The Strategist – 13 Jun 2018
Rumours abound about Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas’ ill health following repeated hospital stays. With Abbas in his 80s, the end of his leadership is fast approaching. Key questions are who will replace him and will there be an orderly succession or a violent upheaval?
Israelis are concerned that Hamas, which currently controls the Gaza Strip, will try to exploit the power vacuum in the West Bank to take over from the Fatah-dominated PA. That would be a disaster for Israelis and Palestinians. Since Hamas took over Gaza, thousands of rockets have been fired towards Israel, and there have been three wars. Rocket and mortar attacks recently restarted, with more than 200 fired towards Israel. The situation could escalate, with Israel responding with airstrikes.
Hamas remains popular among Palestinians. It won the Palestinian parliamentary election in 2006 and ousted its rival Fatah in a coup in 2007. Abbas won the presidential election in 2005 to serve a four-year term, but there has not been a presidential election since. If a new presidential election were held, Hamas would probably nominate its leader, Ismail Haniyeh, to run. Hamas spokesperson Hazem Qassem has said that any future presidential contest ‘must be an affair for all Palestinians, not an internal Fatah issue’.
According to a March poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey, 68% of Palestinians want President Abbas to resign. Furthermore, in a presidential election between Haniyeh and Abbas, Haniyeh would win 52% of the vote, and Abbas would receive only 41%. Given Hamas’ popularity, it’s possible that Fatah will prevent Hamas from participating in a presidential election. The political rivalry could also lead to a bloody battle in the West Bank.
Until recently the PA had avoided talk of succession. However, given Abbas’ ill health, Fatah appears to be finally making plans. Last year, Mahmoud al‑Aloul was appointed as the first-ever vice-chairman of Fatah. If Abbas were unable to carry out his duties, al‑Aloul would act as president for three months until elections could be held.
However, according to the Palestinian Basic Law, if the president dies or is incapacitated, the parliamentary speaker—currently Aziz Dweik of Hamas—would fill in while elections are organised. Fatah would say that the article governing presidential elections no longer applies because the parliament hasn’t met in over a decade.
Other possible contenders for the Palestinian presidency include the popular Marwan Barghouti, who’s currently serving five life terms in an Israeli jail; Jibril Rajoub, secretary general of the Fatah Central Committee; Majed Faraj, head of intelligence; and Mohammed Dahlan, who previously led the PA’s Preventive Security force in Gaza but fell out with Abbas and is now in exile in Abu Dhabi.
The tragedy of Abbas’ life and leadership is unfulfilled potential. He could have been the leader to achieve Palestinian statehood and peace with Israel. But sadly Abbas never entered into serious negotiations with Israel. In 2008, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered Abbas a state on nearly all of the West Bank (with land swaps), the Gaza Strip and in Arab neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem, as well as compensation for refugees. Abbas rejected the offer ‘out of hand’, as Abbas himself told an interviewer in 2015.
Another lost opportunity came during negotiations with current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2014. According to former US Middle East envoy Martin Indyk, ‘Netanyahu moved to the zone of possible agreement. I saw him sweating bullets to find a way to reach an agreement’, but Abbas ‘shut down’. Instead, Abbas stayed away from negotiations and unilaterally pursued diplomatic recognition of ‘Palestine’. This path led to symbolic wins at international fora but has achieved nothing of substance for his people.
Abbas appears to know that he’s at the end of his reign and his behaviour has become erratic. He has called Donald Trump’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, a ‘son of a dog’, and was accused of antisemitism following his 30 April address to the Palestinian National Council. In that speech, Abbas claimed that the Holocaust was not caused by anti-Semitism but by the social behaviour of Jews, and that the 3,000-year-old Jewish connection to Israel is non-existent. Following criticism Abbas offered a weak apology. However, the claims echo those made in his 1982 doctoral dissertation, ‘The other side: the secret relationship between Nazism and Zionism’.
As Abbas’ leadership comes to an end, so too does the illusion that he was a Palestinian leader ready to make peace. He could have fulfilled the dreams of the Palestinians by offering them a state and hope. Instead, Israelis and Palestinians are now left to contend with a choice of nightmares: Hamas in control of the West Bank, Palestinian civil war or the complete collapse of the Palestinian Authority.
Sharyn Mittelman is Senior Policy Analyst at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.