Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas is 80 years old, an enthusiastic smoker and with a history of health problems. Yet not only has he refused to appoint an heir, one of his most energetic campaigns in recent years has been to systematically foreclose any prospect of the emergence of a successor, let alone a rival. This is the last thing Palestinians need, but it’s the one really successful government policy of late.
In the process, the Palestinian Authority and Fatah have, in one way or another, gone after, exiled, discredited or marginalised dozens of prominent individuals, including many who have no prospect or ambition to succeed Mr Abbas in any of his capacities, and cracked down on a large number of important non-governmental organisations. The main result has been an alarming constriction in the once robust Palestinian civil society and a severe narrowing of inputs into national decision-making.
The latest target of this campaign is former Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad and his Future for Palestine development institute. Initially accused of “money laundering”, now toned-down to “using money for political purposes”, the even more preposterous informal accusation against Mr Fayyad is that he has been plotting a “bloodless coup” against Mr Abbas with the ousted Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan. However, Future for Palestine’s projects focus on developing wells and erecting solar panels for unserved villages – hardly the stuff of subversive intrigue.
On May 18, the anti-money laundering unit at the Palestine Monetary Authority ordered the freezing of two incoming transfers totalling $749,000 to the NGO from the Emirates Red Crescent. These funds were earmarked for two projects that would significantly benefit both the Palestinians directly helped and Palestinian society more broadly.
The first would benefit impoverished Bedouins in Area C, that 60 per cent of the occupied West Bank where the PA generally is prohibited from operating. The second project is dedicated to rehabilitating irrigation wells, some on the “Israeli side” of the “separation barrier,” which is often thought of as constituting an attempted unilateral Israeli de facto border. Palestinian projects “beyond” the wall are therefore even more consequential than those in other parts of Area C.
The two money transfers had already been vetted and approved by the anti-money laundering unit, and credited to the NGO’s bank account a week before the freeze was issued. However, the Authority used various legal provisions to freeze the assets for three, seven and 15 days in succession.
All of the legal powers available to attorney general Abdel Ghani Al Awewy to interfere with the transfer of the funds were exhausted, especially given the lack of any probable cause. The authorities then dropped all pretence, with Mr Al Awewy issuing a further freeze on June 15 affecting all the funds of the organisation and effective until he decides he is finished with his own investigation.
The practical effect of this open-ended freeze is to shut down the operations of Future for Palestine, which would appear to be the whole point of the exercise. Fatah and Mr Abbas do indeed face a mounting political crisis, part of which may involve Mr Dahlan. But it does not involve Mr Fayyad, who has never been a Fatah member and is being driven into the wilderness as the scapegoat du jour.
Mr Fayyad’s real “crime” is being an effective civil society leader independent of Mr Abbas and Fatah. Such figures used to be common and respected in Palestinian society, but increasingly they can expect a concerted effort by the government to shut their operations down. Civil society in Gaza was effectively done away with by Hamas years ago, and in the West Bank the PA is increasingly acting as if it wants to catch up to its Islamist rivals.
This isn’t the first time the PA has targeted Future for Palestine. Last August security forces raided its offices and questioned two employees, in a move widely seen as an intimidation tactic. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted a western diplomat observing: “There’s no doubt that this process was initiated by orders from above. Such things don’t happen just like that.” Neither does the extralegal asset freeze.
The saddest thing is that it wasn’t ever thus. When he first came into office, initially as prime minister under the late Yasser Arafat, and then as president, Mr Abbas did not evince the characteristics of a would-be dictator. Yet if he can’t really be called a dictator these days, it is less that he has failed to develop such instincts and more that between the occupation and his own generally non-confrontational style he simply hasn’t accumulated enough practical authority.
A Palestinian president who thinks and acts like mayor of Ramallah, rather than a true national leader, leaves himself with limited scope for despotism, along with everything else. But as the scandal over Mr Fayyad’s NGO demonstrates, it can certainly be enough to do serious damage to the interests of Palestine, both in its present condition and its future prospects.
It’s not too late for Mr Abbas, who ought to consider his legacy, to recapture the spirit of his initial period in national leadership. Reversing the travesty over Mr Fayyad’s organisation would be an important step in the right direction.