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Who or what will succeed 78-year-old Abbas?

See also Palestinian jailed for insulting Abbas in Geneva NGO takes up complaints about targetting of media by PA security forces
Here, 1) Jonathan Schanzer on Mahmoud Abbas’ successor; 2) Jillian York on lack of free speech.

President Mahmoud Abbas presides over a meeting of the executive committee of the PLO at his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah. Photo by Atef Safadi / EPA

Abbas needs an heir apparent

A succession plan for the Palestinian Authority is vital to future peace prospects.

By Jonathan , Op-Ed LA Times
February 28, 2013

President Obama’s visit to the Middle East next month is widely billed as an earnest attempt to double down on diplomacy and revive the moribund peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians. Unfortunately, the odds are stacked against the president. Doves on both sides quietly cede that it would take a miracle to get the two sides back to the business of serious diplomacy.

But Obama has an opportunity to aim a little lower and accomplish something that could help safeguard the peace process for years to come. He could pressure Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to name an heir apparent who could effectively guarantee the Israelis would have an interlocutor for the foreseeable future.

Alarmingly, there is nobody in that role now. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, is 78 years old. He is a heavy smoker and a cancer survivor. In 2010, he reportedly was admitted six times to a Jordanian hospital for unspecified health reasons. It’s unclear how much longer he’ll be fit for office.

Should the unthinkable happen, according to Palestinian Basic Law, Article 37, “the Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council shall temporarily assume the powers and duties of the Presidency of the National Authority for a period not to exceed sixty (60) days, during which free and direct elections to elect a new President shall take place.”

But here’s the rub: The current speaker is Aziz Dweik, who ran on the Hamas-affiliated Change and Reform ticket. His history does not recommend him. In 1992, Dweik was expelled from Israel for his involvement with Hamas. He was among those the Israelis rounded up and arrested in 2006 after an Israeli soldier was captured in Gaza. He was arrested again in 2012 for alleged “involvement in terrorist activities.”

Should Dweik succeed Abbas, it would be the end of any possible peace process.

Of course, the Fatah faction and the Palestine Liberation Organization (the dominant players in the Palestinian Authority) could try to circumvent Palestinian law (it wouldn’t be the first time) and appoint someone more palatable. However, this would likely prompt another conflict between Fatah and Hamas — not unlike the 2007 conflict, when Hamas wrested control of Gaza from Abbas’ forces.

But it is unclear whom the Palestinian leadership would appoint. Abbas has refused to allow political challengers to emerge in the West Bank. Meanwhile, as Jillian C. York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation noted in a recent Al Jazeera essay [below], it’s increasingly difficult to even criticize the Palestinian leader online. The result, according to a former Palestinian Authority official, is that “the political system has become stagnant.”

The photo of Mahmoud Abbas which earned Anas Awwad prison time.

Rather than urging Abbas to help revive the Palestinian political climate, however, Washington has elected to stand aside while the aging Palestinian leader has effectively become a leader for life. Abbas is nearly four years past his legal term (it expired in 2009), and he continues to punt on legislative elections, for fear of getting drubbed again by Hamas.

Washington is also concerned about the rise of Hamas. That’s why the U.S. has plied Abbas’ government with financial assistance, military training, intelligence cooperation and other tools to ensure that Hamas does not take over the West Bank as it did Gaza. But Washington has done so at the expense of the Palestinian political system, which has grown ossified and brittle.

In truth, given the sorry state of politics within the Palestinian Authority, demanding that Abbas identify a successor is among one of the lesser demands Obama could make of the Palestinian leader.

The significance of naming a successor is something that Abbas understands very well. In 2003, Abbas became the first prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, upon the insistence of President George W. Bush. The position had never existed. And the timing was fortuitous. Longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died the following year. Abbas had resigned a few months prior, but he was positioned to assume leadership and guide the Palestinians away from the low-level war, or intifada, that had been raging since October 2000.

Of course, Abbas has a prime minister. Salam Fayyad has done an admirable job and is worthy of succeeding Abbas. But Abbas has not identified him as the next in line for reasons that only he knows.

Will Abbas respond well to pressure from Obama? He should. Right now, his lasting legacy is his recent maneuver at the United Nations, which upgraded the status of the PLO mission to nonmember observer state. But he failed to gain the status of statehood. With a gentle prod from Obama, he could enhance that legacy greatly by opening up the political space and ensuring the long-term viability of the Palestinian national movement.

Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of “Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine.” He tweets at @JSchanzer.


Make fun of Mahmoud Abbas at your peril

Palestine must not only focus on ending Israel’s human rights abuses, but also its own.

By Jillian York, Al Jazeera
February 13, 2013

A comment made by 26-year-old Anas Awwad dubbing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas “the new striker in Real Madrid” has landed the young man in jail .

A casual comment on Facebook, poking fun at a sporting politician. This sentence could refer to US President Obama’s recent skeet shooting outing, or former French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s attempts to play football in a suit. It could also refer to a comment made in response to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who kicked a football around on a visit to Barcelona Football Club in 2011.

