This past Monday, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman raised an interesting point about Mahmoud Abbas that has not received the attention it deserves.
Speaking at a session of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Lieberman intimated that the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, who is also known as Abu Mazen, may very well be little more than a has-been – not just politically, but constitutionally as well.
"Abu Mazen does not represent the residents of Gaza because Hamas rules there," Lieberman said, adding, "Seeing as elections in the PA have been postponed three times, one needs to ask whom does Abu Mazen represent. It is not clear that he can supply the goods in negotiations."
To be sure, those in favor of talks with the Palestinians will dismiss Lieberman's remarks as little more than rhetoric, viewing them as an attempt to minimize Abbas's importance in order to justify ignoring him.
But whether the critics like it or not, the fact is that Lieberman is correct: under Palestinian law, Abbas is no longer the lawful and legitimate leader of the PA.
Indeed, ever since January 24, the Palestinian chairman can no longer be said to be legally occupying his post.
It was on that date, after all, that a new round of Palestinian balloting was supposed to be held to fill the post of chairman as well as elect a new Palestinian Legislative Council.
But because of disagreements between Fatah and Hamas, the vote never took place, leaving the Palestinian areas in a constitutional vacuum of epic proportions.
If you don't believe me, just listen to what the Palestinians themselves have to say.
On November 13 of last year, Azzam al-Ahmad, a member of the Fatah Central Committee, told Agence France Presse that, "After January 25, there will be a legal vacuum because the president and parliament will no longer be legal." Various Palestinian human rights groups, none of whom can be accused of being Zionist stooges, tend to agree.
IN A position paper released on January 24, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights bemoaned the failure to hold new Palestinian elections, and pointedly noted that, "From now on, no one can claim democracy or the representation of the public will, as all must go back to the people for a new authorization."
Similarly, the Palestinian Al Mezan Center for Human Rights issued a statement on January 25 declaring that "today marks the end of the mandate of the elected Palestinian Presidency and Legislative Council." It added that, "According to the Palestinian law that governs the Palestinian Authority, the presidential and PLC terms ended yesterday and therefore the Palestinian elected political institutions lost their legitimacy and constitutionality."
Likewise, Professor Nathan Brown of George Washington University, in a paper entitled "Palestinian Presidential Elections" issued by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in July 2008, concluded that Abbas could not lawfully continue beyond last month.
"There is no legal or constitutional basis for his continuing after January 2010," Brown wrote, "except that there may be nobody to take his place."
EVEN PRIOR to January 24, Abbas was already on shaky ground. Back in 2005, he was elected to a four-year term. Article 36 of the PA's "Basic Law" states that "the term of the presidency of the National Authority shall be four years." Ostensibly, then, Abbas's tenure was complete back in January 2009, when he should have faded off into retirement.
But since Palestinian election law requires presidential and parliamentary balloting to be held simultaneously, and the Palestinian Legislative Council was voted into office only in January 2006, Abbas and his supporters claimed that this entitled him to serve an additional year.
In other words, they argued that his term ended at the same time as that of the outgoing Palestinian parliament, namely on January 24, 2010.
And though Abbas attempted to circumvent this conundrum by getting the PLO to extend his term beyond last month in an extra-legal fashion, the consensus is that he is no longer legally entitled to serve in his post.
Three months ago, Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University, assessed the position of Abbas and his supporters in an article that appeared in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram.
His conclusion was unambiguous: "It is abundantly clear that the PA has lost much of its legal and political legitimacy as questions abound regarding the legality of Abbas staying in office past 24 January 2009."
"Palestinian basic law," Nafaa pointed out, "is quite specific about the duration of the presidential term. A president is allowed a term of four years renewable once. This is why many believe that the Palestinian presidency is now legally vacant." He also criticized Abbas's maneuvering to remain in power, adding that "these measures cannot obscure the fact that the Palestinians now have a constitutional vacuum."
January 2010, as we know, has come and gone, and it is clear that from a legal point of view there is no duly constituted leader of the Palestinian Authority now in place.Chairman Abbas has become Citizen Abbas, and his legal authority extends no further than the edge of his desk.
So the world and the Left can press Israel to negotiate with Abbas all it wants, but he is no longer a relevant address.
For all intents and purposes, we might as well be discussing the future with illegal Palestinian construction workers. They, like their former chairman, currently enjoy the same constitutional clout.