Palestine’s Crisis of Leadership: Did Abbas Destroy Palestinian Democracy?

The crisis of leadership throughout Palestinian history did not start with Mahmoud Abbas and will, regrettably, be unlikely to end with his departure. Although Abbas has, perhaps, done more damage to the credibility of the Palestinian leadership than any other leader in the past, he is also a by-product of a process of political fraud that started much earlier than his expired Presidency.

Abbas’ unforeseen announcement on August 27 that he, along with a few others, will resign from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee and his call for an emergency session of the Palestine National Council (PNC) is a testament to his poor management. More, it shows his utter disregard for the minimally-required threshold of responsible leadership.

Abbas, like his predecessor Yasser Arafat, has used and discarded the PLO and its various, now near-defunct, institutions as his personal political playground: summoning PNC members to vote on pre-determined and decided agendas and to cast and re-cast roles within the PLO’s Executive Committee as a way to punish and reward.

Now, at the age of 80, Abbas is obviously concerned about his legacy, the fate of the PLO and his Palestinian Authority (PA), once he is gone. Whatever political maneuvering he has planned for the future (including the selection of new Executive Committee members, which will be overseen by him and by his allies) is hardly encouraging. According to the Unity deal signed between Abbas’ faction, Fatah and Hamas, the restructuring of the PLO as a pre-requisite to include both Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in one unifying and relatively representative Palestinian body was a top priority.

Well, not anymore. Hamas is furious with Abbas’ call for reconvening the PNC, a two-day session scheduled to be held in Ramallah, West Bank next month. The Gaza-headquartered Movement is calling on Palestinian factions not to participate. Either way, further Palestinian disunity is assured.

Now that unity remains elusive, Hamas is seeking its own alternatives to breaking the Gaza siege by conducting what is being described as ‘indirect talks’ with Israel, via the notorious former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. The latter has reportedly met Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, on more than one occasion. The discussions included a long-term ceasefire between Hamas and Israel in exchange for the permission of a safe sea passage where Palestinians in Gaza can enjoy a degree of freedom, bypassing Israeli and Egyptian siege and restrictions.

Needless to say, if the reports regarding Blair’s role in the indirect negotiations and Hamas’ intentions are accurate, it would indeed be a great folly. On the one hand, Blair’s pro-Israel record disqualifies him from the role of any honest mediation. On the other, Resistance or truce is not a political decision to be determined by a single faction, no matter how great its sacrifices or how trustworthy its intentions.

In addition, Abbas is in no position to criticize Hamas for its talks with Blair. It is particularly disingenuous that Abbas and his party are accusing Hamas of flouting Palestinian Unity and consensus, while both – Abbas and Fatah - have contributed to Palestine’s political afflictions more than any other leader or faction in the past. In fact, while Gaza subsisted and suffered terribly under a protracted Israeli siege and successive wars, Abbas operated his PA outfit in Ramallah with the full consent of the Israeli Government. The so-called ‘security coordination’, chiefly aimed at crushing Palestinian Resistance in the West Bank, continued unabated.

This is what Israeli political commentator, Raviv Drucker, wrote in Haaretz in an article that reprimanded Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, for failing to appreciate the value of Abbas:

“Our greatest high-tech geniuses working in the most sophisticated laboratories could not invent a more comfortable Palestinian partner. A leader with no one to the left of him in the Palestinian political arena and one who, when his enemy, Israel, bombs his people in Gaza, comes out with a statement criticizing those who kidnap Israeli soldiers.”

Abbas has shown little compassion for Gaza. Neither has he demonstrated any respect for the Palestinian people nor has he invested sincere efforts aimed at making Palestinian unity his top priority. It is rather telling that he is activating the PNC, summoning its nearly 700 members, not to discuss the intensifying Palestinian crises - from Gaza to Jerusalem to Yarmouk - but rather to concoct another cozy arrangement for him and his cronies.

Yet, this crisis of leadership precedes Abbas.

The PNC’s first meeting was held in Jerusalem in 1964. Since then and for years now, despite the Parliament’s many flaws, it serves an important mission. It was a platform for Palestinian political dialogue; and, over the years, it helped define Palestinian national identity and priorities. But gradually, starting with Arafat’s elections as the head of the PLO in February 1969, the PNC ceased being a Parliament, and became, more or less, a political rubber stamp that validated all decisions made by Arafat’s PLO and, specifically, his Fatah faction.

This has been highlighted repeatedly throughout history with several prominent examples:

On November 12, 1988 the PNC convened in Algiers to approve of a political strategy based on UN Resolutions 242 and 338, the habitual US condition for engaging the PLO. At the end of deliberation and, based on that approval, Arafat announced an independent Palestinian State, to be established in the Occupied Territories, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Despite this, the US still argued that the PNC statement did not qualify for an ‘unconditional’ acceptance of Resolution 242, hence pressing Arafat for more concessions. Arafat flew to Geneva and addressed the UN General Assembly on December 13, 1988, since the US refused to grant him an entry visa to speak at the UN Headquarters in New York. He labored to be even more specific.

However, the US maintained its position, compelling Arafat, on the next day, to reiterate the same previous statements, this time, explicitly renouncing “all forms of terrorism, including individual, group or state terrorism.”

This was not the only time the PNC and its respected members were dragged into the political gambles of Palestinian leaders. In 1991, they voted in favor of direct negotiations in Madrid between Palestinians and Israel, only to be hoodwinked by Arafat, who negotiated a secret agreement in Oslo that paid little heed to Palestinian consensus. PNC was once more summoned to Gaza in 1996 to omit parts of the Palestinian Charter deemed unacceptable by Netanyahu and the then US President, Bill Clinton. As PNC members voted, Clinton, present at the meeting, nodded in agreement.

But unlike Arafat’s misuse of democracy and manipulation of the PNC - which is no longer representative or, with its current factional makeup is, frankly, irrelevant - Abbas’ game is even more dangerous.

Arafat used the Council to ratify or push his own agenda, which he mistakenly deemed suitable for Palestinian interests. Abbas’ agenda, however, is entirely personal, entirely elitist and entirely corrupt. Worse, it comes at a time when Palestinian unity is not just a matter of smart strategy, but is critical in the face of the conceivable collapse of the entire Palestinian national project.

There is no doubt that the moment when Abbas exits the scene has arrived. That could either become a transition into yet another sorry legacy of an undemocratic Palestinian leadership or it could serve as an opportunity for Palestinians, fed up with the endemic corruption, political tribalism and across-the-board failure, to step forward and challenge the moral collapse of the Palestinian Authority and the charade of self-serving ‘democracy’ of factions and individuals.


Dr. Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for over 20 years. He is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books and the founder of His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London). His website is:

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