Abbas’s resignation from the PLO would be largely symbolic

The PA leader may be signaling he won’t be around forever, but stepping down from the executive body won’t affect his powers

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas chairs a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the West Bank city of Ramallah on September 1, 2015. (AFP/Abbas Momani)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas chairs a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the West Bank city of Ramallah on September 1, 2015. (AFP/Abbas Momani)

Reports published Monday in Palestinian media may sound dramatic to Israeli ears: Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, announced during a meeting of the Fatah Central Committee – the party’s steering body – that he has no intention to run in the elections for the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization in two weeks. In other words, Abbas will no longer preside over the PLO.

At first glance, it seems like a historic step: the successor to Yasser Arafat giving up his seat for another. One of the participants in the meeting, Amin Maqbul, secretary-general of the Fatah movement’s Revolutionary Council, told the Ma’an news agency Tuesday that Abbas said that during a recent meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan he explained that, as he is over 80 years old, the time has come to clear the way for younger blood in the PLO. According to Maqbul, those present at the meeting on Monday asked Abbas to delay his decision.

Palestinian commentators have been expressing varying opinions as to how seriously one should take Abbas’s declarations. Some say that despite his announcement, Abbas will run in the elections for the executive committee during the PLO Central Committee meeting slated for September 15. Others claim he really does intend to step down from the executive committee.

However, everyone agrees that for the time being Abbas will stay on as president of the PA and leader of the Fatah party. In other words, even if he does quit the PLO, the impact on the running of the PA would be minimal, at worst.

In recent years, the PLO has played merely a symbolic role in the management of Palestinian state affairs. True, the PLO is officially charged with overseeing negotiations with Israel, and the head of the negotiating team is PLO official Saeb Erekat, but all final decisions remain in the hands of Abbas. Even if the PA leader were to relinquish his spot on the PLO Executive Committee, any decisions that still remain within its purview would pass through his bureau.

In recent weeks, the Palestinian leader has been trying to secure the positions of those close to him in the Fatah leadership – as a precaution in case the party’s general assembly finally goes ahead – and the PLO Executive Committee, while marginalizing potential opponents such as Yasser Abed Rabbo, Salam Fayyad and Mohammad Dahlan,.

Commentators in Ramallah say that after ensuring his people fill key positions in the PLO Executive Committee, Abbas can leave his position there, thus sending a message to Israel and the Palestinian public. It would be a symbolic step toward relinquishing the leadership of the PA – a signal to Israel that the status quo cannot continue indefinitely.

Still, on Monday, Abbas spoke only of quitting the PLO, so that a resignation as PA president doesn’t currently appear imminent.

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