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Ruthless Abbas is following Putin's lead when it comes to seeing off his rivals

March 24, 2022 at 11:00 am

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) meets Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (R) in Sochi, Russia on November 23, 2021. [MIA Rossiya Segodnya – Anadolu Agency]

Is Russian President Vladimir Putin advising his Palestinian Authority counterpart Mahmoud Abbas on how to maintain his iron grip on power while seeing off political rivals? I only ask because Abbas, who is also the chairman of Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, has already postponed — yet again — the Eighth Fatah Conference which was to elect the movement’s leaders and office-bearers of its various branches and departments.

Just like Putin, Abbas is becoming increasingly fearful of any democratic process that could unseat him. The long-awaited conference and internal elections were supposed to be held in Ramallah this week, but they’ve now been pushed back to May.

This week, despite being in the middle of a war with Ukraine, Putin found time to see off his biggest political rival, Alexei Navalny, who was sentenced to nine years in prison in a trial described by his supporters as a kangaroo court. Navalny, who has survived being poisoned in an attack which he blamed on the Kremlin, was already serving three and a half years in jail for breaking bail conditions while in hospital. A judge has now found him guilty of fraud and contempt of court.

Back in occupied Palestine, you’d think that at 86 years of age Abbas would be ready to step down, but his supposed ambition of leading the Palestinian people to freedom and an independent state has long been overtaken by his corrosive desire to hang on to power at any cost, usually to the detriment of the Palestinians. And just like his political ally Putin, he is prepared to see off his political opponents using any means necessary.

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The thorn in his side isn’t the apartheid state of Israel or even the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas; it is Marwan Barghouti, a political prisoner held by Israel and regarded as a popular leader of the First and Second Intifadas, the Palestinian uprisings in 1987/93 and 2000/05. When Barghouti was likened to the world’s greatest and best-known political detainee Nelson Mandela, it was enough to prompt Abbas to “postpone” — a euphemism for “cancel” — last year’s parliamentary and presidential elections when the 62 year old announced from his prison cell his intention to run for president. Abbas knew that there was every likelihood that Barghouti would win.

Palestine president Abbas ends ‘all agreements’ with Israel, US - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Palestinian president Abbas ends ‘all agreements’ with Israel, US – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

This is almost certainly why the PA leader has deferred this week’s Fatah elections. Barghouti happens to be much more popular than Abbas, and would probably have been elected to serve on the powerful Fatah Central Committee despite his status as a prisoner of the occupation state.

Hamas is regarded as Fatah’s main political rival, with Ismail Haniyeh seen as presidential material, but the elections were not postponed in order to stop the movement from winning even more seats in the Legislative Council. It is the rise in popularity of Barghouti which has caused alarm bells to ring among the old men who cling to power in Ramallah. Democracy for them is a double-edged sword, just as it is for Israel, which already virtually controls Abbas and the PA.

Abbas blamed Israel and unrest on the streets for not being able to hold elections in occupied Jerusalem; no doubt the Zionist state was happy to accept the blame because it fears Barghouti nearly as much as Abbas does. Israel knows it can deal with Abbas and the corrupt elements in Ramallah, so the last thing it wants is to see a “Palestinian Mandela” at the helm of the PA.

There’ll be no objections from Washington either, which is still outraged by the Palestinian election results in January 2006 which swept Hamas to power. Despite the hollow rhetoric about democracy, the US, Britain and Israel’s other allies are not keen on seeing the Palestinians exercise their democratic rights again any time soon. Postponements and endless prevarication seem to be the preferred option, except for those who would benefit from democracy in occupied Palestine: Barghouti, Hamas and the Palestinian people.

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There are suggestions that Abbas is working hard with both Israel and the US to prevent Barghouti’s release in any future prisoner exchange deals with Hamas. The rumour is that the PA leader undermined plans to release him back in 2011 in a prisoner exchange deal involving Israel and the Islamic Resistance Movement which saw Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit released in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

In the meantime, Abbas is leaving nothing to chance, and is planning to freeze the membership of 150 Fatah activists who support Barghouti and therefore have the potential to weaken him in the Fatah elections. Security prisoners’ representatives will also be banned from the “postponed” election conference on the grounds that it would anger Israel and the US; it’s a lousy excuse. Abbas claims that he can’t afford to upset either party if the PLO office in Washington is to be reopened and the US Consulate is to be moved to occupied East Jerusalem.

As usual in these matters, Abbas is more concerned about placating the occupation state and its allies than doing what is best for the people of Palestine. He is Israel’s man, and everyone knows it. Nevertheless, it is still extraordinary to think that the great revolutionary Barghouti is suffering at the hands of his Palestinian brothers in Ramallah. At least Nelson Mandela knew clearly who his enemies were and could always rely on the spirit of brotherhood within the ranks of his own resistance movement. That is a luxury that the Palestinians can only dream of, as the ruthlessly corrupt octogenarian in Ramallah demonstrates daily.

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