The mystery of Mahmoud Abbas’ health

The mystery of Mahmoud Abbas' health
Abbas in hospital with his two sons

In the best tradition of dictatorial Arab regimes, obscurity has descended upon the state of health of Palestinian Authority (PA) Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who was hospitalised in Ramallah on May 20.

The Palestinian people, whom Abbas officially represents as the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which is recognised as the exclusive representative of the Palestinians, have no official information about his state of health. The only information they receive comes from statements from his close associates and leaks to the Arab media.

No Palestinian doctor from the hospital in Ramallah has stood in front of TV cameras to give an update on the situation of the 83-year-old Palestinian leader or to answer questions relating to his medical condition without violating his privacy.

According to sources in Fatah, the one responsible for this policy is Abbas himself and the people who surround him, led by Gen. Majid Faraj and Saeb Erekat.

They are keeping all real medical information very quiet so that they can make political use out of it.

This secrecy has created a rumour mill in the territories. At this rate, the day will soon come when senior PA officials accuse Israel of “poisoning” Mahmoud Abbas, just as it supposedly “poisoned” Yasser Arafat, and they will even declare him a shahid, a martyr. There is no limit to the web of propaganda that is being used even now to build the myth and heritage of Abbas.

Abbas’ hospitalisation on May 20 was his third time this year, after he underwent an operation on his ear the previous week.

The al-Hayat newspaper published in London claimed on May 21 that according to knowledgeable Palestinian sources, Mahmoud Abbas is suffering from severe pneumonia. His temperature was above 40 degrees, and his doctors are trying to bring it down. He is conscious, but he was breathing on a respirator.

Nonetheless, Saeb Erekat, Secretary-General of the PLO’s steering committee, stated on May 21 that Abbas’ medical condition is good and he will be discharged soon.

Abbas is also suffering from severe heart problems. Although he has had three catheterisations, he remains a heavy smoker.

Over the past few months, Abbas has begun to prepare for his retirement from Palestinian politics and has taken two significant steps in this regard.

He passed a resolution before Fatah’s Revolutionary Committee that if he were to become incapacitated, his Vice-Chairman, Mahmoud al-Aloul, would replace him for 60 days as the chairman of the movement until primaries and the election of a new chairman could be organised.

He also passed a resolution before the Palestinian National Council (PNC) allowing the transfer of the PNC’s authority to the PLO Central Committee, which has 115 members, turning it into the body for making the most important decisions, including the election of a new PA chairman. This way, Abbas has pushed Hamas, which controls the Palestinian Legislative Council (parliament) out of the struggle over the succession, leaving it only within the Fatah movement, which is the backbone of the Palestinian Authority.

Who will replace Mahmoud Abbas?

At least eight senior Fatah officials see themselves as potential successors to Abbas. At the top is Marwan Barghouti, who is in an Israeli jail, serving five life sentences for the murder of Israeli citizens.

The chances that Israel will let Barghouti out of jail to replace Abbas are very low.

Apart from him, the following are competing for the job:

• Gen. Majid Faraj, head of the intelligence service,
• Mahmoud al-Aloul, Vice-Chairman of Fatah,
• Jibril Rajoub, Secretary-General of Fatah,
• Saeb Erekat, Secretary-General of the PLO’s steering committee,
• Mohammed Dahlan, who was expelled from Fatah,
• Dr. Muhammad a-Shitayeh, member of the Fatah Central Committee, and
• Tawfik al-Tirawi, also a member of the Fatah Central Committee.

However, due to the power struggles waged as part of the succession battle, and out of a desire to keep the Palestinian Authority whole, Abbas has decided that he should designate a temporary successor to cover the interim period until general elections could be arranged.

He has not yet designated anyone, nor has he appointed a deputy to himself as he had promised some of his close associates.

Temporary PA chairman Likely

According to a report on the Al-Khaleej website from May 5, Abbas informed the Fatah leadership that he was going to appoint Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah as temporary PA chairman until general elections could be held in the territories.

Hamdallah is Abbas’ default choice because he is loyal and does not belong to any camp other than Fatah. He is also accepted by the United States, Israel, and the Arab states. On the other hand, he is not an official member of the PLO leadership, and he has never been incarcerated inside an Israeli prison (a history of incarceration is seen as a positive attribute in the eyes of many Palestinians).

Even if Abbas recovers and leaves the hospital, it is clear that he is living on borrowed time, and he can’t lead the PA for too much longer.

Israel, the Fatah top brass, the United States, and the moderate Arab countries have a shared interest in a stable transfer period and a quiet change of leadership among the upper echelons of the Palestinian Authority until a new leader is elected as PA chairman.

It is by no means certain that this can be done. In the area, armed militias are on alert for the moment when Abbas either retires or becomes incapacitated.

These groups are loyal to Majid Faraj, Mohammed Dahlan, Mahmoud al-Aloul, Jibril Rajoub, Marwan Barghouti, and Tawfik al-Tirawi.

Throughout the West Bank, bloody incidents and clashes may break out between the various factions within Fatah as they all jostle for power, and the situation may deteriorate into civil war.

Hamas is also not expected to be idle. It is likely to stir up its agents inside the West Bank and join in the struggle for the succession.

Hamas’ main interest is to take power in the West Bank and torpedo US President Donald Trump’s planned “Deal of the Century” peace proposal.

Interesting times lie ahead. It is possible that the IDF will need to intervene to prevent Hamas from gaining ground or to prevent clashes between the various factions of Fatah, which may endanger the lives of IDF soldiers and Israeli citizens living in the West Bank.

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). He served as director general of the Israel Broadcasting Authority. © JCPA, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.