Analysis

Abbas' Belligerent Speech Doesn't Restore Confidence in the Palestinian Leadership

Despite the president's declarations, some in the West Bank believe not much will really change. The personal rivalries that won't go away will continue to be detrimental to the Palestinian struggle

Palestinian President Abbas speaks during the meeting of the Palestinian Central Council in the West Bank city of Ramallah January 14, 2018.
\ MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS

M.T., from near Jenin, thinks the recent clashes with Israeli soldiers are mainly a message to the Palestinian Authority that young Palestinians are fed up. In a few months, he says, they will turn their anger on it.

His opinion is particularly interesting because in his early 20's, he joined the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, for which he was sentenced to three years in an Israeli prison. He regrets having joined Fatah's armed wing. He remains a Fatah member, but he has no faith in its leadership, which is also the PA's leadership. Its internal rivalries weary him. He repeatedly used the word "corrupt." All the leaders "have houses in Amman. If everything collapses here, they'll have somewhere to flee," he said.

Then he said something contradictory, later confirming with a smile that he recognized the contradiction. "I wish the Israeli occupation would return." And a few minutes later, "All the foreign rulers in Palestine ultimately left. So will the Zionist regime. I don't mean the Jews; they were here and will remain."

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' speech to PLO's Central Council didn't restore M.T.s faith in his leadership or its ability and desire to adopt new political tactics. It's reasonable to assume this was true of most Palestinians, including Fatah supporters.

The London-based Al-Hayat newspaper reported a fierce argument, at the PLO Executive Committee meeting that preceded the council meeting, between Omar Shehadeh of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Abbas, who stormed out in anger. Shehadeh asked why Abbas didn't convene the committee immediately after President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital and said the PFLP plans to hold Abbas to account for failing to carry out the resolutions of the last Central Council meeting. Shehadeh was quoted in Al-Hayat as asking, "Who's responsible, the Executive Committee or the president?"

Shehadeh represents a withered organization living mainly on past glories, but many would identify with his question.

The praises of Abbas sung on Radio Palestine Monday were a reminder that he has the first and last word in Fatah and the PLO. But in interviews with the Watan news agency Monday, several prominent non-Fatah delegates stressed that Central Council decisions must be implemented.

Even those who didn't so explicitly were referring to the decisions adopted at its March 2015 meeting, above all the decision to end security coordination with Israel. Abbas objected to this and refused to implement it. And there's good reason to think the Central Council's latest decisions, whatever they end up being, will prove similarly empty.

The council is expected to once again decide to halt security coordination, ask the International Criminal Court to investigate Israel over settlement construction and call for international sanctions on Israel. It's also expected to urge the Executive Committee to suspend recognition of Israel. The original recommendation was to suspend recognition until Israel recognizes the State of Palestine, but that phrase was removed under Arab states' pressure. Merely saying "suspend" leaves the decision to Abbas.

Abbas' speech was depicted as heralding a new, difficult era in the national struggle. At such a time, public faith in the leadership is especially important, as is the ability to criticize, exchange opinions and overcome personal rivalries.

The ill wind of personal rivalry that weakened the Palestinian struggle in the past also hovers over this new, fateful stage, while lack of faith in the leadership and its abilities is stronger than ever before. No forceful speech will change that.