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The Palestinian Authority's looming succession crisis

March 29, 2016 at 8:04 am

The octogenarian leader of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank will not be around forever.

Elected as president of the PA back in 2005, the democratic mandate of Mahmoud Abbas expired years ago. Armed putschist forces loyal to Abbas took over the West Bank back in 2007, several months after democratic elections to the PA’s legislative body did not go Abbas’s way.

The “Palestinian Authority” is a thorough misnomer: it has no real authority, and its ultimate loyalty is to Israel, not to the Palestinian people. Indeed, the entire raison d’être of the PA since its inception has been to act as a violent buffer between the Israeli occupation and popular Palestinian anger and resistance.

It is in fact a subcontractor for the occupation.

The PA, of course, does have some perfectly legitimate civilian functions, such as education and health. But these are dwarfed by its massive budget for “security” and policing, including of the feared mukabarat, or secret police. Some 31 per cent of the PA’s total budget is spent in this way. This far outstrips spending on health, education or agriculture. In proportionate terms, this is much more than the UK (10 per cent), India (16 per cent), Israel (20 per cent) and even the USA (23 per cent).

PA officials and military officers boast in the western press of the amount of Palestinians arrested in order to keep Israeli soldiers safe from acts of Palestinian resistance – both armed and unarmed. They know who they ultimately work for.

But the PA is facing a crisis at its very heart: there is no clear successor to Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas has said he will not stand for re-election – no problem when there are no elections to contest in the first place. But he has also proven to be something of a control freak, and rather paranoid about rivals. Many potential successors have been seen off. A recent New York Times article was most concerned about the prospects for preserving the PA after Abbas’s death and speculated who will next take charge and protect Israel with the PA’s supposedly (in Abbas’s phrase) “sacred” security collaboration.

Salam Fayyad, a thoroughly unelected former “prime minister” of the PA (whose vanity party won less than 3 per cent in the last election) was at first close to Abbas. But later, he became something of a scapegoat to figures in Fatah, who saw him as a rival to the Abbas cult of personality (surely the most dreary and unconvincing such cult in history). He was replaced by diktat with Rami Hamdallah, a dull Abbas loyalist.

Yassir Abed Rabbo too has now been cast out of the inner circle. Abed Rabbo did his best to genuflect to Israel over the years. Previously a leftist with the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, he often acted as Yassir Arafat’s man within the left, splitting from other leftists on issues such as two states verses one democratic state of Palestine. Abed Rabbo had one of his NGOs summarily shut by Abbas last year, before being sacked as PLO secretary-general.

In that role, he now been replaced by Saeb Erekat, who the Palestine Papers showed describing to a US State Department delegation the brutal and violent nature of his PA: “we have had to kill Palestinians to establish one authority, one gun”.

According to the New York Times, Abed Rabbo had been accused of conspiring with Muhammad Dahlan to overthrow Abbas. No figure has become more of an internal bugbear for Abbas than Dahlan in recent years.

A former head of the infamous torturers of the PA’s Preventative Security Forces in Gaza before Hamas was elected to power, Dahlan was blamed within Fatah for “losing” Gaza to Hamas. After months of internal violence on the streets of Gaza in 2007, Dahlan’s “Palestinian Contras” (as one apt analogy put it) attempted an outright coup to overthrow the elected government, backed by the CIA, Israel, Mubarak’s Egypt and Jordan. It failed.

After clashing with Abbas, he was exiled from the West Bank, accused of corruption. No wonder then that establishment journals of American imperial power like the New York Times see Dahlan as a potential future leader of the PA. He’s just the sort of corrupt, violent and anti-democratic thug that Western powers prefer to see installed as leaders in the Arab world – so long as he does their bidding.

The PA was a politically bankrupt project from the get-go. Its major function is to serve Israel occupation. It should be dismantled, and replaced with a democratic popular resistance movement which can begin to take forward the tasks of Palestinian liberation from Israeli occupation. The alternative is a potentially chaotic collapse, with highly unpredictable results.

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London and an associate editor with The Electronic Intifada.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.