Palestinian Affairs: The post-Abbas scenario

Abbas, 81, who is serving the 12th year of what was supposed to be a four-year term as PA president, has not heeded calls to name a successor or appoint a vice president.

October 14, 2016 18:51
Mahmoud Abbas

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meets Israeli delegation in Ramallah, May 17, 2016. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas made an unexpected trip to the newly built Istishari Hospital on the outskirts of Ramallah last Thursday suffering from exhaustion, bringing the spotlight back to the issue of succession.

Abbas, 81, who is serving the 12th year of what was supposed to be a four-year term as PA president, has not heeded calls to name a successor or appoint a vice president.

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Instead, the Palestinian leader has said that the Palestinian street will decide the next Palestinian president through elections.

However, with Hamas-Fatah reconciliation frozen and internal Fatah disarray, it is unlikely that a presidential election will take place in the near future; and if Abbas dies in office, it is not clear who will replace him as president.

According to PA Basic Law, if Abbas dies in office, Aziz Dweik, a Hamas leader and the current chairman of the Palestinian Legislative Council, will serve as acting president for 60 days ahead of a presidential election. However, Fatah leaders argue that Dweik would not be eligible, since the PLC has not functioned since 2007.

Despite the ambiguity over how the next Palestinian president will emerge, numerous Fatah and other leaders have made clear that they would like to serve as the next president of the PA. The following profiles feature a number of the prime contenders:

Marwan Barghouti

Marwan Barghouti joined Fatah at the age of 15 and in 1976 was imprisoned for four years for participating in terrorist activities. Following his release, he began studying at Bir Zeit University and became a leader of the Fatah student movement there.

At the beginning of the first intifada in 1987, Barghouti organized protests at the university, but was shortly thereafter deported to Jordan. After spending a few months in Jordan, Barghouti relocated to Tunisia, where he worked closely with Jibril Rajoub, coordinating activities in the West Bank during the first intifada. After the signing of the Oslo I Accord in 1993, Barghouti underwent a major political transformation, backing the Oslo Accords and negotiations.

Barghouti later became the primary leader of Tanzim, a grassroots wing of Fatah, building its network to thousands of supporters. However, during the second intifada, Barghouti instructed armed members of Tanzim, who identified as the Aksa Martyrs Brigade, to attack Israelis. An Israeli court sentenced Barghouti to five life sentences in 2004.

In polls, Palestinians consistently have said they will give Barghouti the most votes in a presidential election. More recently, top leaders of Fatah, including Saeb Erekat, have said they would support Barghouti, if he wanted to become the next Palestinian president. However, Barghouti remains in the Hadarim Prison in Petah Tikva. Some analysts believe that if he were elected president, the international community would pressure Israel to release Barghouti.

Muhammad Dahlan

Born to a poor family in the Khan Yunis refugee camp, Muhammad Dahlan joined Fatah in college and helped found al-Shabiba, a Fatah youth social and political movement. Dahlan was arrested multiple times for his involvement in terrorist activity as a teenager and young adult in the early 1980s. In 1987, Dahlan was deported to Jordan and later relocated to Tunisia in 1989, where he coordinated activities in the Gaza Strip during the first intifada.

After the signing of the Oslo Accords, Dahlan was appointed as chief of the newly founded Preventive Security Service of the PA and built a 20,000-member force, establishing himself as a strongman in Gaza. In 2002, Dahlan resigned from the Preventative Security and began work as a national security adviser to PA president Yasser Arafat.

During the 2007 Hamas takeover of Gaza, Dahlan, serving as national security adviser at the time, failed to restore the PA’s control over the Strip. In the following years, Dahlan began expressing sharp criticism of Abbas, even accusing him of corruption. In 2011, Fatah ousted Dahlan from its ranks, and the PA prosecutor-general indicted him for corruption, leading the middle-aged Palestinian leader to flee the West Bank.

Dahlan has since relocated to the United Arab Emirates, where he serves as a close adviser to the UAE’s leadership. Dahlan has also built close relationships with Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and reportedly met with top Jordanian leaders in 2016.

Dahlan has not publicly said that he hopes to become the next Palestinian president, but has made clear that he hopes to serve in the post-Abbas leadership.

Polls indicate that Dahlan enjoys considerable support in the Gaza Strip but little in the West Bank, making him an unlikely victor in a presidential election. Yet some analysts believe his regional and Israeli connections make him a contender for the presidency.

Nasser al-Kidwa

Nasser al-Kidwa, born in 1953, is the nephew of Arafat. He first rose to the upper echelons of the Palestinian leadership when he served as PLO ambassador to the United Nations in the 1990s and early 2000s. He gained a reputation as a shrewd diplomat with the ability to navigate the international scene. In 2005, after his uncle died, he returned to Ramallah and assumed the role of foreign minister in then-prime minister Ahmed Qurei’s government.

However, Kidwa, a strong personality, struggled with Abbas, who had wanted to manage much of Palestinian foreign policy from his Mukata presidential compound, and resigned from the position a year later.

In the following years, Kidwa receded from the Palestinian political arena and assumed a number of diplomatic positions, including as the UN secretary-general’s special envoy to Afghanistan, deputy UN special envoy to Syria, and Arab League special envoy to Libya.

More recently, Kidwa returned to Ramallah and become more active in Fatah politics.

Ehud Yaari, a correspondent for Channel 2, reported in early October that a number of Arab states have agreed to back Kidwa as the next Palestinian president.

Analysts argue that Kidwa could serve as a consensus candidate because he does not have disputes with other Fatah and Palestinian leaders. Yet the same analysts caution that Kidwa may struggle to garner enough support to become president, because he has not developed a particular constituency.

Saeb Erekat

Born in Abu Dis and raised in Jericho, Erekat earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science in the United States in the late 1970s and his doctorate in peace studies in the United Kingdom in 1983. After completing his studies, Erekat returned to the West Bank, where he worked as a lecturer at An-Najah University in Nablus and a columnist for Al-Quds, a Palestinian daily newspaper.

In 1983, Erekat opened an academic exchange with Israeli professors, despite popular criticism and condemnation. In the early 1990s, Erekat joined the Arab Studies Society, the primary PLO-affiliated organization in Jerusalem, working closely with the PLO leadership in Tunis and advocating for negotiations.

After the signing of the Oslo Accords, Erekat served as a minister in the PA and assumed the role of PLO chief negotiator, playing a critical role in every round of negotiations. Erekat also serves as a Palestinian Legislative Council parliamentarian and one of Abbas’s closest advisers, traveling with him almost everywhere and advising him on most important decisions.

Polls indicate that Erekat does not have enough popular support to become the next Palestinian president. However, some analysts argue that Abbas could appoint Erekat to a deputy president position, paving the way for him to take over the presidency.

Erekat has also said that he would like to return to academic life.

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