Despite the view of Abbas, there’s no plan to replace him

Palestinian Authority: Conflicting messages, perceived weakness

PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY President Mahmoud Abbas (photo credit: OSMAN ORSAL/REUTERS)
(photo credit: OSMAN ORSAL/REUTERS)
Palestinians say they have become accustomed to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s “zigzagging” policies on several issues, particularly toward Israel.
The Palestinian public, however, does not seem to be seriously bothered by its leader’s shifting policies – as long as the PA continues to pay salaries to its public servants and ensure economic and security stability in the West Bank.
That’s precisely why Abbas’s decision earlier this month to accept reduced Palestinian tax revenues from Israel did not surprise many Palestinians. Since February, the PA had refused to receive the revenues, to protest Israel’s decision to withhold more than $12 million a month – the sum the PA pays to terrorists and families of Palestinians killed while carrying out attacks against the Jewish state.
For several months, Abbas appeared adamant in his refusal to accept the tax revenues from Israel if they are not paid in full. He and senior Palestinian officials in Ramallah accused Israel of carrying out an “act of piracy” by deducting the sum paid by the PA to the prisoners and families of “martyrs.”
The PA leadership is now trying to depict the sudden change in its position regarding the reduced tax revenues as a “major achievement” for the Palestinians.
According to PA officials, a deal reached between Hussein al-Sheikh, head of the Palestinian General Authority of Civil Affairs, and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon paves the way for introducing changes to the 1994 Protocol on Economic Relations, also called the Paris Protocol.
The PA has long been calling for changing the Paris Protocol, which regulates the relationship and interaction between the Palestinians and Israel in six major areas: customs, taxes, labor, agriculture, industry and tourism. The protocol also gives Israel sole control over the external borders, and collection of import taxes and VAT.
“Although many Palestinians understood Abbas’s anger over the Israeli decision to withhold some of the funds, they nevertheless thought it was a bad idea to refuse to take the rest of the money,” said Maher Abdel Jawad, a Ramallah-based businessman. “The only people who paid the price were public employees, who for months received only half of their salaries. Had the crisis continued for another two or three months, the people would have taken to the streets to protest against Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.”
Abdel Jawad chalks up Abbas’s backtracking to growing discontent among the PA’s 180,000 employees.
“When you have so many people on your payroll, you need to be very careful,” he said. “Abbas was wise enough to realize that we were swiftly moving toward an explosion.”
A Palestinian economy expert in Ramallah said he was not surprised by Abbas’s “capitulation.” He explained that Abbas was hoping that the Arab states would provide the Palestinians with a financial security network in response to the Israeli decision to cut the tax revenues. “The Arabs, however, did not fulfill their promises to the Palestinians,” he said. “Most Palestinians don’t blame Abbas. On the contrary, they seem to sympathize with him, knowing that he had no other choice but to climb down the ladder.”
Abbas’s political rivals, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, appear to be the only ones accusing him of “surrendering” to Israel and the US administration.
But as far as the PA employees are concerned, the condemnations of Hamas and Islamic Jihad are totally irrelevant. For these employees, “capitulation” and “humiliation” are better than not being able to buy food or toys for their children or pay debts to the grocer and the bank.
“I don’t care what Hamas says,” said Amjad Hamdan, a 36-year-old father of three working for the PA Ministry of Health. “Look how Hamas has turned Palestinians in the Gaza Strip into beggars. The Palestinian Authority, for all its faults, at least pays salaries and provides us with many services in various fields.”
HAMDAN AND many Palestinians also don’t seem to care about Abbas’s conflicting messages toward Israel. For them, Abbas’s recurring threats to terminate all signed agreements with Israel are nothing but kalam farigh (nonsense).
Abbas’s most recent threat was made last July, when he announced, after a meeting of the PA leadership in Ramallah, that the Palestinians would no longer abide by previous agreements signed with Israel. His threat has been received by many Palestinians with a rather large grain of salt.
Abbas’s critics have scoffed at his statement that a special committee would be set up to devise mechanisms for implementing the PA leadership’s decision to renounce the agreements with Israel. Three months later, Palestinians are still waiting to hear news about the proposed committee.
The threat to terminate the signed agreements with Israel reminded Palestinians of previous threats Abbas and his senior officials have made in the past few years, including revoking Palestinian recognition of Israel, suspending security coordination in the West Bank between the two sides, and dismantling the PA.
“No Palestinian takes any of Abbas’s threats seriously,” said a Palestinian journalist from east Jerusalem. “I even doubt if Abbas takes his own threats seriously. Remember when he used to threaten, almost every week, to resign and dissolve the Palestinian Authority? I wonder what happened to that threat. At least he has stopped making that threat, because he knows no one believes him.”
The journalist and other Palestinians say they see Abbas as a weak leader whose only weapon is his mouth.
“Abbas’s various threats are intended for internal consumption only,” explained a Fatah member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. “He makes threats and engages in fiery rhetoric as part of a strategy to appease the Palestinian public. I can’t find one person who believes Abbas when he says he will revoke Palestinian recognition of Israel or suspend security coordination with the Israeli security authorities.”
Indeed, Abbas’s actions and policies appear to have confused many Palestinians. On the one hand, he talks about terminating signed agreements with Israel. On the other hand, he sends his senior officials to hold talks with Israeli officials on the possibility of changing the Paris Protocol and resolving the dispute over the payments to terrorists and families of “martyrs.”
On the one hand, he threatens to revoke Palestinian recognition of Israel. On the other hand, he continues to parrot the view that he is committed to the two-state solution and the peace process with Israel.
On the one hand, Abbas’s PLO and Fatah institutions keep talking about the need to halt security coordination between the PA and Israel. On the other hand, the security coordination between the two sides is evidently continuing, if not growing stronger.
Even Abbas’s most recent call for holding presidential and parliamentary elections – announced during his last speech before the United Nations General Assembly – does not seem to have impressed a majority of Palestinians.
Over the past few years, Abbas, who was elected in 2005 for a four-year term, has repeatedly stated his desire to hold the long overdue elections. The Palestinians, however, are aware that as long as Abbas fails to resolve his dispute with Hamas, which has been controlling the Gaza Strip since 2007, the chances of holding new elections are zero.
“Under the current circumstances, elections are not a priority to many Palestinians,” said Ramzi Sha’ban, a university student from An-Najah University in Nablus. “People are more concerned about paying their debts to the banks and living in security. Elections won’t change anything, because we will end up with the same leaders who are now in power. As long as Abbas pays salaries and provides jobs, the people are content. People see the suffering of Palestinians living under Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and they say: ‘We are fortunate that the situation in the West Bank is much better.’”
There’s no doubt that Abbas’s credibility as a trustworthy leader has been severely undermined as a result of his conflicting messages, perceived weakness and unfulfilled promises. That does not mean, however, that Palestinians in the West Bank, for whom the status quo has become a comfortable reality, are going to wake up tomorrow morning and revolt against him and the PA.