Last March 6, Palestine’s Official Gazette posted a decree from President Mahmoud Abbas that replaced an old law from Jordanian days on procedures for lawsuits involving state bodies.

The dry, technical language appearing in a dry, technical publication somehow provoked a storm of political and legal criticism. Abbas’ authority to issue decrees that are treated as laws by official Palestinian bodies is contested by those who view the suspension of parliamentary life as illegitimate, resented by others who regard the ad hoc way laws are issued as autocratic, and irrelevant for those who see the Palestinian leadership as feckless and bereft of strategy. Without much of a state operating in practice, why rewrite laws for litigation? But those are familiar questions. What was so controversial about this jumble of legalistic phrases?

The move suggested the institutional interment of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The state covered by the decree-law is the “State of Palestine” with Abbas as its president. Among its many branches, agencies, and ministries are the PLO and all its associated bodies, as if they are part of the Ramallah-based Palestinian bureaucracy. Therefore, the law seemed to fold the only authoritative structures uniting Palestinians and speaking authoritatively for them as a people into an appendage of an office rooted in the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), a circumscribed and autocratic structure that limps along, stricken by inertia.

The clause covering the PLO was so nettlesome that it had to be issued twice. A first decree, circulated but not officially published, simply listed the PLO. Abbas then issued a second decree—this one official and now in effect—including the phrase that the inclusion of the PLO was “for the purposes of applying the provisions of this decree law.” That failed to mollify the critics.

Why does anyone care? Abbas has always treated the PLO as an appendage of his office, to be trotted out when useful. To him the organization is a set of offices that can carry on international diplomacy (for those states that recognize the PLO but not Palestine), and occasionally have its bodies endorse decisions. The decree-law turns this mode of behavior into a governing legal text.

That is contrary to the way most Palestinians view the PLO, at least on the theoretical, historical, and symbolic levels. Nobody is under any illusion that the PLO shows signs of vitality at the moment. But in the past it has been, and may again be, a site for building national consensus, sketching strategies, taking authoritative decisions, and coordinating a people dispersed throughout the world. Were a sovereign Palestinian state ever established, in practice as well as on paper, the PLO might hand the keys of leadership to the state. However, Abbas seems to have taken advantage of his dual position—he also chairs the PLO’s Executive Committee—to place these keys in the drawers of the ineffectual State of Palestine.

The PLO draws its authority from the Palestinian National Council, a body that meets occasionally to represent Palestinians everywhere. It was the PLO that gained international recognition for Palestinians as a people, represented them internationally for years, and authorized the creation of the PNA, the core of the body that has now morphed into the State of Palestine. When the United Nations admitted “Palestine” as an observer in 2012, it did so “without prejudice to the acquired rights, privileges and role of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the United Nations as the representative of the Palestinian people.”

In short, it is the PLO that is the oversight body. For most Palestinians, the State of Palestine deserves international recognition to be sure, but to dump all of the PLO, with its associated offices and institutions, in with the various parts of the PNA only demotes the PLO’s standing, guts a structure that was built for Palestinians everywhere, and places it all under the control of a president who operates outside of any mechanism of oversight or accountability. Even an ad hoc consultative process for issuing decree-laws was bypassed this time around, creating an unexpected surprise for all concerned.

The relationship between all these bodies is confusing to be sure. Debates sometimes seem theoretical and unresolvable, and may remain so until “Palestine” becomes a firm and stable institutional reality. But there are two reasons in particular for why Abbas’ move has concerned many Palestinians who see practical implications as well as noxious symbolism associated with it.

First, any national reconciliation, if it ever takes place, will likely be sealed through the PLO. To transform the PLO in a legal sense into an arm of the Ramallah leadership undermines its ability to fill that role as a consensual structure. The March 6 decree law drew early criticism from the Islamist camp for that reason.

And second, mechanisms for succession are simply unclear at the moment. Abbas heads the State of Palestine, Fatah, and the PLO’s Executive Committee. The first seems to be governed by the PNA’s Basic Law, but its succession provisions are murky, with parliament having been disbanded and elections politically and logistically difficult (a set of problems exacerbated by the president’s decision to cancel parliamentary elections last year). Fatah, in turn, is a political party riven with factionalism. And the PLO’s Executive Committee now seems subject to the State of Palestine. A viable PLO (even at a symbolic level) might nevertheless be able to bless any succession. When Yasser Arafat died, Abbas succeeded him in a manner that was smooth legally and politically, uncontested in all three bodies.

The cavalier treatment of the PLO now, however, might mean at a symbolic and practical level that whoever controls the stationery and official seal in an office in the presidency in Ramallah may, literally, rubber stamp a decision taken in a haphazard and heavy-handed manner outside any real institutional framework.

With the host of problems afflicting the Palestinian national movement, the controversial decree-law should hardly be seen as a decisive move in any sense. But it should most certainly be regarded as another step in a series of increasingly institutionalized practices that embed what were essentially ad hoc arrangements into an entrenched state of statelessness.