by Hugh Fitzgerald
Mahmoud Abbas is famously corrupt; he has acquired a fortune of at least $400 million. He has also provided high-paying no-show jobs to family members and loyalists. He lives in a $13 million palace in Ramallah. He has a $50 million private jet. And he continues to have checks from donors delivered directly to his private office, where his two closest aides are the only ones admitted. Some of those funds are then deposited in the many bank accounts has abroad, including several in the names of his grandchildren. Many Palestinians are fed up with Abbas, but he has carefully avoided holding elections. He is now in the sixteenth year of his original four-year term that began in 2005. But now it looks as if this summer there will be presidential elections. A report on what this means, from a former PA security commander, is here: “Elections worthless if Abbas is in power – ex-PA security commander,” by Khaled Abu Toameh, Jerusalem Post, February 25, 2021:
A former Palestinian Authority security commander said on Thursday that the upcoming Palestinian elections would be meaningless as long as PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his top aides remain in power….
“Palestinians will vote for anyone who runs against Abbas and Fatah with a promise to end corruption and implement major reforms,” Fahmi Shabaneh, who previously served as commander of the anti-corruption department in the PA General Intelligence Service, said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post….
As the former commander of the anti-corruption department in the PA, Fahmi Shabaneh knows exactly what Mahmoud Abbas has been up to, and apparently, he’s that rare thing in the upper echelons of the PA, an honest man. He couldn’t stomach what he saw was going on all around him. Now he’s left the PA, is on his own, working as a lawyer in East Jerusalem, and enjoying the incorruptible administration of the Jewish state.
Shabaneh sees the Palestinians as at the end of their tether. They will vote for anyone – including Hamas – whose platform consists of one simple promise: to end corruption. That means getting rid not just of Abbas, but also his two grasping sons, Tareq and Yasser, and all of his well-compensated cronies who staff the upper echelons of the PA. They must all, in Shabaneh’s view, be driven from positions of power.
Shabaneh, who said he resigned from the PA General Intelligence Service because of attempts to prevent him from investigating corruption cases involving senior Palestinian officials, has since opened a law firm in east Jerusalem. As a resident of the city, he holds an Israeli-issued ID card.
Shabaneh, who was in charge of investigating corruption cases involving senior PA officials, was prevented from doing his job by those who – corrupt themselves – wanted to shut him down. There being no point in staying to endure such a farce, an investigator with nothing to investigate, Shabaneh resigned. Fortunately, for him, he lives in Jerusalem, where Israel, not the PA, is in control, and he is relatively safe from violent retribution by the PA.
Shabaneh said he saw a direct connection between the election of US President Joe Biden and Abbas’s decision to call new elections.
“Abu Mazen (Abbas) and the Palestinian leadership want US funding,” he argued. “They announced the elections so that Biden would resume financial aid to the Palestinians. Even if a new parliament is elected, it will have no real power or influence because the president’s office will still be in control of everything. We’ve been to this movie before.”…
Shabaneh is exactly right. Abbas decided it would be a good idea, if he wanted Biden to renew the aid that helps keep him, Abbas, and his friends in the style to which they have long grown accustomed, to put a democratic sheen on his despotic rule. Of course he would take care to arrange things so that yet again he, Mahmoud Abbas, would come out on top.
Should Abbas’ men win a majority in Parliament, Abbas need do nothing. The PA would declare it a “victory for democracy” that Abbas could trumpet to the world, and especially to those who hold the purse-strings in Washington. But should his men lose control of the Palestinian parliament, he has been forewarned, and still has time, before the presidential election more than two months later, to work to limit the parliament’s power, by presidential fiat, backed up, if necessary, by violence. Such tactics have worked for Abbas before. In 2006, when Hamas won a victory in Parliament, Fatah’s goons threatened its members from serving. Some Hamas legislators even went so far as to return to their redoubt in Gaza. In the end, the PA regained control of the Parliament, and Abbas learned his lesson – there would not be any more elections for 15 years.
The chronic kleptocracy that is the PA keeps going because from Abbas on down, they are all corrupt; those lower on the totem pole fear exposure by those above them; only Abbas, at the very top, has managed to stay comfortably, even outrageously, in power. In his case nothing – neither his fantastic web of corruption, nor his personal fortune – has yet shaken his rule.
Shabaneh has no faith that the elections will be held. Abbas, who intends to cling to power no matter what – even if it means the spigot of American aid is not turned back on — will cancel the presidential elections if he suspects he might lose. And Shabaneh says there is mostly indifference among the Arabs he lives among in Jerusalem. Their failure even to register to vote shows that they have given up hope that the elections, even were they to take place, would change anything. Many must assume that their President-For-Life will simply stuff the ballot boxes so he can’t lose; others, with an even deeper despair, may assume that even if Abbas were to lose, whoever succeeds him will in the end turn out to be corrupt as well. The temptations are simply too great, with all that money from donors flowing in, and no checks on presidential power.
Then there is the model of Israel, which Shabaneh does not mention. The Arabs in East Jerusalem have not only gone without a Presidential election of their own for sixteen years, but have seen all around the how a real democracy works. Abbas punishes those who criticize him in the Palestinian media. Meanwhile, Israel’s free press holds nothing back in its often scathing criticism of Israel’s leaders, and instead of no elections, recently held three parliamentary elections within a single year. This is a source of further despair, as the contrast between Israel’s no-holds-barred democracy and the Palestinian despotism is so stark, and for intelligent Palestinians like Shabaneh, so demoralizing.
Shabaneh said that while he was aware that some figures from east Jerusalem were planning to present their candidacy for the parliamentary election, he himself had no plans to contest the vote.
“I will be attacked by the corrupt Palestinian leadership if I run on a ticket that calls for reforms and transparency and an end to financial and administrative corruption,” he explained. “They know that once I’m in power, I would have to take measures against 90% of the Palestinian leaders for their involvement in corruption. That’s why they will spread all kinds of rumors about me and prevent the media from covering my election campaign. In the past, the Palestinian Authority seized my villa in Jericho because I spoke out against the corruption of Palestinian leaders.”
If 90% of the Palestinian leaders are involved in corruption, how can Shabaneh, or anyone, hope for reform? The 10% who are not corrupt, he says, would be quickly silenced if they dared to run for President, or for Parliament on an independent reformist ticket; stories would be made up – “they will spread all kinds of rumors” – about them, and if they persisted in running against Abbas and his friends, either for a Parliamentary seat or for President, there are always the violent goons in the pay of the PA, the same as those who terrified certain Hamas members after the 2006 elections, to make them offers they can’t refuse. Palestinian politics can best be understood by watching The Godfather.
Fahmi Shabaneh’s despair over Abbas’ rule is palpable. He doesn’t offer much hope for a change. He doesn’t believe the elections will take place, and if they do, he doesn’t believe that Abbas will allow himself to lose. So far, only two serious candidates have so far been mentioned. One is Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life terms for murder in an Israeli prison. The Israelis have no intention of releasing him, no matter how many votes he gets. The second is Mohammad Dahlan, who was convicted of corruption by the PA, in a trial stage-managed by Mahmoud Abbas, and was forced to flee the West Bank for the U.A.E., where he has lived for the last decade as an adviser—“the Emirates’ favorite Palestinian” — to Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed. Of course, Dahlan was corrupt, but not nearly as much as the man who put him on trial and ordered his conviction. But his criminal conviction, according to the PA, makes him ineligible to run.
There is one thought that might cheer up the despairing Fahmi Shabaneh. Mahmoud Abbas is 85 years old, in failing health. This suggests that a simple and elegant solution to the problem he poses may not be far off.
First published in Jihad Watch.