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Abbas ups the ante by going to the PNC

Mar 13,2018 - Last updated at Mar 13,2018

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is taking preemptive steps in preparation for a possible unveiling of a new Middle East peace plan by the White House, most likely to be announced in the coming two months. He has called the Palestine National Council (PNC), the closest thing to a Palestinian parliament, to convene in Ramallah by the end of April. The 700-delegate PNC elects members of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) Executive Committee, the highest governing body in the umbrella organisation, which includes most Palestinian national liberation groups, such as Fateh, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and splinter groups.

The PNC, as well as the PLO, had been marginalised since the signing of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian leadership in 1993. The last time the PNC met was in 2009 in an emergency session.

But there are other pressing reasons for convening the PNC at this stage. The legitimacy of the Executive Committee and the PLO’s Central Committee are in danger as both bodies may not be able to hold legal sessions because several members had died or are too old and in ill health. It is an opportunity for Abbas to appoint much needed younger delegates and to sideline opponents.

In addition, Abbas, who is 83 years old and reportedly in poor health, will be able to prepare for succession in a manner that will undercut the chances of figures that he does not trust. The election of new members to Fateh’s Central Committee during the PNC’s meeting will give clues as to who might succeed him. Among the possible candidates are Majed Faraj, Jibril Erjoub, Mahmoud Al Aloul and Mohammd Ishtieh.

Sources close to Abbas say he had lost hope in the US administration and that now he believes the White House is eager to see him replaced. He is also suspicious of the intentions of some Arab countries, believing that he will come under pressure to accept US President Donald Trump’s peace deal.

Reviving the PNC and the PLO is a strategic move to have those bodies ready to take over Palestinian decision making in case Abbas is forced to abandon the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the near future. Those close to Abbas say that what will be offered by the US falls short of the minimum Palestinian demands for a fair and lasting settlement.

The PNC is expected to endorse the decisions adopted by the Palestine Central Council (PCC) in January, one of which was a recommendation to suspend recognition of Israel. It will also support Abbas’ call last month at the UN Security Council to hold a peace conference this year that will pave the way for full membership of the state of Palestine in the UN and the adoption of multilateral sponsorship of the peace process.

By calling on the PNC to convene, Abbas has effectively given up on reconciliation efforts with Hamas in Gaza. Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad are not members of the PNC, and previous agreements with Abbas had called for the full restructuring of the PLO, something that has not happened. The PA continues to blame Hamas for failing to allow the government in Ramallah to assume its responsibilities in Gaza. By sidelining Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Abbas appears to have narrowed his immediate objectives, reconciliation not being among them.

Critics believe that by holding the PNC in Ramallah, Abbas is seeking to keep his rivals, who are in exile and are not permitted to enter the West Bank by Israel, out, thus manipulating the outcome of the conference. And as a result, critics say, Abbas will strengthen Fateh’s control and will do little to expand the PNC’s representation of Palestinians in the diaspora.

It is clear that while circumstances surrounding the convening of the PNC are less than ideal, the Palestinian leader has chosen to embed his rejection of Trump’s Jerusalem proclamation and of US monopoly of the peace process into the PLO’s legislative body. Symbolic as this is, it will make it difficult for any successor to depart from such position. He has told close associates that no force on earth will make him change his stand. Following the PNC meeting, Abbas intends to escalate the diplomatic campaign to join more UN organisations and to pursue Israel’s war crimes before international courts.

Abbas is preparing for the worse, his deteriorating health, naming a successor, the possible collapse of the PA and the seismic effects coming out of the Trump peace plan. One immediate casualty for hastily convening the PNC under occupation is Palestinian reconciliation, which now appears it was going nowhere. But Abbas’ options are limited and time is running out.


Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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