they convened the committee to discuss a new Palestinian vision. The story here is mostly about these appointments, which reek of nepotism and corruption,” said Michael Milstein, a former Israeli official who held senior positions in the security establishment.

The PLO was the standard-bearer of the Palestinian struggle for statehood for decades. But the organization has been sidelined since the establishment in the mid-1990s of the Palestinian Authority, which administers major Palestinian cities and towns in the West Bank.

Both the Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror groups, who are not PLO members, have condemned Abbas’s gathering. Two prominent leftist factions within the PLO, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terror group and the National Initiative, are boycotting the meeting.

Hanan Ashrawi, a retired senior PLO official whose position will likely be filled at the conference, announced on Saturday that she would boycott as well. Ashrawi resigned last year and has become publicly critical of the PA leadership.

“This meeting will only deepen the division and perpetuate stagnation,” Ashrawi wrote on Saturday.

PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi speaks at a press conference in Ramallah on February 24, 2015. (WAFA/File)

Two well-known Arab Israeli politicians did attend the Sunday night meeting: Joint List chief Ayman Odeh and former Hadash party leader Mohammad Barakeh.

Critics have increasingly accused the Palestinian Authority of creeping authoritarianism. Abbas’s term as president ended in 2009, but he has continued to rule by executive fiat ever since.

Palestinian national elections have not been held for over a decade and a half. Abbas canceled a planned vote for the Palestinian legislature last April, blaming Israel. Surveys, however, showed that he would likely have been dealt an embarrassing loss to his rivals within his own Fatah party and Hamas had the elections gone forward.

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