By Nicola Nasser – The West Bank
Failing to substantiate for the President of the autonomous Palestinian Authority (PA), Mahmoud Abbas, a credible ‘legal’ basis to extend his term from the Basic Law, which is the constitutional terms of reference that govern the rotation of power and the renewal of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the PA, Abbas in his capacity as the chairman of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) convened the rubber stamping Fatah –dominated Central Council (CC) of the PLO in the West Bank city of Ramallah to elect him also President of the State of Palestine on November 23.
The move could have been the last “constitutional” resort to extend his term as PA president before it expires on January 9 next year in order to secure himself as the supreme “legitimate” authority on Palestinian decision-making in the context of the “make – or – break” bloody wrangling with the rival Hamas on the leadership of the Palestinian national movement.
The symbolic position secures his presidency for life in line with the “tradition” of his predecessor, but without any constitutional stipulation to support it as the PLO regulations lack even an official text of a presidential oath, an embarrassing fact that threw his senior aides into a whirlwind of frenzied last minute efforts to write down an oath for him to read out on November 23.
The position has been vacant since the death of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 2004. The PLO lawmakers in exile withheld the position from Abbas because they were demanding a separation between the PA presidency and the PLO chairmanship as a precautionary measure lest Israeli tanks bulldoze away the PA as they did in 2002 taking down with it the PLO, the internationally-recognized sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, which legitimized the creation of the “Palestinian National Authority” (PNA) in 1993 as a subsidiary reporting to the PLO.
Dropping their demand was dictated by the rivalry with Hamas and the so far failed Arab, mainly Egyptian, mediation efforts between the PLO and the Islamic Resistance Movement to resolve the dual legitimacy crisis, which resulted from the landslide electoral victory of Hamas in the January 2006 legislative election, a crisis that was exacerbated by the ensuing Israeli-U.S. siege into a bloody showdown that brought Hamas in June 2007 to be the de facto ruler of the Gaza Strip and at the same time created the existing de facto separation with the PLO-led West Bank.
Abbas’ move was intended to pre-empt an expected vacuum in power after announcement by Hamas that it would not recognize him as PA president after January 9 while insisting on its opposition to holding simultaneous early presidential and legislative elections before the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC)’s mandate expires in January 2010. The League of Arab Nations had warned against any vacuum in power in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which the league anticipates as a realistic possibility that threatens to relieve Israel of legitimate Palestinian negotiating partners and consequently of its obligations in accordance with the U.S-sponsored Annapolis diplomatic process.
PLO commitment to the Annapolis understandings was a milestone that vindicated Hamas fears and accusations that Abbas was leading and pursuing an older political coup d’etat to deprive the Islamic movement from its electoral victory and at the same time, for all practical and realpolitic reasons, foreclosed Abbas’ options to end what his leadership condemns as Hamas’ military coup d’etat in Gaza through national dialogue or political mediation.
Commitment or non-commitment to what the Quartet of the US, EU, UN and Russian mediators in Middle East peace-making described as the “Annapolis Process” in a statement they released after their meeting in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on November 8 has become the terms of reference to make or break the Palestinian unity of ranks, which has so far failed the Egyptian mediation efforts, the latest in a series of national, Arab and non-Arab similar reconciliation endeavors.
The Annapolis conference, which was hosted by the United States in Meryland on November 27, 2007 and attended by all members of the Arab League, convened with much fanfare and re-launched the Palestinian – Israeli negotiations after a seven – year interruption since the collapse of the trilateral Camp David summit with the U.S. in 2000.
In Annapolis, Arab leaders and the Palestinian presidency were lured by a promise of a Palestinian state by the end of 2008 and a wider Arab – Israeli peace process therafter, mainly on the Syrian track, to coexist with the inter-Palestinian divide between the PLO and Hamas and to grudgingly hide their bitter resentment of the U.S.-Israeli threat of siege, which had aborted Qatari, UAE, Saudi, Egyptian, Yemeni and other Arab and non – Arab mediation efforts to unify Palestinian ranks, as well as two landmark inter-Palestinian accords (the Cairo agreement in 2005 and the “national consensus accord,” known as the “prisoners’ document” agreement the next year).
