Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Fatah looks beyond Mahmoud Abbas

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Yoni Ben Menachem


The latest round of talks at the Fatah Revolutionary Council ended on March 2, 2018 in Ramallah.

One of the most important topics apparently discussed was the question of what the Fatah movement should do if its leader Mahmoud Abbas were to become unfit to rule as a result of his advanced age and his fragile state of health.

In February, Abbas was hospitalised at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for medical examinations. Abbas, aged 82, suffers from serious heart problems, and according to Palestinian sources in Fatah, has stomach cancer as well.

According to knowledgeable Palestinian sources, Abbas told the participants in the Fatah Revolutionary Council conference, "It's possible that this is my final meeting with you. No one knows how long he will live. No one can force a political plan upon me that I don't want. Only what I want will happen; I will not end my life with betrayal!"

Fatah sources have stated that the Revolutionary Council has decided to change the internal constitution of the Fatah movement to allow the movement's vice-chairman Mahmoud al-Aloul to stand in for Abbas as acting party leader for three months if Abbas becomes unfit to govern.

The PLO's national council will also convene in April in Ramallah to choose a new PLO executive council. Sources in the movement claim that a suggestion to reelect Abbas as the leader of the PLO will be set aside.

Apparently, Abbas is starting to realise that he may have to leave his position due to his state of health, and he wants to influence the choice of his successor while he still has the strength to do so.

Who is Mahmoud al-Aloul?

It is worthwhile paying some attention to the points of view expressed by the "number two" leader of the Fatah movement, Mahmoud al-Aloul, who was recently appointed as Abbas' deputy, giving him a clear advantage in the struggle for the succession to the position of chairman of the Palestinian Authority.

Al-Aloul has a long history of struggle against Israel. Aged 66, he was born in Nablus. Israel exiled him to Jordan in 1971 due to his terrorist activities.

Al-Aloul was involved with the military establishment of the Fatah movement, which committed acts of terror against Israel as part of the movement's "Western Sector" faction.

Al-Aloul was a member of the PLO's higher military council, and in 1983 was responsible for the kidnapping of six IDF soldiers in Lebanon. He also oversaw the prisoner exchange deal in which around 5,000 inmates of the Ansar camp in south Lebanon and another 100 security prisoners in Israeli jails were released in return for the kidnapped Israeli soldiers. Al-Aloul also served as the secretary of the Council for the "Affairs of the Occupied Territories," which presided over the first intifada. His son Jihad was killed by IDF fire during the second intifada.

Al-Aloul's Views

In the first interview that he gave to the Asharq al-Awsat newspaper on March 1, 2017 in his new position as vice-chairman of the Fatah movement, al-Aloul alluded to the issue of security cooperation with Israel. He expressed his support for it (which was a new idea for him), saying, "There are tremendous pressures, and according to some opinions it's not possible to use the stick right now. Some people made threats, but the use of threats was rejected. However, I say that in the end, there's no choice. We need to re-evaluate all of the issues related to contact with Israel."

Al-Aloul tries to promote the implementation of the concept of "popular resistance" - grassroots resistance and demonstrations to oppose "settlement policies" and the separation fence.

In the Asharq al-Awsat interview, he stated: "At this stage, the most appropriate form of resistance is popular resistance. Popular resistance is respected in dozens of places, but there's also a need to invest a lot of effort to make sure that it is aroused. You should see its power to create pressure. It needs to be all inclusive so that it becomes a way of life. We want it to be on the ground, as a lifestyle."

In the interview, al-Aloul gave a clear message to the new US administration: "We stick to our rights and to the red lines. We will defend them and won't give into any dictates."

When he was asked about US President Donald Trump's possible withdrawal from "the two-state solution," al-Aloul raised the concept of a "single state." He said, "We were the first to suggest one democratic state for everyone on this land. The single state that we have spoken about historically is a country where everyone will live together equally, but we know that Israel won't accept it. They won't agree... they seek recognition of a Jewish state. We have offered a single state in the past, and there's no problem if we accept this idea on our own terms."

Al-Aloul considers himself the heir to Abbas' position of chairman of the Palestinian Authority (PA). He is not in favour of dismantling the PA and he sees its establishment as a national achievement. However, he supports adopting a tough stance against Israel. "The Palestinian Authority must deepen its opposition to the Israeli occupation," he emphasised.

Meanwhile, despite al-Aloul's rivalry with Jibril Rajoub, who was appointed secretary-general of the Fatah movement and is essentially the organisation's "number three," both men are working together against Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, a protégé of Abbas.

And both of them are working against Muhammad Dahlan, who is a shared political rival and is also claiming the crown of the PA.

Although al-Aloul is not considered a threat to Abbas, he is a man with lots of experience with terrorist activities and assassinations.

According to senior Fatah officials, two years ago al-Aloul tried to assassinate Ghassan al-Shakaa, a member of the PLO executive committee and former mayor of Nablus.

A Bloody Battle for the Succession Is Expected

The appointment of al-Aloul as acting vice-chairman of the Fatah movement, until internal elections are held, does not necessarily mean that he will be the next chairman of the Palestinian Authority. Fatah has begun preparing for the election of a successor to make sure there is a solution in place before the problem arises, and also to prevent any surprises if Abbas suddenly stops serving in his position for health reasons or if he dies.

According to Palestinian law, in the case of incapacitation, the chairman of the Legislative Council (Parliament) replaces the chairman of the Palestinian Authority for a 90-day period, until presidential elections can be arranged.

Currently, the chairman of the Legislative Council is Hamas activist Dr. Aziz Duwaik of Hebron, but the Fatah movement is determined not to give him a foothold in the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. The implication of al-Aloul's appointment as temporary leader of the movement is that he will also be able to serve temporarily as chairman of the Palestinian Authority. However, this will require legislative change.

Al-Aloul belongs to the hawkish faction of Fatah. Israel, the United States, and the Arab countries are concerned about his opinions. The "Arab Quartet" (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates) would prefer Muhammad Dahlan as the next chairman of the PA, while Qatar favours Fatah Secretary-General Jibril Rajoub for the position.

However, according to Fatah sources, Abbas' preferred candidate for his successor is his loyal supporter Gen. Majid Faraj, head of the General Intelligence Service in the West Bank. Gen. Faraj is also accepted by the United States and Israel, due to his command of the PA's war on terror - a major consideration for Israel and the United States.

There are a few other candidates among the top ranks of Fatah, such as Gen. Tawfik Tirawi, Marwan Barghouti, Dr. Muhammad a-Shatiyeh, Dr. Nasser al-Kidwa, and others.

Some of those laying claim to the crown of the Fatah movement have local armed militias around the West Bank. The prediction within Fatah is that a violent struggle will break out in the area between the various militias as soon as Mahmoud Abbas becomes unfit to rule or dies. The first step anticipated is an armed attempt to take control of the symbols of government in the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, such as the Muqata compound, the parliament building, and the radio and TV studios.

Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs (JCPA). © JCPA, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.