NYT: It’s Time for Mahmoud Abbas to Go

By Roger Cohen, NYT

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Elie Shamaa is the kind of young man Palestine needs. A tech specialist working for an international organization in the West Bank, he’s fluent in English and is completing an M.B.A. through an American program in Ramallah. But he’s had it. He sees his future elsewhere. “People reached a point where they know they are losing their life,” he told me.

We spoke as we drove north from Ramallah to Nablus. Hilltop Israeli settlements, controlling the line of sight, loomed into view at every turn, the ubiquitous red-roofed stamp of a half-century of occupation. As we passed through an Israeli checkpoint, Shamaa murmured, “In one minute they can close anything; in one minute they can open anything.” Planning is impossible for the three million Palestinians in the West Bank. Their lives must bend to Israeli whim.

Never, through decades of national struggle, have the Palestinians been weaker. Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel has been implacable in undermining possible Palestinian statehood. Arab states, Iran-obsessed, have lost interest in the Palestinian cause. President Trump has threatened to cut off “hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and support” in response to perceived Palestinian lèse-majesté after his decision to take Jerusalem “off the table” by recognizing it as Israel’s capital.

But even in this environment, Mahmoud Abbas, the 82-year-old Palestinian president, cannot escape responsibility for failure. His government is now widely seen as a corrupt gerontocracy. It is inept, remote, self-serving and ever more authoritarian. Elected to a four-year term in January 2005, he’s entering the 14th year of a largely unaccountable presidency.

Crippling divisions between his Fatah movement and Hamas in Gaza persist beneath a veneer of “reconciliation.” To a population whose median age is about 20, Abbas and his cronies look like the past. Of the 18 elected members of the Fatah Central Committee, only one is under 50. Most of them live very well even as many Palestinians dismiss them as Israel’s lap dogs because of their close security and intelligence cooperation with Israel.

“There’s a growing climate of fear,” said Darin Hussein, the country manager for a nongovernmental organization encouraging sports for Palestinian children. “You can be arrested for posting anything critical on social media.” In her mid-30s, she, too, has hit bottom. “Nothing is going to change,” she told me.

Abbas has stamped on a free press at a time when strong investigative journalism in Israel has contributed to Netanyahu’s woes over corruption allegations. He issued a grotesque cybercrime law last summer that punishes with a year of imprisonment anyone who creates a website that “aims to publish news that would endanger the integrity of the Palestinian state” or “the public order.” The legislation, which also imposes a two-year sentence on anyone publishing information “with the intent to attack any family principles or values,” amounts to a violation of the Palestinian Basic Law of 2003. This guarantees the right of everyone to “express his opinion and to circulate it orally, in writing, or in any form of expression.” Putative Palestine is in a repressive slide.

The president has also undermined an independent judiciary. Over multiple objections, Abbas has appointed a Constitutional Court, pliant to his will. This was a means to circumvent the High Court and lift the immunity of several members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, or Parliament, which has not convened for more than a decade. The maneuver was aimed against his arch political rival, Muhammad Dahlan, who lives in exile in the United Arab Emirates. Dahlan has been sentenced to prison on corruption charges.

Khalil Shikaki is a respected Palestinian pollster. He runs the independent Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, which receives funding from the European Union. Now, he told me, the Abbas government has blocked access to the money in an illegal attempt to force the think tank to close down.

“Power has corrupted Abbas,” Shikaki said. “He’s destroyed the judiciary, and he’s destroying the plurality of civil society. The cybercrime law is worthy of Saddam Hussein.”

A Palestinian from the Jalazoun refugee camp at a crossroads in Ramallah, in front of the Israeli settlement of Beit El.Abbas Momani/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Of course, Abbas’s cover is the Israeli occupation, with its unrelenting settlement growth and use of military force. Electricity comes and goes. Access to water is intermittent. The same journey can take one hour or 12. Families may be dragged from their homes. To get a permit to go to Ben-Gurion airport, or visit a relative in Gaza, can be an endless headache. Little humiliations multiply.

In these circumstances, with Netanyahu veering right and his ministers talking openly of annexation of parts of the West Bank, European governments are reluctant to criticize Abbas. His two sons, Tareq and Yasser, are known to have large business interests. Their privileged position has attracted international scrutiny.

If Palestine has slipped backward toward opacity and one-man rule since former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s transformative push for transparency ended in 2013, the argument goes, that’s just the collateral damage of the occupation. With Israel at his throat, what could Abbas do?

