Who succeeds Mahmoud Abbas?

If Israel keeps Barghouti in prison, then Dahlan is well placed to sweep Mahmoud Abbas aside and become the next Palestinian president.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Lurking in the backwoods of Palestinian politics is a man whom 79-year-old Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recognizes as his deadly rival. Thirty years younger than Abbas, he has been a thorn in the president’s flesh from the moment of his election, continually criticizing him for weak leadership and corruption, a charge he extends to Abbas’s two sons. In response, Abbas has had him and his followers expelled from the Fatah party and exiled from the West Bank, and has hurled a barrage of  accusations against him, including that of colluding with Israeli agents to poison the revered ex-Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.
This 52-year-old hate figure – hated and feared not only by Abbas, but by all within the Fatah movement with aspirations to succeed the aging president – is Mohammed Yusuf Dahlan.
Born in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in the Gaza strip in 1961, Dahlan became politically active as a teenager, and in 1981 helped to establish the Gaza branch of the Fatah Youth Movement, “Fatah Hawks”.  His CV contains the necessary passport to political acceptance in Palestinian circles – time spent in an Israeli jail for terrorist activities. Between 1981 and 1986, he was arrested no less than 11 times. In 2007, consistent with his pro-Fatah – and therefore anti-Hamas – stance, Dahlan assisted in an abortive US plan to overthrow the Hamas administration that had seized power in Gaza in a bloody confrontation with Fatah.
To fund this operation, reports have it that he extracted from the US government a huge sum – estimated at $1 billion – but though he never delivered, he refused to refund the money. That is one US count against him. Another is that he has thrown in his lot with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the interim Egyptian government under Field Marshal (soon to be President) al-Sisi, and is supporting their offensive against the Middle East policies of US President Barack Obama.
This Palestinian renegade acquired his formidable political status by way of UAE Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who is one of al-Sisi’s most generous bankers, and who stands at the forefront of the Saudi-UAE life-and-death campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood. Now Dahlan has established himself in Cairo, within al-Sisi’s inner circle of advisers on the Palestinian question –
which explains the extraordinary diatribe spouted by Abbas, a few weeks ago, to a closed meeting of the Fatah Revolutionary Council. During an hour-long harangue he accused Dahlan, along with Khaled Islam, a former economic adviser to Arafat, and ex-PA minister Hassan Asfour, of acting as spies for Israel. He had knowledge, he claimed, of ties between Dahlan and Israeli leaders.
He followed this up by asserting that Dahlan and his followers were involved in the assassination of Salah Shahadeh, the leader of Hamas’s military wing, who was killed by an Israeli airstrike in 2002. Then he topped the list of accusations by again hinting, as he had done some years ago, that Dahlan and his associates – “the three spies” Abbas dubbed them – were involved in the death of Yasser Arafat.
Dahlan, declared Abbas, would never be allowed back in Fatah, nor, he suggested, was there room in the party for those still loyal to him.
In response, Dahlan asserted on his Facebook page that Abbas’s speech was “full of lies and deception” which he proposed one day to disclose. Meanwhile senior Hamas figures like Taher al-Nunu, and Salah el-Bardawil, demanded a full and transparent inquiry into the assassination of Salah Shahadeh. On his Facebook page, al-Nunu wrote: “if there is truth to the matter, why has [Abbas] kept his silence and appointed Dahlan to high-level positions? How do we know that Abbas did not know about it?” 
In short, it is clear that the relationship between Abbas and Dahlan has reached an all-time low, while Dahlan himself seems to be riding high. Fueled by millions in Gulf aid dollars, raised in part by himself from business people and charities in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, he seems to be orchestrating a comeback that could position him as a possible successor to Abbas.
Like all potential candidates for high office, Dahlan modestly denies that he is seeking it. In a recent newspaper interview, Dahlan said he was “not looking for any post” after Abbas retires, but during an interview on Egyptian TV on March 16, he declared: “The Palestinian people can no longer bear a catastrophe like Mahmoud Abbas.”
That Abbas may retire following the virtual failure of the current peace process is certainly on the cards.  Putting aside his age and other political considerations, his personal status as President is questionable.  He was elected in 2005 for a four-year term, but 2009 came and went, his presidency was extended by diktat, the Hamas-Fatah feud has precluded any elections, and here we are in 2014 with Abbas still clinging to office.
Besides Dahlan, who is in the running? There is the man whom Hamas declares is the legitimate acting Palestinian president according to the constitution - Abdel Aziz Duwaik, Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council since January 2006.
Duwaik, once a professor of urban geography, has never been accused of involvement in terrorism and has told journalists that he views Hamas's call for the creation of a Palestinian state in all of Palestine, including Israel, to be "nothing but a dream, and unrealistic." He might be a preferred presidential successor from Israel’s point of view, but is unlikely to command popular support.
The Palestinian politician with the broadest appeal, according to the polls, is 54-year-old Marwan Barghouti, a charismatic Palestinian leader currently convicted of  murdering four people during terrorist operations in 2001 and 2002, and serving multiple life sentences in an Israeli jail. The polls, by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, show that Barghouti would easily come out on top of a three-way race involving also Abbas and Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas. An ardent supporter of the two-state solution and Palestinian resistance, he is considered top contender for the presidential post, and perhaps the only figure who can reunite the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The PA is demanding Barghouti’s freedom as part of a deal to save the peace talks from collapse. If he is released, as part of some last-ditch rescue attempt, he becomes a formidable alternative to Dahlan. If Israel keeps him in prison, then Dahlan is well placed to sweep Mahmoud Abbas aside and become the next Palestinian president.
The writer is the author of One Year in the History of Israel and Palestine (2011) and writes the blog “A Mid-East Journal” (www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com)