OpinionIsrael-Palestinian Conflict

Palestinians need new leaders, not new governments

The P.A. needs a total overhaul of its leadership, starting with Abbas himself and his veteran entourage.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, Nov. 5, 2023. Photo by Chuck Kennedy/U.S. State Department.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, Nov. 5, 2023. Photo by Chuck Kennedy/U.S. State Department.
(Twitter)
Khaled Abu Toameh
Khaled Abu Toameh is an award winning Arab and Palestinian Affairs journalist formerly with The Jerusalem Post. He is Senior Distinguished Fellow at the Gatestone Institute and a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

According to a famous Arab proverb, “A dog’s tail is never straight.” It is used to describe people who will never be cured of their bad habits.

This proverb comes to mind when one hears the U.S. administration talking about the need for the “revitalization” of the Palestinian Authority, established exactly 30 years ago in accordance with the Oslo Accords signed between Israel and the PLO.

Since its inception, the P.A. has consistently dismissed demands to abandon its old habits: financial corruption, bad governance and lack of freedom of speech and a free media. It is unrealistic to expect the Palestinian leadership to introduce meaningful changes in its style of governance and institutions.

The U.S. administration seems to believe that the P.A., once revamped, would be qualified to manage the civilian and security affairs of the Palestinians after the current Israel-Hamas war.

The Americans have yet to explain what exactly they mean when they talk about the “revitalization” of the P.A. If they are referring to the present leaders of the P.A. stepping down and handing control over to younger and new leaders, that is unlikely to happen. If they are hoping that the current Palestinian leadership will embark on comprehensive reforms of Palestinian civilian and security institutions, that, too, does not appear to be a realistic expectation.

The assumption that 88-year-old P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas will step down or agree to share power with others is a non-starter. Abbas, who was elected in 2005, is now in the 19th year of a four-year term. He has already proven that he does not care what others say about him. Recent public opinion polls have shown that up to 80% of the Palestinians want him to resign. So what? The polls have also shown that a majority of the Palestinians believe that the P.A. is corrupt. So what? Abbas has also proven that he prefers to consult only with two or three of his loyalist officials.

Since he came to power, Abbas has been controlling the P.A. as if it were a private fiefdom.

In 2018, he went as far as dissolving the elected parliament, known as the Palestinian Legislative Council. Since then, Abbas has been issuing his own laws, in the form of “presidential decrees.” Last year, for instance, he issued a decree firing 12 Palestinian governors without giving any reason for the move.

Abbas has effectively replaced the parliament by appointing himself as the chief and sole lawmaker of the Palestinians. He has also worked to consolidate his rule over the judicial system by ordering the establishment of the Supreme Council of Judicial Bodies and Authorities, headed by none other than Abbas himself. The judicial body was created by Abbas on Oct. 28, 2022, through “presidential decree.” According to the decree, the new judicial body has full power over the P.A.’s judicial system.

Abbas, in other words, serves as the Palestinians’ chief lawmaker and judge—in addition to his full control over the Palestinian political system. In this regard, he hardly differs from his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, who also ruled as an authoritarian president and refused to share power.

In the past two decades, Abbas has refused to appoint a vice president, repeatedly avoided attempts to hold presidential and parliamentary elections and waged a continuous crackdown on Palestinian officials who dared to criticize him or his policies. Senior officials of his ruling Fatah faction, such as Mohammed Dahlan and Nasser al-Qidwa, were expelled from the faction and forced to live in exile: the first in the United Arab Emirates, the second in France.

In 2017, after having entrenched his control over the political, judicial, executive and legislative branches, Abbas sought to extend his power to the media. During that year, he issued another decree for enacting the Palestinian Cybercrime Law, which became a tool for quashing his political rivals and critics and imposing severe restrictions on the Palestinian media. After the law was passed, several journalists and political activists were arrested by P.A. security forces for propagating news that allegedly threatened the Palestinians’ national security and public order.

Abbas has since used the law to block dozens of Palestinian websites, blogs, and Facebook pages that oppose the P.A. leadership. The Palestinian Journalists Syndicate denounced the move as a “black day for Palestinian journalism.”

“Blocking websites is clearly a violation of the right to news and information,” said Sabrina Bennoui, head of Reporters Without Borders’ Middle East desk. “In so doing, the Palestinian Authority confirms its refusal to accept media pluralism and its desire to eliminate all opposition by making it invisible to the public.”

Some Palestinians are now talking about the possibility of forming a government of independent technocrats as part of the proposed plan to “revitalize” the P.A. This means that the new members of the Palestinian government would not be affiliated with any political faction. A Palestinian prime minister who does not have the backing of a political faction is not likely to succeed in his job. The best examples are former premiers Salam Fayyad and Rami Hamdallah, who were not openly affiliated with any faction.

The Palestinians have had a number of technocratic governments in the past, and none was able to bring about real changes, such as stemming financial and administrative corruption.

More significantly, the fact that the prime minister and the cabinet ministers were all handpicked or approved by Abbas refuted the notion that the government was independent. The same happened under Arafat, who maintained a tight grip on the government and its prime minister. The words “technocrat” and “independent” may sound nice, but the Palestinians have learned that regardless of who heads the government and who its members are, the real power will always remain in the hands of the P.A. president.

Those who are talking about a “revitalized” P.A. are ignoring that the Palestinians are controlled by two parties: the P.A. in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. No government can be established without the approval of either party.

Abbas is not going to allow the establishment of a government that does not report to him and his inner circle in the West Bank. Hamas, for its part, is not going to allow any new government in the Gaza Strip that does not receive its blessing. No prime minister or government would be able to carry out his duties as long as Fatah and Hamas are in charge. The two factions will always interfere with the work of the government in the hope of fully controlling it.

Revitalizing the P.A. means a great deal more than appointing new or independent figures as prime ministers and cabinet ministers. The P.A. needs a total overhaul of its leadership, starting with Abbas himself and his veteran entourage. No government would ever be able to function independently with Abbas and his cronies breathing down its neck. The same applies to the Gaza Strip as long as Hamas remains in power.

The sole way to “revitalize” the P.A. is to insist that it rid itself of every leader who has failed his people and who remains in power, disregarding the will and interests of the people. That is hardly likely, at least not in the foreseeable future. No one is willingly going to give up perks and power. There is no way that Abbas or any of his senior aides are voluntarily going to step down.

Only a new and fresh leadership committed to reforms, democracy and transparency has a chance of leading the Palestinians towards a better life. Sadly, leaders with such a portfolio are hard to come by in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Any leader who comes through the United States or Israel will be accused by Palestinians of being a traitor and collaborator with the enemies of the Palestinian people.

Originally published by The Gatestone Institute.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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