Why is the Palestinian president depressed?
During Yasser Arafat’s long tenure as the head of the PLO, Mahmoud Abbas, who was his deputy, wasn’t always happy with the decisions taken by the leader. A depressed and unhappy Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, would sometimes disappear for months, often in Morocco. The act is often referred to in Arabic as “harad” — the nearest translation to it according to Google Translate is “sulk”. It is the same term used for unhappy wives who go to their parents’ home for a few months as an act of protest against certain unacceptable acts of their husbands.
As in many marital cases, Abu Mazen would usually return after the initial anger had gone — often with the help of a trusted friend or a senior member of the leadership — and things would return to normal between the two senior leaders, until the next time, Arafat would do something, as he often did, without consulting senior members of the leadership.
All this was possible as long as Abbas was the number two man in the leadership. While his absence was felt, it was not a catastrophe. However, as president of the Palestinian government and chairman of the PLO, Abu Mazen doesn’t have the luxury he had when he was the number two man. He can’t simply sulk or go away to Morocco for a few months.
Instead, what Abbas and his close aides try to do when things are not going their way is to threaten resignation. Initially, Abbas himself said that he will not stand for the office of president of the Palestinian Authority again. But the supposed parliamentary and presidential elections, which are long overdue, have been hampered by the Gaza crisis and — according to Fateh — the reluctance of Hamas to participate in elections that public opinion polls say they would lose. With elections still unclear, this week rumours are surfacing that Abbas plans to resign within months, with or without elections.
Of course the resignation route is not easy and Abbas can’t simply walk away for a number of reasons. Unlike the situation when he was number two, at present there is no number two in the Palestinian leadership. Whether by design or because of lack of clear-cut strong leader, the fact is no one is in the number two spot and Abbas appears not to favour the idea of handpicking and grooming a second in line. One problem is generational. Abbas and everyone else know that after two leaders from the founding generation have occupied the number one position for five decades, Palestinians want someone from the second generation.
Also, Palestinians in the occupied territories would like someone who was born and has lived his/her entire life in Palestine rather than someone from the Diaspora/refugee population as Arafat and Abbas were. This is not to say that the right of return will not be high on the priorities of the new leader, but the aim of ending the occupation will be much higher.
Furthermore, Abbas and his Fateh movement have a legal problem with the transitional issue. The Palestinian basic law, a sort of constitution, clearly declares that in case of the absence of the president, the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) will be acting president for 60 days during which new elections will take place. While the president is elected directly by the public, the speaker of the PLC is chosen by the parliamentarians at the beginning of every session.
Technically, PLC speaker is Abdel Aziz Dweik who was chosen in 2006 as speaker of the pro-Hamas legislature following their big victory. The idea of allowing the pro-Hamas Dweik to have control over the Palestinian government and national security forces for 60 days is rejected by Abbas, his Fateh movement and the PLO, as well as by Israel and the international community. Dweik has been imprisoned by Israel a few times but he was released recently.
Some Palestinian legal experts argue that Salim Zanoun, the head of the Palestine National Council (PNC), could carry this position. All agreements, including the Oslo Accords, refer to the PLO as the party representing Palestinians. The PNC is the most superior organisation in the PLO and is the one that chooses the executive committee of the PLO, which Arafat chaired and now Abbas.
The same legal experts say they would use the change in the Palestinian status to that of a state following the UN General Assembly vote to widen the scope of the presidency to include all Palestinians and thus the need to make the head of the transitional period a representative of all Palestinians and not just those in the occupied territories. All 132 elected members of the PLC are less than a third of the 500-member PNC.
Other ideas have also been floated to overcome this problem by Abbas with the help of the executive committee of the PLO announcing a deputy president. But this idea, which was floated a month ago, doesn’t appear to have much legal support and it seems Abbas doesn’t want to handpick his deputy in the absence of a wider electoral process. One such process was expected to be the holding of the seventh Fateh congress, which has been postponed a few times, reportedly because of problems in electing delegates from Gaza and no new date has yet been set.
With the regional turmoil and a right-wing Israeli government opposed to the two-state solution, there appears to be little attention given to the Palestinian struggle and, therefore, no major decisions are needed in the near future. This is precisely the time for Palestinians to get their house in order and organise national elections to choose the next parliament and president of Palestine, who will be mandated to carry out the hard job of turning the virtually declared state of Palestine on the 1967 borders into a genuine sovereign, democratic and independent state.