Hanan Ashrawi resigned from the Palestinian Liberation Organization following Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s rejection of her request to become the head of the negotiating team with Israel after Saeb Erekat’s death.

Ashrawi sharply attacked Abbas for distancing PLO institutions from the decision-making process and demanded a democratic election process. However, she hid the real motive for her resignation.

She was the first woman elected to the PLO Central Council, a member of the organization’s executive committee and an independent representative. Last week, Ashrawi announced her resignation from the committee, following her meeting with the P.A. leader, during which she handed him her letter of resignation. Contrary to some estimations that he would reject her letter, Abbas informed her a few days later that he would accept it. Thus, Ashrawi ended her long career in the PLO.

She burst into the Palestinian and international consciousness as a talented spokesperson (fluent in English) for the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid Conference in 1991, following the outbreak of the first intifada. Over the years, she advanced in the P.A. and the PLO, reaching high in the ranks of both, mostly because of her sharp verbal skills. Ashrawi led attacks on the State of Israel and was a prominent feminist and Christian activist in traditionalist Palestinian society.

Over the years, she has participated in negotiations with Israel, been elected as a member of the Palestinian Parliament, established a Palestinian human-rights organization and served as minister of higher education in the Palestinian government.

After Abbas accepted her resignation, she went to the media and accused him of pushing the PLO executive committee out of the decision-making process, promoting his associates and effectively neutralizing the body that was supposed to make the decisions for the Palestinians.

She cited as an example his decision to resume the P.A.’s civilian and security coordination with Israel without consulting with the leadership of the PLO, and also the fact that he failed to name a replacement for Erekat as the director of the PLO Executive Committee so that he could continue controlling the organization.

Ashrawi used her resignation to highlight herself as a combatant for democracy and PLO reforms, and called for elections that would change the Palestinian political system with goals set on integrating the younger generation, men and women alike.

The real reason for her resignation

Ashrawi contends that the reason for her resignation from the PLO Executive Committee is Abbas’s decision to renew civilian and security ties with Israel on his own and the dictatorial manner in which he runs the P.A. However, according to senior P.A. officials, her resignation was due to only personal motives and Abbas’s rejection of her demand to be appointed successor to Erekat (who died of coronavirus complications) as head of the Palestinian negotiating team with Israel.

Senior Fatah officials wondered: Where has Ashrawi been until now? Suddenly, she was struck with an enlightened understanding regarding the “dictatorial” ways in which Abbas runs the PLO and the P.A.?

Ashrawi also did not get along with former PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, who suspected her of subversion because of her extensive ties in the United States and the international community. According to a senior PLO source, Abbas was equally displeased with her—and that is an understatement. He suspected her desire to replace Erekat as a move for political power to place herself among the heirs to the leadership of the ruling Fatah movement.

According to a senior P.A. official, Abbas is in no hurry to appoint a replacement for Erekat as head of the negotiating team with Israel. P.A. officials estimate that U.S. President-elect Joe Biden will require six months to a year to resume negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel. Biden places the coronavirus pandemic and the severe economic crisis as priorities before the Middle East.

At the moment,  Abbas is considering the appointment of Mohammad Shtayyeh as the head of the negotiating team with Israel. It is unclear, however, if Shtayyeh is willing to give up his position as prime minister.

A senior P.A. official commented that the head of the negotiating team with Israel is a very sensitive position, and Erekat’s replacement must be a confidant of Abbas. Ashrawi is clearly not in this position. It is also noted that the new negotiator must have good personal relations with Israeli leaders and an ability to build trust, know Hebrew and be able to manage a large team with dozens of members, including senior P.A. officials.

“Hanan Ashrawi has these skills,” the senior official said. “However, the powerful axis of the P.A., headed by General Majed Faraj and Hussein al-Sheikh, is not ready to receive instructions from her, since Ashrawi does not even belong to the Fatah movement.”

Journalist Daoud Kuttab, a close acquaintance of Ashrawi’s also of Christian descent, published an article on Dec. 14 expressing his support for her. He stated that Ashrawi represents the Christian Palestinians who “are a fundamental part of the Palestinian national struggle.”

In the article, he backed her criticism of the decline of the PLO that is empty of all function and content—and her pointing to the need for a democratically elected leadership representing the younger generation (13 million Palestinians) in the territories and the Palestinian diaspora.

There is nothing new Kuttab’s article. In recent years, hundreds of such pieces were published by Palestinian journalists, academics and politicians in the territories and around the world, reporting on the weakening of the PLO and on Abbas’s dictatorial control since 2005.

It appears that his article was mainly intended to express sympathy and support for his friend, Ashrawi. Unfortunately, he chose to ignore the main reason for her resignation as cited by senior PLO officials: Abbas’s rejection of her demand to replace Erekat as head of the Palestinian team to negotiate with Israel. Even in Palestinian politics, in the end, everything is personal.

Ashrawi against Morocco

Abbas made a strategic decision no longer to attack Arab countries that choose to join the process of normalization with Israel. Accordingly, he instructed senior P.A. officials and the Fatah movement not to make media comments regarding the normalization of Morocco with Israel.

However, Ashrawi, in a recent TV interview with a U.S. network, sharply criticized Morocco’s decision to declare normalization with Israel and U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty in the Western Sahara, saying it contradicted U.N. resolutions.

Her remarks provoked a great deal of anger in Morocco, and she was met with harsh criticism on social media.

Many Internet users called her remarks a “provocation.” Abdessamad Bencherif, director of al-Maghribia TV, wrote on his Facebook page: “Do you want to incite the Palestinian street against Morocco and mobilize the anger and rage against it? Does the Palestinian problem need it? You are wrong when you link the Western Sahara problem to the Palestinian problem, and you hurt the Moroccan people’s love for Palestine.”

One political activist wrote: “We will not accept your intervention in the internal affairs of Morocco; we will not interfere in the internal affairs of the Palestinians.”

It appears that we can expect sharp public criticism by Ashrawi of the P.A. and its head—criticism that she never voiced while holding positions in the PLO. This criticism may be justified, but it stems mainly from her personal anger against Abbas, who refused to appoint her as Erekat’s replacement.

Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as director general and chief editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

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