Five post-Abbas possibilities

Every time Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gets sick, commentators rush to wonder what will come next when the 82-year old leader leaves office.

Mahmoud Abbas (photo credit: REUTERS)
Mahmoud Abbas
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was briefly hospitalized July 29 for what various sources said was fatigue and a routine checkup.
Each time Abbas gets sick, commentators rush to wonder what will come next after the 82-year old leader leaves office. The question of succession has both a sense of urgency and also dread, with one official describing it in 2014 as like “Samson in the temple,” ready to bring it all down.
Abbas was reelected president of Fatah in 2016, but analysts also see his reign as stifling democracy and becoming more authoritarian.
They worry that he has not named a successor, that elections have been postponed too long, and freedom of the press has been eroded in the PA. All of that, combined with lack of realization of a Palestinian state, leads to a combustible situation should he leave office.
Here are a few scenarios of what might be expected.
The next generation?
Palestinians in their 50s born after the 1948 war whose formative years were post-1967, contain some possibilities for post-Abbas leadership.
Fatah insiders such as Majid Faraj, head of PA intelligence has had his name tossed around. Grant Rumley, research fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies and coauthor of a biography on Abbas, told Reuters in 2014: “The Americans love him and the Israelis love him.”
Another name that always comes up is Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences in prison. Rumley and others have pointed to Jibril Rajoub, currently sports czar and a former security chief; Mohammad Shtayyah, a politician and economic expert and Mahmoud Aloul, a new Fatah vice president.
Chaos or Hamas
In 2015, Nathan Thrall, a senior analyst with the International Crises Group, wrote in the London Review of Books that there would be a new round of Israeli-Palestinian violence at the “end of the Abbas era.”
He claimed that Palestinians were taking “matters into their own hands,” doing so “gradually at first, in areas outside PA control: Jerusalem, Gaza, Israeli prisons and villages and refugee camps.”
The street protesters were “crushed and divided,” he said, but even in weakness they pursued national goals.
This depiction of bubbling leaderless chaos, is one many fear will come after Abbas.
Without an authoritarian center and absent democratic elections, Palestinian politics might devolve onto the village and city level.
This would feed the interests of new salafist or religious extremist groups that might like to inch into the vacuum or of existing opposition such as Hamas, which, for instance, is not well liked in Gaza after a decade of failed rule but in the West Bank presents itself as the younger and active anti-corruption “change” party.
Case in point is its new leader Yahya Sinwar, born in 1962. Journalist Khaled Abu Toameh told the Israel Public Diplomacy Forum in November 2016 that a weak Fatah “provides Hamas with a golden opportunity to boost standing in this area.”
The old guard
When the British Israel Communications and Research Center (BICOM), in 2016, presented the question of what happens after Abbas, Paul Scham, an academic, responded: “Of the half dozen likely candidates and a similar number of dark horses, there is none currently more likely to be chosen than the others.”
Names such as Saeb Erekat are sometimes raised; born in 1955, he isn’t the oldest of the older players in the PA. Ahmed Qurei, who is 80, would be more representative.
So would Yasser Abed Rabbo, a PLO insider who was born in 1945.
But there is a chance that a post-Abbas era could include a triumvirate of elderly Fatah members, jealous of one another and seeking to cling to power and perpetuate the stagnation of the Abbas era.
“I do think the likeliest result of a chaotic transfer of power is a situation where multiple parties have multiple levels of legitimate claims to the leadership,” said Rumley.
This involves organs such as the Central Committee of Fatah, the Constitutional Court, the 120 members of the PLO Central Council and 22 members of the PLO Executive Committee and the Palestinian Legislative Council.
This might be in the interests of the international community, but it doesn’t bring good tidings in terms of building civil society, elections or giving young people a voice.
What about Dahlan?
In the last few years Mohammad Dahlan, the one-time Gaza strongman, has made an interesting comeback among commentators and Palestinians, to be considered for a leadership role. He was the former head of the Palestinian security services in Gaza, but was unceremoniously expelled by Hamas in 2011 (conveniently, while he was abroad).
In what seemed like a terrible defeat from which one cannot return, his forces were crushed by the Islamists.
However, years make memory grow different, and in 2017 there is talk of his return.
Dahlan is supported abroad by governments in the region such as the UAE and Israelis know him from the 1990s and 2000s.
In May, Minister for Jerusalem Affairs and Environment Protection Ze’ev Elkin said Israel must prepare for the post-Abbas era. “The Palestinian Authority will not survive Abbas’s departure because he oppressed any political culture in the PA,” he was quoted as saying.
What does Israel do in such a scenario? Voices on the Right have been arguing for annexation of Area C for years and, if Abbas leaves, a power vacuum might provide an excuse to act.
A new “victory caucus” in the Knesset and other voices that believe Palestinians need to accept Israeli “victory” over them could push the government toward a new paradigm in the West Bank.
This inevitably also leads other voices to conclude that the chances for a Palestinian state have faded and a onestate solution is all that is on the menu.
In such a scenario, the international community may ramp up pressure on Israel as former US secretary of state John Kerry prophesied it would in his December 2016 speech before leaving office.
If history teaches us anything, it is that there is always another leader – no one is irreplaceable. However, the recent era in the Middle East also teaches us that chaos can be unleashed by unseating long-serving leaders and that when nationalist paradigms break down they often are not replaced by more democratic and secular forms, but rather by religious extremism and sometimes localized factions or ethnic violence.
Those watching the Palestinian Authority and Palestinians themselves all wonder what comes next.