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Palestinians deserve more than Mahmoud Abbas

At the Fatah Congress this week, Abbas’s followers seem to have affirmed a choice Oslo’s signatories made more than two decades ago: that livelihoods matter more than liberation. Palestinians deserve an alternative to this status quo.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas delivers a speech on the second day of the seventh Fatah Congress, November 30, 2016, Ramallah. (Flash90)

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas delivers a speech on the second day of the seventh Fatah Congress, November 30, 2016, Ramallah. (Flash90)

In Hisham Sharabi’s 1988 book, Neopatriarchy, the late Palestinian intellectual posits “a theory of distorted change in the Arab world,” one in which “the paternal will is the absolute will.” When it comes to politics, this paternalism is easy to miss, Sharabi argued, because it uses “external trappings,” like elections, to give the illusion of consensus—all while relying on familiar patterns of “ritual and coercion.”

Such is the impression left so far by this week’s Fatah Congress. The first in seven years, the gathering in Ramallah was billed as an affirmation of unity—both within the party and among Palestinians at large—as well as an opportunity to re-elect Mahmoud Abbas, who has held the party reins since Yasser Arafat’s passing in 2004.

On their first day in plenary, the “relatively younger” delegates unanimously renewed the 81-year-old’s mandate. But the vote itself has already raised more questions than answers about what that mandate actually entails. Part of the problem, to be sure, is that Abbas’s main Fatah rival, Mohammad Dahlan, was absent from the proceedings. But beyond party lines, there are more urgent reasons to doubt the outcome.

First, there is Trump. His election prompted Israeli officials to almost immediately disavow the two-state solution, upon which Abbas’s authority is predicated. Whether the U.S.-brokered Oslo agreement, which created the Palestinian Authority, will survive a Trump administration remains to be seen, but at the very least, the incoming U.S. president has signaled his willingness to let Israel further expand illegal settlements in the West Bank, including Jerusalem—a policy that has arguably done more to undermine Oslo than any other.

And even as the American president-elect sits in the wings, the Israeli prime minister has been stoking his own brand of Trump-like Islamophobia by supporting the so-called “muezzin bill,” which is widely seen as a move to ban the Muslim call to prayer in Israel. The proposed legislation, which technically “would ban religious institutions from using loudspeakers,” would presumably apply to Jerusalem, including its eastern half, where Abbas continues to insist on a Palestinian capital.

His newly re-conferred title will not get him there, though, and no one at the Fatah Congress has said otherwise. In fact, to hear Nasser al-Kidwa tell it, this week’s Congress was a rubber stamp to the status quo. Speaking to the New York Times, Abbas’s former “foreign minister” called the gathering “a renewal of legitimacy.”

There is “no doubt about that,” he said.

Legitimacy in whose eyes?

In the West Bank, the Abbas regime seems to have no say in how its people are treated. Israeli officials proclaim their government’s lust for the entire corpus that is the West Bank, build settlements to consecrate it, and then blame Abbas for questioning the borders of “a Jewish state.” And in Gaza, Israel continues to corral Palestinians into an involuntary human experiment, meting out routine beltings from above—as if all two million of Gaza’s residents were little more than defiant children.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton watches as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas shake hands, Washington, September 2, 2010. (Moshe Milner/GPO)

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton watches as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas shake hands, Washington, September 2, 2010. (Moshe Milner/GPO)

And therein lies the paradox that is Mahmoud Abbas. What father figure is this, so emasculated by an occupier with implicit license to punish, deprive, and discipline him and his people at will? He would seem more deserving of our pity, were he and his supporters not so intent on projecting something else.

Speaking on Wednesday night, Abbas, according to an Al Jazeera report (Arabic only), said the Arab Spring was “neither a spring nor Arab,” likening it instead to a “new Sykes-Picot”—a reference to the secret 1916 agreement through which France and Great Britain effectively mapped the boundaries of the modern Middle East.

Why, then, would he stand by the so-called Oslo agreement, which wrought the same fate upon the Palestinian territories? According to Al Jazeera, he went so far as to call the 1993 accord, to which he was a signatory, “a step forward”—only to acknowledge that it neither lifted the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza nor secured Palestinian refugees’ right of return.

Abbas might be forgiven for sticking to the same talking points he inherited from Arafat and Oslo’s American backers. But if nothing new seems in the offing, why not propose an alternative?

