January 23, 2015 | Business Insider

Inside The Slow-Burning Internal Crisis That’s Gripping The Palestinian Leadership

“Palestine cannot be run by bullying, dictatorship and the falsification of facts which Mahmoud Abbas and his gang use on daily basis.” So said Mohammad Dahlan, a chief rival of Abbas and the instigator of a massive rally in Gaza last month that featured posters of the Palestinian Authority leader hanged in the street.

The rally was the backdrop for a slow-simmering rise in tensions between Abbas and his many rivals the past few months.

Despite signing a reconciliation agreement last year between his Fatah party and his rivals in Gaza, Hamas, the two sides look further and further apart. Last week, Hamas workers in Gaza began a strike in order to get Abbas to pay them, to which Hamas leaders responded by re-opening their own parliament in Gaza, an institution that has been effectively shuttered since the reconciliation announcement.

Not only does having a parliament in Gaza and one in the West Bank hearken the Palestinians back to a pre-reconciliation “two of everything’ phase.” Re-launching the legislative body is also another shot in an increasingly hostile battle for control in Palestinian politics.

Abbas’s many opponents are blasting him at every chance, whether it’s his defeat in getting the UN Security Council to approve a resolution on Palestinian statehood (Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri:“Abbas…should completely stop this political foolishness”) or his attendance at the anti-terrorism march in Paris after the attacks in the city earlier this month (Gazan supporters chanted: “Gaza is closer than Paris”).

If Abbas appears to be acting as if he’s under siege, it’s because he is. The ageing leader is 10 years into a 4-year mandate and his rivals to the left and the right smell blood in the water.

To the left of him are the people pushing for full-on diplomatic warfare against Israel in the international arena. These are the leaders that pressured Abbas into forcing a vote at the UN Security Council a few weeks ago (which they promptly lost) and these are the people that, when that vote failed, pushed Abbas into signing the Rome Statute, paving the way for the Palestinians to join the International Criminal Court.

These people know that the ICC is popular with the Palestinian populace — 83% were in favor of joining the ICC when asked in December — and these are the people that understand Abbas is increasingly fighting a war of popularity against Hamas.

Which brings us to Abbas’s right flank. Abbas’s Fatah party and their bitter Hamas rivals were thought to have entered a new phase in their relationship last year when they signed a reconciliation agreement and formed a national consensus government. That government was charged with both preparing and launching new elections (it hasn’t) and facilitating the Palestinian Authority’s return to power in Gaza (it can’t).

Neither side was completely honest with the other when they signed the agreement. Hamas wants the PA to take over Gaza while they continue to run a shadow government, reaping all the monetary prizes of controlling the Strip without actually governing it.

Fatah and the PA want to show Gazans that Hamas is a dishonest arbitrator and that it’s because of their obfuscation that the PA cannot provide them with services.

Both parties are trying to use the reconciliation agreement as a way to take swipes at the others’ public support. In fact, just about the only thing Hamas and Fatah can agree upon is that neither wants to govern Gaza. They just want to control it.

Adding another dimension to this power struggle is an increasingly loud debate in Palestinian circles over who is going to succeed Abbas. It’s edging perilously close to open season on Abbas’s head.

In the summer, Israel uncovered several Hamas cells plotting a violent overthrow of Abbas’s Palestinian Authority. The plot was the starting point for a recent uptick in rumors of the PA’s collapse.

A few weeks ago, reports emerged that Abbas’s main rival, the ousted Fatah strongman Mohammad Dahlan, was meeting with other members of the Palestinian leadership to win over their support. Though all sides denied this report, the very fact that it was rumored shows that lines are being drawn in the sand. Dahlan even followed this rumor up with a rally in his name in Gaza — hosted by his one-time enemies in Hamas.

Despite a turbulent history, Hamas and Dahlan appear to have buried the hatchet in favor of opposing a common enemy: Abbas. As one senior Hamas official remarked: “Dahlan’s past is better than Abbas’s future.”

So what does Abbas do? It’s clear he’s decided to focus on fighting off domestic political demands at the expense of antagonizing the US and Israel. His international campaign keeps the Palestinian street happy while incurring mostly rhetorical wrath from the US and Israel. He knows that any public reprimand he gets from the US is likely to remain just that, and he knows that history would suggest that Israel doesn’t withhold tax revenues for long.

Both the US and Israel want him to remain at the top in Ramallah, so they’ll tolerate his international crusade for a while.

Back home, Abbas’s strategy is clear: appease the left while buying time with the right.

Abbas knows the ICC is popular but he also knows it’s a slow and plodding process that will drag on for months and years before potentially paying political dividends. In the meantime, he can sign more international conventions and show his people he’s producing something on their behalf.

The UN has said the Palestinians will become ICC members on April 1st, conveniently a few weeks after the Israeli elections. Should a leftist candidate such as Isaac Herzog win, Abbas’s calculation might change and the ICC might float back to a looming threat in the backdrop of negotiations.

Abbas's recent comments suggest as much. In Cairo last week Abbas told Egyptian president Sisi that he’d consider halting the ICC bid if talks were to restart in the coming weeks.

But should Benjamin Netanyahu or another conservative candidate win, the new legal front will open even wider in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Grant Rumley is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Reach him on Twitter: @Grant_Rumley


Palestinian Politics