How Abbas handpicks his ambassadors

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Foreign Minister Riyad Maliki (R) arrive for an Arab League foreign ministers’ emergency meeting at the league’s headquarters in Cairo, Sep. 7, 2014

The Palestinian Authority (PA) is switching up some important diplomatic appointments, including its ambassadors to the United States and United Kingdom, causing speculation as to why, and once again raising criticism of the way ambassadors are named.

The Palestinian Maan News Agency wrote Oct. 18 that PA President Mahmoud Abbas reached the decision to change the diplomatic lineup after consulting with Foreign Minister Riyad Malki. Since then, Abbas has appointed new ambassadors to the United States, United Kingdom, the Netherlands and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Abbas named his strategic affairs adviser, Husam Zomlot, as ambassador to the United States to replace Maen Areikat, who will now move to London. Areikat replaces Manuel Hassassian, who has not been reappointed at this time. Areikat had an agenda jammed with political events in the United States as part of the PA’s global action to confront Israel. The PA may be seeking to use Areikat’s experience in political events and activities in London, and thus Europe, to which the PA attaches great importance.

Zomlot’s appointment to the United States might have exceptional significance because of the large role the United States has played in trying to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Zomlot was appointed based on the recommendations of Palestinian leaders due to his relations with the United States and other Western states, and his pivotal role in meetings with US leaders and official delegations visiting Palestine. Zomlot told Al-Monitor he prefers to wait until he officially moves to Washington before making any statements.

Appointing a new Palestinian ambassador to the UAE is also important, amid tensions between the UAE and the PA that have festered since May. Relations started going downhill when the UAE voiced its support for Mohammed Dahlan, Fatah’s dismissed leader and Abbas’ archenemy, while Abbas refused the Emirati offer to broker a reconciliation with Dahlan.

The new UAE ambassador, Nabil Abuznaid, is relocating from his position in the Netherlands. He was active in attempts to obtain European recognition of the Palestinian state in 2014 through his network of connections in the Netherlands. Rawan Abu Youssef will take Abuznaid’s place. Youssef has occupied several vacancies in the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, most recently as assistant foreign minister for multilateral relations.

Abuznaid is replacing Issam Massalha, who is being removed from his position in the UAE in the reshuffle. Massalha has yet to be reappointed and has not yet returned to the Palestinian territories. Abdel Fattah Hamayel, the mayor of Bethlehem and former Palestinian minister of youth and sports, in February criticized Massalha because he imposed high taxes on Palestinians in Abu Dhabi for routine paperwork. That taxation, which Palestinians opposed, might have played a role in his removal.

The PA has a wide international diplomatic network, with about 100 ambassadors distributed around the world. The embassies cost the PA about $200 million yearly, which exceeds the authority’s modest financial means. However, the changing assignments don’t seem to reflect a cut in spending, as the PA isn’t planning to close any embassies.

So why the shakeup?

An official at the Palestinian Foreign Ministry told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Palestinian figures demanded — through calls with the Palestinian presidency and intervention from major leaders in Fatah and the [PLO] — [that Gaza receives its fair] share of diplomatic appointments, based on past promises from Abbas. Abbas might make a major reshuffling in key embassies like Egypt and Algeria before the end of 2016. The main criterion to appoint ambassadors is their closeness to Abbas, but there are around 100 Palestinian Embassies abroad. Only two ambassadors hail from Gaza, while the others are from the West Bank. This reflects Abbas’ negative opinion of Gaza and its people.”

Another official, Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas leader and Foreign Ministry undersecretary in the Gaza Strip, told Al-Monitor, “The foreign minister in Ramallah [in the West Bank] directly assigns Palestinian ambassadors without communicating with us. But Palestinian diplomatic work needs more cooperation. Therefore, Palestinian ambassadors must be assigned based on professional rather than factional rules. Gazans get a low number of diplomatic appointments compared to the West Bank.”

Abdullah Abdullah, a member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council and the head of the political committee at the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), was an ambassador in the 1970s. He quit diplomatic work in 2003 after having served as Palestinian ambassador to Lebanon, Canada and Greece. He told Al-Monitor, “Ambassadors should be chosen in a way that serves the Palestinian cause. We have diaspora across the world and wide global solidarity campaigns that necessitate the presence of competent ambassadors. Unfortunately, the PLC [has had no luck in convincing] the foreign minister to get informed about how to appoint new ambassadors.”

Some observers believe corruption may have something to do with some of the changes.

Press statements issued in 2014 brought up corruption in the Palestinian Embassies, such as the implication of a diplomat at the Palestinian Embassy in China in fraud cases worth $15 million. In June, news broke of Palestinian Ambassador to Venezuela Linda Sobh’s plan to appoint her daughter, Samar, as general consul at the embassy as soon as Samar graduated. On Nov. 10, Sobh was appointed ambassador to Guyana in South America.

“There are several corruption scandals in Palestinian Embassies across the world — in Spain, Sweden and France,” Fahmi Shrab, an employee at the European Affairs’ Department at the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Gaza, told Al-Monitor. “They mostly revolve around illicit gains made by some diplomats who abused their positions of power at the embassies, thus tarnishing Palestinians’ reputation. Notably, most Palestinian diplomatic appointments are based on loyalties, nepotism and favoritism rather than competence and professionalism.”

Transparency Palestine stated in February that Palestinian diplomatic jobs suffer from a lack of transparency in terms of appointment and promotion, and personal relations clearly affect them.

Abdul Sattar Qassem, a political science professor at An-Najah National University in Nablus, told Al-Monitor, “The appointments in the Palestinian diplomatic corps depend on the agreement of the nominated ambassadors to Abbas’ political program, following negotiations and security coordination with Israel. These appointments do not seek foreign professional competence. As a result, many ambassadors get involved in affairs that harm the Palestinian people, like illicit gains.”

(Source / 16.11.2016)


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