RAMALLAH, West Bank — Fatah movement member Azzam al-Ahmad said on Palestine TV on Sept. 10, “The decision to convene the Palestinian National Council [PNC] is final. Contacts are still ongoing with the different Palestinian factions to agree on the details of the meeting.”
Ahmad added that President Mahmoud Abbas had previously requested to speed up the discussions with the factions so as to reach an agreement upon his return from the UN General Assembly meeting in New York. Meetings will be held throughout the month of September with the PLO factions in Ramallah.
Meanwhile, meetings with the other factions such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), whose leadership is based abroad, the PFLP-General Command and the Vanguard for the Popular Liberation War (As-Saiqa) are scheduled for October in Beirut.
Fatah continues to reject the participation of Hamas in the PNC until the administrative committee in the Gaza Strip is dissolved and the national reconciliation government is able to function in Gaza. In March, Hamas formed the administrative committee to run the Gaza Strip’s affairs. The committee was made up of seven subordinate ministries to act on behalf of the national reconciliation government. This prompted Abbas to take a series of punitive measures against Gaza.
“Hamas cannot be part of the meeting and the PLO in light of the continued division,” Ahmad said. He based his argument on the PLO Central Committee’s Aug. 9 recommendation, whereby the PNC ought to convene as soon as possible, with the presence of the council’s members only. Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which are not members of the PNC, rejected along with the PFLP this recommendation and have been calling for the establishment of a national council that includes all Palestinian factions at home and abroad.
Palestinian factions disagree with Abbas’ vision to convene the PNC in Ramallah. A source in Fatah, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al-Monitor, “President Abbas is insisting on convening the PNC in the presidential headquarters in Ramallah while holding discussions via video conference with members based abroad. The president also refuses to hold the conference in any Arab country.”
There are several reasons behind Abbas’ insistence on convening the PNC before the end of the year, most importantly because it will be held in the presidential palace, as Abbas confirmed in an April 3 interview with the Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper, which will allow him to keep a close eye on the course of the sessions and the ensuing decisions.
What’s more, convening the PNC will deal a severe blow to the alliance between Hamas and the loyalists of dismissed Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan. If convened, new blood would be brought into the PNC. This means Abbas will make sure to block any interventions by Arab countries in the council, and maintain the independent Palestinian decision-making process. The PNC session would also guarantee the council’s legitimacy to play a pivotal role in the future in case of any emergency presidential vacuum and block all possibilities for Hamas-affiliated PLC speaker, Aziz Dweik, to make it to the presidency in the event of the death of Abbas, as provided by the Palestinian law.
According to Article 37 of the Palestinian Basic Law, in the event the position of the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) becomes vacant in case of death, resignation or loss of legal capacity, the president of the PLC shall assume presidential tasks temporarily for a period of no more than 60 days during which free and direct elections shall be held to elect a new president. This was the case after the death of late President Yasser Arafat, when then-PLC President Rawhi Fattouh assumed the post of PA president.
Meanwhile, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the PFLP insist on adhering to the Cairo agreement of May 11, 2011, and the results of the PNC Preparatory Committee’s meeting, which includes both Hamas and Islamic Jihad as members. The committee convened in Beirut on Jan. 10 and agreed to form a national council that would gather all Palestinian factions.
Omar Shehadeh, a member of the PFLP’s political bureau, told Al-Monitor, “We flatly reject holding the PNC in its current form, as it will not be able to address any political challenges in the Palestinian arena. We insist on a national unity council that includes everyone as the only path toward solving the division crisis.”
“Abbas wants to convene the PNC in Ramallah, which the PFLP considers a wrong move that only allows Abbas to tighten his grip on the national decision. We will not allow the holding of a council that would harm the PLO. We will escalate our rhetoric to prevent the PNC from convening in Ramallah, as the highest legislative body in Palestine should not convene with the permission or approval of Israel,” he added. Council members based abroad or in Gaza need permits from Israel to enter Ramallah to participate in any PNC session. These permits could be denied by Israel.
Some Fatah and PLO officials had said in August that the PNC was scheduled to be held at the beginning of September in its current form. But following the events in Jerusalem and at Al-Aqsa Mosque, it was postponed due to Abbas’ political commitments and to give another chance to broader discussions with the different factions to ensure their participation in the council’s session.
Taysir Khaled, a member of the PLO’s Executive Committee, told Al-Monitor, “Convening the PNC has become a national necessity to reinvent the PLO and its institutions. The holding of the PNC should serve as a launchpad to restoring national unity and unifying the political system [in Palestine].”
The PNC is the highest authority for the Palestinian people, setting the regulatory policies for the PLO. The council’s living members number 691 and the deceased 83.
Given the significance of the PNC as the highest legislative authority in the country, some press reports said that Abbas seeks to take advantage of the holding of the council to appoint a successor as the head of the PLO and the PA in the event of his sudden death. However, Mahmoud Ismail, a member of the PLO’s Executive Committee, dismissed such claims, telling Al-Monitor that the PNC is not likely to discuss Abbas’ succession.
“Appointing a successor or a deputy to Abbas will not be touched upon during the PNC session. The president is still there and the PNC is the highest legitimate Palestinian authority responsible for making such a decision,” Ismail said.
Abbas will be taking part in the UN General Assembly meeting, where he will meet with US President Donald Trump and several world leaders on the sidelines, most likely including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
It is possible that a meeting between Abbas and Netanyahu could set the wheel of peace negotiations back in motion. Abbas could find himself forced, upon his return to the Palestinian territories, to convene the PNC in its current form in Ramallah, shrugging off the factions’ objections, to gain legitimacy for moving forward with a new round of negotiations with Israel.