Fatah lawmaker Mohammed Dahlan speaks to the press, Ramallah, December 16, 2006. (Michal Fattal/Flash90)

Fatah lawmaker Mohammed Dahlan speaks to the press, Ramallah, December 16, 2006. (Michal Fattal/Flash90)

Perhaps he didn’t feel the need. Having disinvited his detractors, chief among them Dahlan, Abbas had what might be described as a captive audience. But as Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab has pointed out, at least a fifth of those present were newly elected by their communities in the West Bank and Gaza. That they, in turn, represented the youngest delegates at this year’s Congress means that many of them grew up in the shadow of Oslo, their lives proof that the accord was something less than a step forward for the Palestinian cause.

That, presumably, is why one Fatah advisor, quoted in The Jerusalem Post, said Abbas and his followers planned “to activate fully popular resistance at the popular Congress.” But to coopt what is popular by simply repeating the word is no strategy. That point was made by Abbas himself, who beseeched his audience on Wednesday: “Where is popular, peaceful resistance?”

“I say, go out [to the streets]; no one goes out.”

He must have missed the news about his security forces violently dispersing Palestinian demonstrations, including by the mothers and wives of hunger-striking Palestinian detainees. Or perhaps it’s slipped his mind that Israeli troops were the ones guarding Ramallah’s Palestinian Authority police station during the 2014 protests against his rule.

Palestinian Authority police attempt to prevent youth in Aida Refugee Camp from clashing with Israeli forces, Bethlehem, West Bank, September 27, 2013. The clashes were in reaction to recent provocations at Jerusalem's Al Aqsa Mosque by right-wing Jewish settlers. (photo: Activestills.org)

Palestinian Authority police attempt to prevent youth in Aida Refugee Camp from clashing with Israeli forces, Bethlehem, West Bank, September 27, 2013. The clashes were in reaction to recent provocations at Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque by right-wing Jewish settlers. (photo: Activestills.org)

Call these lapses, not fabrications. Either way, it is tempting to see Abbas’s re-election as a coronation of sorts, the new emperor draped in his invisible clothes. But it is also important to remember that, as in the fairytale, those around him hail the Fatah leader out of despair, not adulation. With 40 percent of the Palestinian population employed by the public sector he controls, it should be little wonder that they do.

As the Fatah Congress continues this week, Abbas’s followers seem to have affirmed a choice Oslo’s signatories made more than two decades ago—that livelihoods matter more than liberation. But Palestinians deserve an alternative to this status quo, one that places dignity above ritual and bold policy over patriarchy.

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    COMMENTS

    1. The Palestinians deserve to decide according to their own priorities, even if they are young.
      Readers deserve an article in which the author’s personal aversion to Abbas is not noticeable in a manner so annoying.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Subway1EightyNine

      No worries. Abbas will be dead soon. Then Rajoub or, most likely, Dahlan can take control and you can recycle this article for many years to come. Dahlan is 55. He has a good 20 years in him. And after him there will be the next strongman. Don’t think of it as a deficiency, but rather, think of it as having rulers absolutely typical for the region. And your revolutionary dreams will taste just as relevant and sweet in 20 years because nothing will change.

      Abbas doesn’t propose an alternative because one is not available. Violence doesn’t work and it is fair to describe it as being counter-productive. So-called mass non-violent resistance only makes sense if it can massively increase the cost of the opposed system, yet the Palestinians can only cause minimal economic damage through such means. International diplomacy is not working because no major power cares about the Palestinians. BDS is is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing. The Arab countries are making peace with Israel. The Iranians care about the Palestinians about as much as Erdogan and the Turks. The Europeans are realizing that European is just a geographic designation. And then there is Trump.

      So.. Destroying the existing system as enshrined by Oslo and the PA would be massively damaging to the livelihoods of the Palestinians but there is little likelihood it would lead to anything that the Palestinians could claim would be progress. The fun thing about the current situation is that the status quo is by far the best option available to the Palestinians. That might sound a bit depressing for the Palestinians, but might as well put the truth on the table.

      Reply to Comment
    3. R5

      The Palestinian cause is in permanent decline. In two generations, Arab oil and global influence will have evaporated, and in the meantime, an increasingly fragmented set of great powers will concern themselves with stabilizing the region’s newly failed states, not Palestinian rights. The BDS movement – where’s Samer’s put his chips – allied itself with the West’s most radical, leftist political actors, who are now being refuted and repudiated by a rising right-wing populism. Hard to see where to go from here.

