Palestinian congress to convene as President Abbas seeks to strengthen hand

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas gestures as he speaks during a press conference on Jerusalem, in the West Bank city of Ramallah on April 11, 2018.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas gestures as he speaks during a press conference on Jerusalem, in the West Bank city of Ramallah on April 11, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

RAMALLAH, PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES (AFP) - The parliament of the Palestine Liberation Organisation will convene for the first time in decades on Monday (April 30), as ageing President Mahmud Abbas seeks to strengthen his hand ahead of the US embassy move to Jerusalem.

Analysts said the three-day meeting of the Palestinian National Council in the West Bank city of Ramallah is unlikely to produce major policy shifts, but it will elect the 18 members of the Palestine Liberation Organisation's executive committee that effectively forms Mr Abbas's Cabinet.

More than 100 of the 740-member body will be absent, including dozens allied to Islamists Hamas - the largest Palestinian party behind Mr Abbas's Fatah - who have signed a letter opposing the meeting.

On Saturday, Hamas called on Mr Abbas to postpone the assembly until unity was reached between rival factions.

The meeting comes as relations between Mr Abbas and US President Donald Trump's administration have broken down ahead of the controversial relocation of the US embassy, which is set to open in the divided holy city of Jerusalem on May 14.

In Hamas-run Gaza, more than 40 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire since March 30.

The Palestinian National Council has not held a regular session since 1996, and last held an special session in 2009.

The session is expected to begin on Monday night with a lengthy speech from Mr Abbas in which the 82-year-old is likely to address the embassy move, among other topics.

His rhetoric has become more agitated as relations with the US have worsened since Mr Trump's Dec 6 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

That move broke with a decades-old international consensus that the holy city's status should only be determined in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Palestinians see annexed east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

In March, Mr Abbas called US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, a Trump appointee and long-time supporter of Israeli settlements, a "son of a dog".

His position is weakened by the ongoing split with Hamas, which rules Gaza, after a reconciliation deal collapsed.

Analysts say Mr Abbas, elected to a four-year term in 2005, is seeking to further centralise power within the institutions he controls.

Mr Hugh Lovatt, a regional expert at the European Council for Foreign Relations, said he expected the meeting to "mark a further milestone in Abbas's consolidation of power and marginalisation of political rivals".

The names selected for the executive committee will be seen as a key indicator of who is in favour in moderate Palestinian politics, Mr Lovatt added, and even "provide an indicator of front-runners in the race to succeed Abbas".

Mr Abbas will be one of three representatives of Fatah, along with long-time chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and Mr Azzam al-Ahmed, negotiator of the failed reconciliation agreement with Hamas.

Seven smaller parties, excluding Hamas, will each nominate a candidate, while eight independents will also be selected.

At least 10 of the current 18 committee members are expected to be replaced.

"The mere fact that he is looking to an institution that has not met for 20 years just shows how illegitimate he is," said Ms Diana Buttu, a former Abbas employee and now fierce critic.

The split with Hamas has made elections impossible, so he has remained in power without a mandate.

She said she was not expecting any serious challenges to his rule, though candidates are seemingly jostling behind the scenes for the post-Abbas era.

"They know in this environment not to indicate in any way they want to run against Abbas or seek to position themselves as successor as that is enough to provoke his wrath," she said.