It does, in fact, refer to Abbas. But whereas comments made about Obama and Sarkozy’s sporting endeavours are shrugged off by the politicians and their ilk, a comment made by 26-year-old Anas Awwad dubbing Abbas “the new striker in Real Madrid” has landed the young man in jail.

According to Awwad’s lawyer, the Palestinian judiciary has applied Article 195 of Jordan’s penal code, which criminalises criticism of the Jordanian king.

Lèse-majesté, while abhorrent, is an unsurprising crime to have in the books in a monarchy. Jordan, Thailand, Morocco and Norway all criminalise insults to the monarchy, while Spain, Denmark and the Netherlands all consider it a civil offence. But its use by the Palestinian Authority – which has worked hard to sell its commitment to press freedom and democracy – is more surprising, considering the language of the law specifically refers to the monarch.

Awwad’s case is not the first time that Jordanian law has been used to prosecute online speech in Palestine. In 2010, Walid Hasayin was arrested in Qalqiliya and accused of violating Article 273 of the Jordanian Penal Code, which deals with insults to “religious feelings of other persons or their religious faith”. And in 2011, another man was arrested under the same article.

The use of Jordanian law by Palestine’s judiciary is not uncommon. In addition to the Basic Law established in 2002, Palestinian law is an amalgam of Egyptian, Jordanian and the codes left over from the era of the British Mandate. And yet, the application of Jordanian law can frequently work against the interest of Palestinian citizens, such as in cases of labour disputes, “honour” crimes and speech.

Declining freedoms
Although Palestine’s ranking on Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index has increased over the past few years, growing internet penetration has raised the spectre of unbridled freedom for the PA. With nearly a quarter of the West Bank population on Facebook, new opportunities for online organising and sharing of news have arisen over the past few years… just the recipe to threaten an insecure government.

In 2012, at least 10 individuals were arrested for public criticism of the PA, online or off. In April, two journalists and a lecturer were arrested for comments on Facebook deemed critical of the PA, coinciding with the PA’s awarding of a press freedom prize to American journalist Helen Thomas. The arrests were condemned by watchdog groups, including the International Press Institute and the Committee to Protect Journalists. And Palestinian groups, such as the Independent Commission for Human Rights, have called for greater press freedom.

“In addition to the Basic Law established in 2002, Palestinian law is an amalgam of Egyptian, Jordanian and the codes left over from the era of the British Mandate.”

One of the targeted journalists, Tariq Khamis, told the Electronic Intifada that while his arrest was technically for a comment made on Facebook, during his interrogation, he was questioned about other articles he had written. Khamis added:

“The [PA] regime is very similar to other Arab regimes. If the PA had trust in themselves, they would let journalists get on with their work. But because of their mistakes and corruption, they fear the work of journalists.”

Exposing corruption

Accusations of corruption have been levied at the Palestinian Authority for years and its heavy-handed response is not new. In 2008, the PA reportedly blocked the website of Gaza-based media outlet Donia Al-Watan following a series of reports on corruption, the first instance of online censorship in Palestine.

But in 2012, the PA’s tolerance for criticism drastically decreased. In April, blogger Jamal Abu Rihan was arrested for launching a Facebook campaign demanding an end to corruption. Columnist Jihad Harb was later sentenced to two months in prison on charges of libel and slander for raising questions about cronyism within Abbas’ office.

In addition to targeting individual journalists, the PA has attempted to wipe criticism from the web. Last year, Ma’an News uncovered evidence of website blocking, a practice otherwise largely unheard of in the West Bank. The eight blocked websites were all news sites critical of President Abbas and were eventually unblocked after Communications Minister Mashour Abu Daka spoke out against the blocking as being “against the public interest”, resulting in the resignation of Attorney General Ahmad al-Mughni.

Indeed, the PA’s attitude toward free expression is looking more and more like that of its authoritarian cousins in the Gulf. By comparison, internet access in neighbouring Jordan and Lebanon remains unfettered, while both countries rank significantly higher on Reporters Without Borders’ 2013 index.

International obligations

Although Palestine’s status at the United Nations is that of a non-member observer state, it may be eligible to ratify core human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). While most discussions have focused on Palestine’s right to ratify the Rome Statute, giving it access to the International Criminal Court (ICC), ratification of the ICCPR – Article 19 of which guarantees freedom of expression – would demonstrate Palestine’s commitments to human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Although Palestinian officials have pledged to uphold human rights, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation issued a statement in October recommending “an in-depth study to determine whether any convention shall be ratified by Palestine”. While, as Human Rights Watch noted, it’s commendable that the Palestinian leadership is studying the treaties, its delay in ratifying them inspires little faith in their commitment to upholding fundamental rights and freedoms.

In order to be taken seriously on the world stage, Palestine must not only focus on ending Israel’s human rights abuses, but also its own.

Jillian York is director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.

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