      Reply to Comment
      • Joseph E. Saad

        As a Palestinian I say, it is long past due…The Palestinian Authority (what a stupid name for a government) should just throw in the towel, quietly, heads bent down, and give it all back to the UN.

        In one of their famous visits to the failed UN they should arrive WITHOUT leaking the reason, and state they are dissolving this façade of legitimacy. Give it back, say the UN created the problem in 1948 and they can fix it now in 2017. Even if they refuse or say no, they can say it is on you and the world now.

        In turn all the Palestinians who are able should rise up peacefully, return from abroad if possible, in PEACE NO VIOLENCE, and simply demand their civil rights as equal citizens of the Holy Land.

        Let come what may come, the Israelis could not kill everyone, a peaceful resistance is what is needed. That is the one thing that truly scares Israel the most, and the one they cannot counter against.

        It is too late for a two state solution, and it would be wrong to alter or dismantle the Zionist state, as it exists. Too much death, violence, and chaos would ensue; more than has ever seen before. I have nothing against anyone person, religion, or ethnicity. All I want is peace with justice. If Israel is truly a democratic state (which I do not believe she is), she will grant equal rights for all people who live there, even though these natural inalienable rights should never have been taken in the first place.

        So rise up in Peace demand justice, so I hope anyways. My two cents worth.

        Peace Shalom, Salami.

        Reply to Comment
        • R5

          The Palestine Refugees you mention (this is a legal term of art) would never be allowed to cross the border peacefully, even by the states bordering Israel.

          Reply to Comment
          • Chris

            “The Palestine Refugees you mention (this is a legal term of art)…”

            They are the refugees from Palestine who were ethnically cleansed from their homeland of Palestine during the Zionist ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1947-1949 and 1967—how else should we refer to these ethnically cleansed refugees who are indigenous to Palestine?

            Reply to Comment
        • Subway1EightyNine

          Israel is a democracy, but it is not a suicidal state. If the Palestinians declare their intention of having a single state where the Jews are a minority, then we (Israelis) have no intention of playing along with this new version of the Palestinians rejecting the existence of a Jewish state within any borders. We are not giving up our country regardless of what you may demand. You are seriously underestimating what we are willing to do to ensure that we have our own country. That is quite surprising for a Palestinian, but no one has ever said that the Palestinians are quick-learners.

          And Shalom and Salaam to you too brother.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Believe me, no one not born yesterday underestimates what you are willing to do. The occupation and all its sick brutality and its subterfuges–your language is larded with them–is testimony to that. When really pressed between the rock of a binational state and the hard place of settlement removal the hard core right drops the facade and gets brutally frank about what it really intends. All one has to do is listen to people like you and like Bezalel Smotrich to understand what the real situation is. But really, just observing Israel’s actual behavior is enough.

            Reply to Comment
        • i_like_ike52

          I am glad to hear a voice for non-violence, but I am sure you realize that the Palestinians are not capable of mounting a sustained non-violent disobedience campaign….it would inevitably degenerate into violence, as indeed happened in India with Gandhi’s satyagraha campaigns, even though he worked hard to prevent. He failed in spite of the immense prestige and influence he had. The Palestinians have no such figure and if one were to arise, he would be accused of being a traitor.
          The ONLY “solution” is to work for an unofficial modus-vivendi, with the West Bank, and possibly the Gaza Strip becoming a Jordanian-Israeli-Palestinian condominium with the Palestinians operating an autonomous Palestinian Authority. Of course this is not an ultimate, political solution but more and more people on all sides (Israel, Palestinians, US, Europe and even neighboring Arab states) realize this is the only real way to improve the lives of Jews and Arabs in the area.

          Reply to Comment
    4. i_like_ike52

      Abbas was the chosen successor to Arafat, the legendary, beloved terrorist who founded FATAH and the Palestinian Authority. It is incomprehensible to me how Palestinians, who all dreamed for decades of having Arafat as their leader, should now be unhappy with his hand-picked successor and his party. People say Abbas is ineffectual and the PA is corrupt. How is that possible? How is in conceivable that saintly Arafat would pick corrupt people to serve his beloved Palestinian people?
      It was Arafat himself who agreed to the Oslo Accords. He was not forced at gunpoint to accept them, so if he did, it must have been with the knowledge on his part that this was best for the Palestinian people. Given this, how can Palestinians be so unhappy with Arafat’s successors and legacy?
      BTW-the claim by many that “Arafat or Abbas are good, it’s just he has bad, corrupt people around him” was used also by supporters of Hitler and Stalin, but it must be again asked how such “good leaders” would choose “bad people” as their subordinates. Maybe the Palestinian public should rethink their attitudes towards Arafat and Abbas?