The Annapolis plan to implement the first stage of the 2003 Road Map for a Palestinian – Israeli political settlement has built on two pillars, the first a Palestinian – Israeli security coordination that is solely and directly monitored by three senior U.S. generals, namely James Jones, William Fraser and Keith Dayton, and the second pillar is the inter-Palestinian divide between Ramallah and Gaza.
However, the failure of the “Annapolis process” could be better proved by the unmet deadline of 2008 and the un-honored promise of a Palestinian state, but the two pillars nonetheless survived the failure of Annapolis so far to perpetuate and exacerbate the Palestinian rift, with the security coordination raising accusations by Hamas of PLO collaboration with Israel and the divide developing into what threatens to become a permanent separation between the West Bank and Gaza.
There remain too at the core of the Annapolis process and at the heart of the Palestinian divide the three Israeli-U.S. “good conduct” preconditions that qualify Palestinians to be partners to peace negotiations as well as to evade military siege, economic blockade and diplomatic isolation, namely to unilaterally renounce violence without any guarantees of Israeli reciprocity, recognize the existence of the state of Israel without any Israeli reciprocal recognition of the state of Palestine, and commitment to the accords signed by the PLO with Israel regardless of Israeli reciprocal respect thereto.
Israel’s lack of reciprocity has come recently under spotlight by the refusal of the U.S. State Department to publish a report by its Middle East security envoy General James Jones on Palestinian-Israeli security, which the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, quoted by AFP on November 26, described in August as "an extremely critical report of Israel’s policies" in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.”
It is now public knowledge that the Palestinian partner to the Annapolis process, represented by President Abbas, the PLO and the PA, are wholeheartedly committed thereto irrespective of any Israeli reciprocity. The emergency meeting of the Arab foreign ministers in Cairo on November 26 concluded similarly committal, encouraged beforehand to let go the undelivered promises of the Annapolis conference by indications floated by both the Israeli President Shimon Peres and the U.S. President-elect Barak Obama’s team of their willingness to deal with the collective Arab peace initiative.
Hamas is consequently left in the cold to fend off a Palestinian and Arab diplomatic isolation as much as to survive the Israeli ongoing economic blockade and military siege, “hopefully” to gradually be finished off or alternatively to surrender to those same three preconditions to which its Palestinian rival had subscribed to as early as the Oslo accord was signed with Israel in Washington D.C. in 1993.
More out of presuming the weakness of Hamas than out of feeling a strength in his own position, but stiffening his back with the U.S. and Israeli determination to push hard with their three pre-qualifications, President Abbas feels safe enough to persistently reiterate his commitment to Annapolis and to corner the besieged Islamic movement to either dismantle voluntarily or otherwise being swept away in a way or another, and he is on record as saying recently that the end of the “black coup d’etat” in Gaza is only a matter of time.
However the end game of the Annapolis process is still far away from being the only game in the town as it is held hostage to Hamas’ fate as much as it has cornered Hamas, but meanwhile this process remains the detrimental factor that makes or breaks the unity of Palestinian ranks, as long as both Palestinian protagonists continue to risk it out in their brinkmanship policies.
President Abbas in a public speech commemorating the forth anniversary of Arafat’s death on November 11 reiterated his commitment to Annapolis, condemned the Hamas “black coup d’etat” in 2007, and held Hamas responsible for the inter-Palestinian political and geographical split with the West Bank as well as for the failure of the “national dialogue” and the collapse of several Arab mediation efforts to end the Palestinian divide.
Ironically, Abbas’ US – led backers rarely use his “coup d’etat” label to describe the violent Hamas showdown with the security forces loyal to him in Gaza more than a year ago as they have their own labels, mostly derived from terrorism, to exclude Hamas.
