Palestinians vote this week on PLO’s aging leaders, as Abbas tightens grip

Palestinians vote this week on PLO’s aging leaders, as Abbas tightens grip

With results largely pre-determined and widespread apathy in the streets, organization will choose its Executive Committee members for first time since 1996

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recites a prayer prior to chairing a meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee at the Palestinian Authority headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on February 3, 2018.  (AFP Photo/Abbas Momani)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recites a prayer prior to chairing a meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee at the Palestinian Authority headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on February 3, 2018. (AFP Photo/Abbas Momani)

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The top-tier leadership group of the PLO — average age 70 — is up for election for the first time in over two decades, when hundreds of delegates attend a West Bank convention this week.

It could be a chance to revitalize the Palestinian national movement, at a historic low point, and start talking about potential successors to 83-year-old Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Instead, some critics — even within the Palestine Liberation Organization — say Abbas is presiding over a staged event to give his increasingly authoritarian rule a veneer of legitimacy. Others challenge the timing, saying the rift with Hamas, the powerful terror group that rules Gaza, and is not a member of the PLO, must be resolved first.

Abbas supporters portray the meeting of the PLO parliament, once envisioned to represent Palestinians everywhere, as a closing of ranks behind Abbas. They say Abbas needs such backing in his political battle with US President Donald Trump’s administration, viewed by most Palestinians as blatantly pro-Israel.

Here is a look at what to expect.

What is the PLO?

The PLO was founded in the mid-1960s as an umbrella for Palestinian factions. From the start, it was dominated by the Fatah movement, now headed by Abbas. After promoting armed struggle for decades, the PLO exchanged letters of recognition with Israel in 1993. This led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority, a self-rule government that at first ran Gaza and enclaves in the West Bank.

(R-L) Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the joint Nobel Peace Prize winners for 1994, in Olso, Norway. (Government Press Office via Getty Images)

On paper, the PLO remained the “sole legitimate representative” of all Palestinians, recognized by more than 100 countries. Yet power quickly shifted to the Palestinian Authority, which, backed by foreign aid, provided services for millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Meanwhile, Fatah steadily lost ground to Hamas, which was founded in the late 1980s. Islamist terror group Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, and forcibly drove Abbas loyalists from Gaza a year later.

Today, the PLO is widely seen as an empty shell, but remains relevant as a political umbrella that could be revived. Even Hamas wants to join, but Abbas has balked, fearing another takeover.

Who votes for what?

Starting with an Abbas speech Monday, the PLO parliament, or Palestinian National Council, will hold four days of meetings in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Later in the week, delegates are to elect a new PLO Executive Committee, the top decision-making body, with 18 members.

Such an election was last held at a PNC plenary session in 1996 in Gaza. In 2009, a smaller PNC gathering replaced six members who had died or fallen ill. The ages of current members range from 60s to 90s.

Three seats are allocated to Fatah, with smaller factions receiving one each, for a total of seven, and independent candidates are slated for eight seats.

The outcome of the vote is largely pre-ordained because of Fatah’s dominance among the Palestinians, and because the Palestinian Authority is now the PLO’s main paymaster. Delegates and their organizations depend on Abbas’ good will, which means that they will likely vote for the names passed around on the convention floor.

More of the same?

About two-thirds of Executive Committee members are likely to be replaced, said Muhammad Shtayeh, an Abbas adviser.

Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, speaks to journalists during a press conference after meeting with diplomats and foreign dignitaries, in the West Bank city of Ramallah on February 28, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / ABBAS MOMANI)

Fatah already picked its members — Abbas, of course, and stalwarts Saeb Erekat and Azzam al-Ahmed, according to Palestinian officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the vote has not yet taken place. Erekat, a former negotiator with Israel, suffered a major health crisis last year, undergoing a lung transplant. Rami Hamdallah, the prime minister of the autonomy government, is among the Abbas loyalists expected to be selected in the independent category, the officials said.

Hamas will be absent. Moussa Abu Marzouk, a leading member, accused Abbas and Fatah of engaging in “unprecedented unilateralism.” The second-largest PLO faction, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terror group, is also staying away to protest the lack of broad representation.

Does it matter?

There is widespread apathy in the West Bank about the Fatah-run event in which aging leaders, nearly all of them men, make decisions behind closed doors. It is largely perceived as irrelevant to the lives of Palestinians. Candidates have not bothered to campaign, and there are no posters in the streets announcing the event.

“You cannot claim that there is a renewal process,” said Yasser Abed Rabbo, a longtime No. 2 in the PLO, who was sidelined in 2015 after criticizing Abbas, and will be packing up his office on the top floor of the PLO building in Ramallah in the coming days.

Abbas, who has had an approval rating of about one-third in recent polls, gets to shore up his legitimacy with a new Executive Committee. He needs a two-thirds majority for major decisions, and while the outgoing group was compliant, the required majority was not always assured. One member had died and others were absent at times because of illness or travel.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, 73, a decade Palestinian Liberation Organization number two, who was sidelined by Abbas in 2015, talks to The Associated Press, during an interview in his office at the PLO headquarters, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on April 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

What about Hamas?

The PNC is meeting at a time when Hamas is raising its leadership profile with mass protests and riots on the Gaza-Israel border. By comparison, Abbas’s longstanding strategy — statehood through US-led talks with Israel — is seen as a failure. Abbas himself seems to be edging away from it.

Abbas has said little about Gaza, despite a mounting casualty toll of around 40 Palestinians killed and more than 1,600 wounded by Israeli fire over the past month. Instead, he is increasing financial pressure on Gaza in the hopes of getting Hamas to accept his demand to return all authority to him.

Israel says it targets main instigators and shoots to prevent masses from crossing the border fence between Gaza and Israel, also responding to rock-throwing, the sending of flaming kites over the fence, and attempts to lay explosives near it or IDF troops.

Will Abbas choose a successor?

The battle over who will eventually replace Abbas is likely to be fought in Fatah, not in the PLO Executive Committee.

There is no clear path of succession and Abbas has refused to plan ahead, even though he has suffered recent health scares that prompted him to keep a cardiologist at his side.

The role of any Palestinian leader in a post-Abbas era is bound to shrink if peace efforts remain deadlocked. Instead of negotiating the terms of Palestinian statehood, a successor could be chiefly preoccupied with improving schools or other day-to-day matters in the West Bank.

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