      Reply to Comment
    5. i_like_ike52

      I find Abbas negative reference to Sykes-Picot to symbolize all that is really wrong with the Arab world. Okay, so the French and British drew up boundaries…it turns out that many changes were made in those boundaries that DID take into account local ethnic and confessional factors. However, we have to ask the question…how can good Muslims and Arabs butchering each other in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya (and in the recent past in Lebanon and Algeria) be blamed on Sykes-Picot? Aren’t we constantly told that all Arabs are brother and Islam is a religion of peace whose adherents love one another? So how could the French and British be blamed if Arabs are supposedly not capable of fighting one another? Maybe the Arabs should look in the mirror if they want to see the true cause of their problems and not continuing the dodge of looking for someone else to blame. Same Badawi, in an earlier piece said the Syrian refugees themselves have difficulty in acknowledging the cause of their suffering. Maybe that would be a good first step.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Barry Meridian

      Ben needs to learn some facts.
      There is a primary historical fact, that must be established now for Ben. There has never been, I repeat NEVER been, a civilization, Entity, or a nation referred to as “Palestine” There was never a Palestinian tribe, and there was never a Palestinian country in the Land of Israel to begin with! Israel is not for sale. It is not a pie to be sliced up and served to a clan of killers and their supporters.

      Israel existed 1500 years before Mohammad was born

      Tell us Ben when did it ever belong to Palestinians? Answer Never. It was never a Pal land to begin with, so your question is invalid.
      The Palestinians never governed or controlled any land before 1993.
      To make it simple, please tell me one Palestinian President before 1993?
      Keep thinking?
      The Palestinians want a capital, which they never had, in a country that never existed.

      Reply to Comment
      • Carmen

        Arrogance aside, you sound like so many throughout history that never learned from history. 🙂

        Reply to Comment
        • Chris

          “Arrogance aside, you sound like so many throughout history that never learned from history.”

          Arrogance AND ignorance aside, since it appears that Barry Meridian, like so many devout Zionists, is utterly oblivious of the fact that not a single syllable of the absurd hasbara he’s just regurgitated is actually “history”.

          Reply to Comment
      • Duh

        “To make it simple, please tell me one Palestinian President before 1993?”

        Palestinians were elected to the Ottoman parliament, if you really care. The Zionists rejected a legislative council based on proportional representation when it was proposed by the British (Funny, I thought they were always ready to compromise).

        Reply to Comment
      • Chris

        Barry Meridian needs to learn some facts.
        There is a primary historical fact, that must be established now for Barry Meridian. There has never been, I repeat NEVER been, a civilization, Entity, or a nation referred to as “israel” There was never an “israeli” tribe, and there was never an “israeli” country in the Land of Palestine to begin with! Bible stories are not “history” and Palestine is not for sale. Palestine is not a pie to be sliced up and served to a criminal clan of foreign Zionist invaders, colonizers, terrorists, ethnic cleansers, murderers and their supporters.

        Palestine has existed for millennia.

        Tell us, Barry Meridian, when did Palestine ever belong to Zionists? Answer, Never. It was never zio land to begin with, so your question is invalid.
        The “israelis” never existed before 1948, or governed or controlled any land before 1948.
        To make it simple, please tell me one “israeli” President before 1948?
        Keep thinking?
        The “israelis” want a capital, which they never had, in a country that never existed.

        [FIFY]

        Reply to Comment
    7. Mark

      Surely you must mean, “Palestinians deserve better than Mahmoud Abbas”

      It’s not quite clear HOW the Palestinians can get a different government. Elections don’t work. They had one which Hamas one but they still have MA. Blaming Israel isn’t going to change anything cos he is their preferred president (dead or alive).

      I put it down to the decision back in 1974 that “the PLO is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”. It’s incompatible with freedom and democracy.

      Reply to Comment
      • Chris

        “Blaming Israel isn’t going to change anything cos he is their preferred president (dead or alive).”

        Blaming Hamas isn’t going to change anything because Israel is the belligerent occupying power in all of occupied Palestine, including in the occupied Gaza Strip. And the buck always stops with the belligerent occupying power.

        “It’s incompatible with freedom and democracy.”

        No, that would be Zionism.

        Reply to Comment

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