“We are not out of touch,” Muhammad Shtayyeh, a member of the Fatah Central Committee, told me. “But we are unable to fulfill the aspirations of the Palestinian people due to the Israeli occupation. Our failures are not due to any mistakes.”

Such arguments fall short. By dismantling Palestinian freedoms, by disempowering his people, Abbas has been undoing the foundations of statehood and sapping the energy that comes with personal agency. It is time to organize elections that might usher in younger leadership — and reveal the balance of forces in the West Bank and Gaza. The alternative is a drift to despotism under a bunch of old men long on outrage but short on everything else.

“If you don’t take agency in your liberation, you are not going to be free,” Fayyad told me. “What Palestinians see of their state right now is not very attractive.”

Abbas remains committed to a two-state outcome. But belief in a two-state peace is dwindling. Shikaki, the pollster, told me that Palestinian support for two states is now about 46 percent, down from about 80 percent in the mid-1990s. Still, he said, a two-state solution remains viable. Surveys show that various incentives — like the release of prisoners for Palestinians, or a wider peace with the Arab world for Israelis — can quickly shift opinion.

Sooner or later, whether in the next several months through an indictment or later through the ballot box, Netanyahu will be gone. It’s idle to think any successor will easily cede territory for peace. Yet it’s possible; it’s happened before. Trump, too, will be gone one day. Abbas could live on for several years, but the damage he is doing the Palestinian cause is such that he should quit now if he is not prepared to organize an election in 2018.

In the current vacuum, a dream of one state with equal rights for all peoples — a kind of United States of the Holy Land — has gained some traction. It is pure, if seductive, illusion — flimsy code for the destruction of Israel as the national homeland of the Jews. It will not happen.

Trump’s instinct to blow up the status quo is dangerous. So is Abbas’ comfort with that status quo. It corrodes. The threat from Trump to cut off aid could leave millions of Palestinian refugees without access to schools or hospitals. That’s unacceptable. But it’s equally unacceptable that Arab states only contribute about 3.5 percent of the budget of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinians refugees, compared with the American contribution of about 25 percent. The “peace process,” unable to resolve the refugee issue, has become an infernal, corrupted mechanism incubating victimhood and masking myriad abuses. The Palestinian Authority is its poster child.

“The Palestinian Authority is a subcontractor to the occupation,” Issa Amro, a human-rights activist in Hebron told me. “Abbas should stop corruption and start organizing an election.”

The road from Ramallah to Nablus winds from “Area A,” which is under Palestinian control, through “Area C,” the 60 percent of the West Bank under direct Israeli rule: the lexicon of the moribund Oslo Accords endures. A settler, Rabbi Raziel Shevach, had been shot dead near Nablus a few days before my visit, a killing applauded by Hamas. Young settlers with the hilltop look — large kippas and side locks — milled around the roadside as a squad of Israeli soldiers tried to keep them away from Palestinians: just another day in the West Bank.

In Nablus, with its beautiful covered market, I met Saed Abu-Hijleh, a 52-year-old university professor and poet. In 2002, Israeli forces killed his mother. He raised his shirt to reveal scars from bullet wounds. Wandering through the market, he saluted friends, all of whom seem to have been in prison with him at one time or another. He describes Israel as a “colonial apartheid state” built on the “perpetuation of violence and dehumanization.”

That’s Abu-Hijleh’s lived Palestinian truth. The family of the murdered Shevach has its lived Jewish truth. Everybody has a lived truth between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. Perhaps those truths are irreconcilable. Without creative leadership, they certainly are. Abu-Hijleh continued: “After the slap they got from Trump, the Palestinian Authority should resign and organize elections. They put their eggs in the American basket for 25 years, and all they got is humiliation.”

It is time for Abbas to go, before the bright young Palestinians like Elie Shamaa, the young tech specialist, all go from their occupied land.

January 28, 2018 | 5 Comments »

Leave a Reply

5 Comments / 5 Comments

  1. @ <a href="#comment-63356000194315" title="

    This writer, who follows the Arab "narrative" should immediately move to Ramallah, where he can collude with that sour faced gargoyle Amira Hess, in turning out imaginative drek which will make him the most popular "Jew" in the YESHA area.

    I wonder how he just "happened" to meet an Arab university stff member whose mother was conveniently-for the story- killed by Israelis, and who had an appendix scar all ready with his loose shirt, easy to pull up, like night club stripper,……He has never heard that Arabs are the biggest liars in the history of the world…. This guy makes me sick.