Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited Kuwait on Monday to raise the Palestinian flag over the Palestinian embassy in Kuwait City for the first time in 22 years. The move was long overdue — the embassy had been closed as punishment for former Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat's decision to side with Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein after he invaded Kuwait in 1990. But even as Abbas buried the hatchet with the Kuwaitis, he was dragging Palestinian politics back to the Arafat era.
Abbas's visit to Kuwait came two days after Abbas pushed out his reformist prime minister, Salaam Fayyad. Fayyad's departure came as no surprise to anyone familiar with the dysfunction inside the Palestinian Authority (PA): His reform agenda had been a constant irritant to Abbas. The two Palestinian leaders have barely been on speaking terms for more than a year, according to a former advisor to the Palestinian Authority. (Fayyad, for instance, opposed Abbas's push at the United Nations last year for non-member observer state status, insisting that Palestinians would be better served by continuing to build viable institutions.) The tension between the two was arguably the closest thing one could get to a system of checks and balances in the PA.
With Fayyad's departure, Abbas seems to have overcome any institutional restraints on his power: He heads both the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Fatah, the dominant faction within it, and is also now four years past the end of his term as president of the PA, with no new elections in sight. After a two-decade experiment in Palestinian democracy and state building that began just after the U.S. liberation of Kuwait, it's now hard to deny that Abbas looks an awful lot like the autocratic Arafat — minus the signature keffiyeh and fatigues, of course.
Abbas wasn't always an autocrat, however. When he was elected in 2005, he positioned himself as the counterweight to Arafat's corrupt and manipulative leadership style. But things went south after Hamas's violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007. The United States and Israel sought to bolster the wobbly Abbas in the West Bank, plying him with weapons, training, intelligence and cash to insulate him from Hamas encroachment. Over time, the Palestinian leader not only found his footing, he tightened his grip on the West Bank.
Media freedom in the West Bank, for example, has been increasingly under threat. The Palestinian Authority has arrested numerous journalists and blocked several websites critical of its administration of the West Bank. Recently, 26-year-old Anas Awwad was thrown in jail — though he was later pardoned — for a Facebook post that poked fun at Abbas. Remarkably, the Abbas government invoked Article 195 of Jordan's penal code, which criminalizes criticism of the Jordanian king, in the case.
Abbas will not stand for political challengers, either. Just ask Arafat-era Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan, who had the audacity to challenge Abbas's monopoly on Palestinian politics. Abbas responded with a relentless campaign, launched in the name of countering corruption, to freeze Dahlan's assets at home and abroad. Abbas eventually pushed Dahlan out of Fatah, and subsequently revoked his parliamentary immunity. Longtime PLO figure Yasser Abd Rabbo, who refused to back Abbas's statehood maneuver at the U.N. last year, and senior Fatah official Samir Mashharawi, who openly supported Dahlan, were also stripped of their positions last year.
Put plainly, there is little political freedom in the West Bank these days. The Palestinian president has no political challengers. He has no vice president. He has no heir apparent. And he does not allow for a healthy exchange of political ideas in the public space. With the imminent exit of Fayyad, his domination of Palestinian politics in the West Bank appears complete.
To make matters worse, Palestinian basic law stipulates that, were the 78-year-old Abbas be unable or unfit to fulfill his job, succession would fall upon Hamas parliamentarian Aziz Dweik, the speaker of parliament, for 60 days. This would undoubtedly create a political crisis within the PA and possibly trigger a funding cut off from Washington. On this score, Illinois Reps. Peter Roskam and Dan Lipinski are spearheading a bipartisan initiative in the U.S. Congress to urge Abbas to alter the succession laws to exclude Hamas, identify next-generation leaders committed to diplomacy with Israel, and open up the West Bank's political environment.
But things may get worse. The Jerusalem Post reported that Abbas is now mulling the idea of naming himself prime minister to replace the outgoing Fayyad, which would raise the anxiety over succession to a whole new level. But even if Abbas makes way for a new premier, the reported short list of candidates doesn't inspire confidence: Frontrunner Mohammed Mustafa is Abbas's right hand man for economic matters, Azzam al-Ahmad is the Fatah faction's front man in unity talks with Hamas, Munib al-Masri is a billionaire with little hands-on political experience, and Rami Hamdallah is an academic administrator and political neophyte. Abbas could certainly surprise the world by naming a bona fide reformer, but that's hard to imagine.
Thus, with Fayyad's departure, after more than two decades of fits and starts of political progress, Palestinian politics is right back to where it started. One man — this time in a suit, instead of a keffiyeh and fatigues — presides over a people not only desperate for independence, but desperate for change.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former terror finance analyst at the U.S. Treasury, is vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of Hamas vs Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine.