Mahmoud Abbas Must Go

I got into politics when I was 15, joining Fatah Youth in Jerusalem during the first intifada in 1987. Several years later, and with other young Fatah leaders, I met Mahmoud Abbas in his office in Ramallah, West Bank. He was the No. 2 in the Palestine Liberation Organization back then. He was in his 50s; we were in our 20s. Despite the age gap, we always enjoyed spending time with him. “You are tomorrow’s leaders,” he would tell us.

Today, Mr. Abbas is in his late 80s, we are in our 50s, and that tomorrow never came.

Thirty years after the Oslo Accords, the Palestinians who led the first intifada — and helped bring some of their exiled leaders back from Tunisia — feel they have been betrayed. Mr. Abbas’s leadership as president of the Palestinian Authority has failed to deliver democracy to his people, failed to keep them safe,failed to manage a viable economy and failed to ensure they can live a dignified life. Sometimes it seems as if all we get from Mr. Abbas these days is an embarrassing speech once a year at the United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York.

The Palestinian Authority’s leadership has lost its moral conviction and grown increasingly detached from what Palestinians need and want. Over the past decade, several public opinion polls have shown that between 70 percent and 90 percent of Palestinians want Mr. Abbas, who is 88, to resign. The last Palestinian elections, held in 2006, resulted in a deep political rift that left the Islamist party Hamas governing Gaza and Mr. Abbas and his Fatah party leading the authority in the West Bank. Today, most Palestinians want to choose new leaders in a free, fair and safe vote.

So much of what will happen after this war remains unclear. But what seems inevitable is that Hamas’s rule in the Gaza Strip will be over. The Palestinian Authority is increasingly invoked as the one entity that could step into the breach and bring unity back to Gaza and the West Bank. But for us Palestinians, that solution will have legitimacy only if there are fundamental changes in the authority’s structure — and that includes removing Mr. Abbas and his cronies from power.

Since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, Palestinian citizens have been watching the gap widen between their leaders’ calls for sound institutions and democracy and their actions. Those leaders’ manifest lack of respect for the rule of law and violation of their constituents’ rights and freedoms have taken many forms over the years — including allegations of embezzlement, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture and beatings, which the authority has denied.

Mr. Abbas, for his part, has slowly tightened his grip on power. According to Palestinian legal experts, the president has issued hundreds of decrees since 2007 that have both consolidated his power and the power of the Palestinian Authority’s leadership and helped to shield them from accountability. Today, he effectively controls the legislative, judicial and executive branches of government, obliterating the principle of separation of powers. Allegations of corruption within the authority are widespread, and while the body has made moves to crack down on corruption, many Palestinians think they aren’t doing enough.

Under Mr. Abbas’s administration, human rights organizations have also documented a series of direct and clear violations of human rights and freedoms, including cracking down on political opposition through beating, torture and imprisonment. In June 2021, Nizar Banat, a prominent activist and outspoken critic of Fatah leaders, was severely beaten during his arrest, according to his family, and died while in the custody of the Palestinian security forces. No one has been held accountable for his death. Mr. Banat’s case is part of a long record of allegations of abuse by the Palestinian security forces since their formation in 1994, including violence against Palestinians’ peaceful protest and other attacks on civil rights.

Mr. Abbas’s tenure has also had repercussions in his own party. Divisions in the Fatah movement have grown over his increasing control of the Palestinian decision-making process and his apparent refusal to accept internal dissent. These differences came to a head in the run-up to elections scheduled to be held in 2021, which Mr. Abbas ultimately canceled after Fatah split into three groups aligned with different leaders: one with the president, one with Mohammad Dahlan and the third with Nasser al-Qudwa and Marwan Barghouti. (Mr. Abbas blamed Israel’s refusal to permit the inclusion of East Jerusalem for the election’s cancellation.) As a lifelong political activist, I myself have been supporting those seeking a change at the top.

Gazans, of course, also have suffered under their leaders. The Hamas government, like Mr. Abbas in the West Bank, has failed to fulfill the aspirations — and even the most basic needs — of Palestinians living in Gaza. While Mr. Abbas oversaw a system deemed by many Palestinians as entrenched corruption in the West Bank, Hamas brought destruction to Gaza. And while few Palestinians are openly criticizing Hamas during the war, as casualties mount and an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe continues to unfold, Palestinian criticism of Hamas will almost certainly grow louder when the war ends, and specifically within Gaza.

The Palestinian people will not accept being led by any party after the war that does not emerge from Palestinian elections, or perhaps in the first stage, a unity government that includes those opposed to Mr. Abbas within the Fatah movement, nonpartisan national figures and any nonmilitarized Islamist political party that might emerge, replacing Hamas in its current form.

But first, Mr. Abbas must go. There are an easy way and a hard way for that to happen. The easy way would be for Mr. Abbas and his opposition in Fatah to reach a friendly understanding, in which he peacefully hands power over to a new administration that assumes responsibility for Gaza and the West Bank. He could in return be granted lifetime immunity from prosecution, along with his family and his direct aides.

If Mr. Abbas rejects that notion, a more complicated, but not impossible, arrangement could be made. A new political body could be formed in Gaza in which all Palestinian political forces participate, charged with appointing temporary leaders and a government to lead the way in the reconstruction of Gaza and its political reunification with the West Bank. For this to work, the Arab countries, the international community, the donor countries and Israel would have to recognize this governing body.

Either scenario must lead to general national elections that should be held within two years — or as soon as life becomes more normal in Gaza. The elected government must adopt a strategy that presents construction as an alternative to corruption in the West Bank and destruction in Gaza. It must establish the foundations of democracy, transparency, accountability and a system of separation of the executive, legislative and judicial authorities. It must bring together all Palestinians, allow them to engage in political life, respect their rights, safeguard their freedoms, begin social and economic development and, most important, find a way to join hands with Israel in bringing down the curtain on one of the most complex and controversial conflicts of the modern era.

Such a change in the Palestinian political order would, naturally, have to be paralleled by changes in the Israeli leadership. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen by many Israelis as responsible for failing to safeguard Israelis against the atrocities of Oct. 7; it seems highly unlikely he will be able to continue leading Israel at the end of the war. Changes in both Palestinian and Israeli leadership would open the door for renewed negotiations that might bring this long and bitter conflict to an end.

President Abbas must leave the political scene and be allowed to live his remaining days in dignity. Palestinians deserve a more representative, accountable and younger leadership, through free elections. We deserve a new leader.

Samer Sinijlawi is a political activist and a Palestinian political commentator from East Jerusalem. He is chairman of the Jerusalem Development Fund.

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