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Why Mahmoud Abbas dissolved the Palestinian parliament — and what it means for the future

- January 18, 2019
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has relied on a provision in the Palestinian Authority’s interim constitution to exercise full lawmaking authority in the West Bank. (Majdi Mohammed/AP)

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’s recent call to dissolve the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), the Palestinian Authority’s parliament, comes as the culmination of more than a decade of political deadlock and division. The last parliamentary elections — held in 2006 and returning a Hamas majority — led to a brief civil war in 2007 between the two dominant Palestinian parties, Hamas and Fatah, and subsequent divisions left the legislative body in a state of paralysis. What’s more, the basic links between the Palestinian leadership and the people have badly frayed.

Since this effective suspension of Palestinian democracy, Abbas has relied on a provision in the Palestinian Authority’s interim constitution to exercise full lawmaking authority in the West Bank. In Gaza, Hamas has convened a rump parliament, but its role is limited even there. So Abbas’s latest decision to formally disband the body will change little in Palestinian governance over the short term.

But if the move’s short-term effects go virtually unnoticed, it may lead to a profound change in Palestinian politics: the desperate move to build a post-Oslo leadership structure that, while unlikely to have challengers, will have few followers. How did this come about?

The court ruling

The dissolution of the parliament is based on a ruling by the fairly new Palestinian Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC), a body that has quickly earned a reputation for issuing whatever rulings the president needs at a particular time. In this case, the SCC didn’t even bother to announce the ruling, but left it to the president to present it to the Palestinian public.

Days after Abbas called for the PLC’s dissolution, the court received a request from the head of the Judicial Council — himself appointed by Abbas — to interpret a provision of the interim constitution, which clearly states that deputies sit until their successors can take up their duties. As a result, the court issued an authoritative interpretation that this provision could extend the mandate of the parliament beyond its four-year term only if a new parliament has been chosen through regularly scheduled elections. Since those elections have been overdue since January 2010, the ruling allowed the president to dissolve the inert body with the promise of holding new parliamentary elections within six months.

The ruling is full of holes. It simply bypasses an article that states that the PLC may not be dissolved even in the case of emergency. In fact, the same clause the court refused to apply this time (stating that deputies sit until their successors take their seats) was the precise one Abbas and the Palestinian leadership used in 2006 to form the SCC — they rushed through a law in a lame duck parliament whose deputies were being replaced by the new Hamas majority.

But that 2006 law slept for a decade unimplemented until the SCC, packed with Fatah-loyal judges, was hastily formed in 2016. Within a few months, it was effectively used to sideline dissidents and make Palestinian Authority institutions and procedures more subservient to the leadership’s wishes.

In one instance, the court upheld a decree by Abbas that allowed him to revoke the immunity of a major rival, Mohammed Dahlan, by virtue of his membership in the slumbering PLC. When the High Court (a separate body that is often loyal to the president but still has some independence) moved to strike down some high-profile judicial appointments, the new SCC upheld the legality of the president’s decrees within hours. In a more recent case, the SCC argued that “the hierarchy of laws” places the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) declaration of independence above the interim constitution of the Palestinian Authority. This move was meant to consolidate the legal authority of the PLO, which Abbas heads unchallenged, over two other entities he also heads, though with greater potential constraints: the “state of Palestine” and the Palestinian Authority, the body administering the West Bank.

Why now?

So the SCC will do what the president needs when he needs it. But why did it move to disband the PLC at this time? One explanation has to do with succession. Just as the court was used earlier to shove Dahlan aside, it was used this time to strip the PLC’s last elected speaker, Hamas’s Aziz Dweik, from a position which (according to the constitution) would place him next in line for the presidency.

But more than the presidency is at stake. Although Abbas suggested that new PLC elections could be held, nobody expects those to come (except if they took place only under areas Fatah controls). Palestinian democracy, imperfect as it was, is now a faded memory and a set of empty promises for the future. Some Fatah leaders have floated the idea that the PLC is not really needed and it is, instead, time to start building a state by electing a “constituent assembly,” one that would move beyond the interim governance structures set up under the Oslo accords.

Consolidating authority

Of course, building the “state of Palestine” under such circumstances would amount to doing away with leadership structures based on the principle of the separation of powers and checks and balances. It would allow the current leadership — Abbas and a narrow and isolated group around him — to do whatever they believe is necessary. The growing authoritarianism and centralization in Palestinian leadership is clearly designed to take all remaining structures of the Palestinian Authority and “state of Palestine” and place them officially under the PLO, a movement that has deep roots in recent Palestinian history but little presence in Palestinian society today. In effect, shifting authority toward the symbolic but moribund PLO could simplify governance for a leadership facing a legitimacy crisis, bereft of a strategy for the future. And in the face of mounting backlash against unpopular decrees, a consolidated authority under the PLO could offer the president a desperately needed way to make laws that appear more than makeshift measures and embolden him vis-a-vis his rivals.

There is, to be sure, much resistance, with Hamas and governance structures in Gaza rejecting the move and civil society organizations joining rival movements in denouncing it. The idea that disbanding the PLC is a step to realizing Palestinian statehood under the guidance of the national leadership will persuade a small few. But it will still be difficult to resist. This isolated group of senior leaders will continue to coordinate local government in the West Bank, but they are effectively replacing the historic slogan of the national movement, “Revolution Until Victory” with “Administration . . . Until We Think of Something.”

Samer Anabtawi is a PhD student in the political science department at George Washington University studying comparative politics and quantitative research methods.

Nathan Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.