However, in retrospect Hamas “black coup d’etat” in Gaza was in fact the result of a much wider, deeper and older political and military coup d’etat that is still ongoing to deprive Hamas from its democratically-won victory in the legislative elections of January 2006, pre-empt the repetition of that bitter democratic process to guarantee by all means the exclusion of Hamas or similar Palestinian political orientation, and to reinstate Israel’s Palestinian partner to the Oslo peace accord of 1993, namely the Abbas-led PLO and its autonomous PA in the West Bank, as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people in any future Palestinian elections, be it presidential, legislative or municipal.
The anti – Hamas coup d’etat began, First, when Israel and the United States led an internationally – imposed collective punishment on the Palestinian people, under Israeli occupation since 1967, by enforcing an economic, financial, political and diplomatic siege on the Hamas-led government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip immediately after the 2006 legislative election, which was facilitated by more than $220 million U.S. and European taxpayers’ money and brought Hamas to power in a landslide electoral victory that stunned both the European Union and United States donors to the democratic process and the Jimmy Carter-led international monitors who testified to the fair, free and transparent elections.
Second, the U.S. sponsor who monopolizes the peace – making process in the Arab and Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and allows only a United Nations rubber stamping contribution thereto, forced the hands of the three other members of the Quartet of international UN, EU and Russian mediators in Middle East peace-making to subscribe to the three Israeli preconditions to recognize the outcome of the Palestinian 2006 elections and lift the siege.
Ironically the comatose former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon had proclaimed the Oslo accords “dead” as soon as he assumed power and rolled the tanks of the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) to sweep away the political map drawn on the ground by those same accords when, first, they reoccupied the PA autonomous areas in the West Bank in 2002 and, second, they besieged the Nobel Peace laureate Arafat, who was the Palestinian partner to those same accords, for three years in his bedroom until his death in 2004.
The demand that Palestinians unilaterally commit, collectively and individually, to those preconditions again highlights the Israeli lack of reciprocity by ignoring for example the fact that Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of “Israel Baituna,” who publicly calls for forced Arab population transfer, was allowed into Ehud Olmert’s ruling coalition as deputy prime minister and minister of strategic affairs, or the fact that Benyamin Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud, who is allowed to run in the upcoming Israeli election for prime minister on a platform that refuses the Annapolis process and its two-state solution “vision.”
Third, the Abbas-led PLO and PA, backed by their U.S. and Israeli Oslo partners, did their best to prevent the empowerment of the Hamas-only government and later the Hamas-led national unity government, which was formed under the Hamas-Fatah 2007 Mecca agreement, exploiting to the maximum Fatah’s dominant grip on the PA security agencies and civil bureaucracy which was tightened all throughout the one party rule of Fatah since 1993, which in turn led Hamas to create their own “executive (police) force,” thus excluding an early national political partnership based on the pluralistic outcome of the legislative elections, making the gap wider between the two rival national movements, Fatah and Hamas, and creating the dual legitimacy crisis between the elected Abbas presidency and the elected Hamas-led PLC.
Forth, emboldened by the Annapolis process, the PLO now refuses reciprocal concessions and persists with its “political coup d’etat,” offering an impossible – to – accept framework for reconciliation and adamantly insistent that Hamas unilaterally ends its coup d’etat, dismantles its rule in Gaza and its military wings outlawed by the PA, commits to PLO’s political programme and respects its signed accords with Israel, voluntarily agrees to give up its electoral mandate by agreeing to go to early elections, i.e. to transform itself into a carbon copy of Fatah as a precondition to join the PLO and the PA as well as to run in the upcoming elections, which all boil down to a Hamas complete surrender to its rival and indirectly to the three Israeli-U.S. preconditions.
This ongoing older PLO coup d’etat to rule out the outcome of the last legislative elections is certain to create the ideal incubator that sustains the rift between the two rival movements as well as the separation between Gaza and the West Bank, and to doom any reconciliation efforts, whether through national dialogue or political mediation.
– Nicola Nasser is a veteran Arab journalist based in Bir Zeit of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian West Bank. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.