Comment: Hanan Ashrawi’s departure leaves the PLO a poorer place, headed by a power hungry Abbas, and in desperate need of reform, writes Muhammad Shehada.

Since the signing of the 1993 Oslo accords, Dr Hanan Ashrawi has been the progressive face of official Palestinian diplomacy: a woman of Christian faith, a prominent activist, a critical scholar, and a vocal feminist.

Last Wednesday, however, Ashrawi made public her official resignation from the PLO’s top Executive Committee. Palestinian Authority President  promptly accepted the resignation. The implications of her departure, and the dynamics leading up to it are of grave concern.

Ashrawi – who has been at times a staunch opponent of the PA’s authoritarian policing practices – is one of the last decent members of the PLO’s leadership who had not been bought or silenced. She consistently remained distant from political controversies, and – unlike other PLO officials – has virtually never been implicated in a scandal of corruption or infamy. Even the PA’s political opponents in Hamas came out in support of her latest decision.

Despite years of frustration with Abbas’ exclusivist approach to decision-making, Ashrawi has managed to keep herself focused on her role as the head of the PLO’s Department of Public Diplomacy and Policy, avoiding clashes with Abbas and his inner circle. It hasn’t been an easy time, and she had to put up with Abbas marginalising the PLO, concentrating authority in his own hands and sidelining any Palestinian leader who dared oppose or dispute his decisions.

Ashrawi’s sudden resignation speaks of the increasing slide in Abbas’ PLO towards authoritarianism – a shift she could not tolerate. Her choice of words in the announcement makes clear that she has had enough of Abbas’ reign. She cites an alarming marginalisation of the PLO’s top decision-making committee, where Abbas exclusively retains the final say over all matters. She calls for reforming and activating the PLO to resume its intended role at the forefront of the Palestinian struggle for liberation, and she urges the inclusion youth, women, and additional qualified professionals in the Palestinian political system.

With Hanan Ashrawi's resignation goes the last shred of PLO decency She had to put up with Abbas marginalising the PLO, concentrating authority in his own hands With Hanan Ashrawi's resignation goes the last shred of PLO decency

Abbas’ lack of strategy

Ashrawi’s words are a clear protest against the deadlocked political system under Abbas. And the timing of her resignation shows strong disaffection, not just with the PLO and PA becoming Abbas’ authoritarian oligarchy, but also becoming an utter failure that suffers an extreme lack of strategy or the motivation to develop one.

During Trump’s presidency, Abbas has been entirely reactive, rather than pro-active, towards the US’ unprecedented assault on the Palestinian cause. His actions have been at best symbolic, arbitrary and lacking any vision, such as hollow denunciations of Trump moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, or of premature Israeli-Arab normalisation.

Ashrawi said she submitted her letter of resignation to Abbas on November 24 – less than a week after Abbas abruptly instructed the PA to officially resume all relations with Israel, including the widely detested security collaboration, as an empty gesture to the incoming Biden administration.

Last May Abbas suddenly decided to halt relations with Israel to protest looming annexation. He suspended humanitarian coordination for no clear reason, depriving hundreds of seriously ill Palestinians of the ability to seek medical treatment abroad. He had also unreasonably refused to receive the PA’s tax revenues from Israel, starving tens of thousands of low-income civil servants who didn’t receive their full salaries for six months.

Read more: Palestine extends state of emergency as Covid-19 cases rise

In essence, Abbas’ all or nothing policy lacked any strategic depth. Instead, his brinkmanship in decision making shows a thirst for grandstanding and symbolism rather than caring for the public’s survival let alone best interest. With the Palestinian cause losing ground at a pace greater than ever, Abbas’ incompetence and political paralysis became an unaffordable liability to PLO officials with a shred of decency, such as Ashrawi.

PLO’s authoritarian drift and EU silence

The PLO’s authoritarian drift isn’t an inherent characteristic or an inevitable outcome of Palestinian politics, but rather the gradual outcome of broader political dynamics. The most prominent turning point for the PA and PLO has been the intra-Palestinian division sparked in 2007 between Hamas and Fatah.

Such a dark chapter in Palestinian history was essentially funded and sanctioned by the US, Israel and Arab states who disapproved of Hamas’ win in the 2006 parliamentary elections, and instead funded, armed and trained Abbas’ presidential guard force to oust Hamas’ government.

As Hamas took over Gaza, Abbas declared a state of emergency, rendering the Hamas-controlled parliament irrelevant and justifying exceptional measures taken in the name of security. This entailed concentrating powers in the hands of the president, including the authority to hire and fire anyone in government, even the prime minister. Indeed, Abbas used this authority to buy loyalties and eliminate opposition and dissent while the international community turned a blind eye under the lesser evil pretext.

With Hanan Ashrawi's resignation goes the last shred of PLO decency His brinkmanship in decision making shows a thirst for grandstanding and symbolism rather than caring for the public’s survival With Hanan Ashrawi's resignation goes the last shred of PLO decency

Intra-Palestinian reconciliation could have been a gate to reviving the system of checks and balances. However, the international community, including the EU, did little to push for this outcome. Instead, they continued to fund Abbas’ government for as long as it provided calm for Israel, even if that meant using brutal force against the general populace.

They further stood entirely idle as Israel worked tirelessly to undermine Palestinian unity. For instance, in 2014, when the PA signed a reconciliation agreement with Hamas, Netanyahu’s government immediately pulled back from talks with the PA. Then, PLO chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said that “Mr. Netanyahu and his government were using Palestinian division as an excuse not to make peace. Now they want to use Palestinian reconciliation as an excuse for the same purpose.”

Although the EU has recently been calling for democratic reforms in the PA, they haven’t put their full weight behind these calls, out of reluctance and fear of the unfavourable scenario of Hamas winning again. With Biden’s win, business is now back to normal and the EU stopped calling for these reforms altogether.

The result of the EU’s silence and complicity has been to incentivize Abbas to hold on to and amass more power, when accountability is suspended, while disincentivising critical voices like Ashrawi’s from continuing in an office increasingly marginalised and sidelined.

However, this authoritarian downfall isn’t written in stone. It can still be reversed if the international community uses its leverage with Abbas to push for positive change. For instance, the EU as the PA’s biggest donor should condition its contributions to Abbas’ government on enacting democratic reforms and moving towards elections.

Reviving electoral accountability is an obligatory stepping stone to making the Palestinian public visible and present in the political system that will put an end to Abbas’ exclusivism.

Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden. He was the PR officer for the Gaza office of the Euro-Med Monitor for Human Rights.

Follow him on Twitter: @muhammadshehad2

Have questions or comments? Email us at editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.

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