Is Abbas paving way for descent into violence by not naming a successor?

Abbas, 81, and in his 11th year in office, has avoided naming a successor, setting the stage for a free-for-all competition between a field of candidates.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is photographed after speaking at the Egypt Economic Development Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh (photo credit: BRIAN SNYDER / REUTERS)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is photographed after speaking at the Egypt Economic Development Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh
(photo credit: BRIAN SNYDER / REUTERS)
In Amari Refugee Camp near Ramallah, the competition over who will succeed Mahmoud Abbas when he can no longer continue as Palestinian president has brought into the world a beautiful new baby.
Inside the home of Muhammad Shehadeh, off of a cramped alley lined with drab stucco and concrete structures, relatives beam with satisfaction as his four-month-old son Ahmed lies contentedly on a mattress, kicking his legs in the air.
The wide-eyed, pudgy Ahmed was a long time in coming. Shehadeh, 40, a carpenter, said he had wanted children for 13 years, but that he and his wife were unable to have any. Then, last year, they were offered the opportunity to try in vitro fertilization sponsored by the Khalifa Bin Zayed al Nahyan Foundation, a United Arab Emirates (UAE) organization used by Palestinian presidential hopeful Mohammed Dahlan and his supporters to fund charity in refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza.
“We immediately accepted,’’ says Shehadeh.
‘’I wanted to have a child so much and couldn’t afford medical treatment.” Now, Shehadeh hopes to have a second child.
Dahlan, 54, is one of the main contenders in a crowded field of hopefuls wanting to succeed Abbas, 81 years old and in the 11th year of what was supposed to be a four-year presidential term. No new elections have been held due to the split between Fatah and Hamas emanating from the latter’s seizure of the Gaza Strip in 2007.
With Abbas failing to groom a successor, the stage is set for a possible free-for-all competition between a field of candidates including Dahlan, the jailed second intifada leader Marwan Barghouti, the secretary general of the PLO executive committee Saeb Erekat, and an array of Fatah leaders each of whom thinks he is the man who should be king.
And Hamas will be waiting in the wings, anxious to profit from any disarray.
In recent years, the ambitious Dahlan ‒ a past favorite of the Israeli defense establishment who lives in exile in the UAE after being expelled from Abbas’s Fatah movement in 2011 because of his repeated criticisms of Abbas ‒ has used UAE largesse to fund assistance to the needy, mostly in the Gaza Strip, but also in the refugee camps of the West Bank.
The Khalifa Foundation this year funded Ramadan iftar fast-breaking meals for thousands of Gazans, according to the foundation.
In the fertility project, 600 couples were chosen in the West Bank and Gaza, according to the UAE’s official Wam news agency, which noted the involvement in the effort of Dahlan’s wife, Jalila.
Three of those couples were chosen in Amari, according to Samir Hamad, a Dahlan supporter and member of the camp’s popular committee; the procedure is costly ‒ Hamas estimates it at 12,000 shekels per couple ‒ a sum that is well beyond the reach of the laborers and unemployed of the camp.
Dahlan’s backers now have their sights set on the start of the school year. According to Hamad, they will enable distribution of book bags stuffed with pens, notebooks and rulers to camp pupils, something he says they also have done in the past.
Throwing around this largesse is not just a question of charity. Dahlan is using the money to establish a base for becoming president, trying to build a reputation as someone who cares about the people in the camps, especially in Gaza, but also in the West Bank.
‘’We thought that as much as we can help, it will reflect positively on our group, Dahlan and Fatah,’’ says Alaa Yaghi, a Dahlan ally who, along with several members of the Palestinian Legislative Council and other personalities, formed a group in 2011 to push aid projects. Warned against such activity in the West Bank by Abbas supporters, Yaghi says he is no longer active in the group.
With the authorities poised against them, Dahlan supporters in the West Bank need to proceed with caution and a low profile, he says.
But Hamad, 65, says he is unafraid of being arrested for his support of Dahlan. Sitting on a plastic chair in front of his pharmacy at the entrance to Amari, Hamad says of Abbas, “Let him depart, he is not wanted. He should leave here in peace.’’ Of Dahlan, who grew up in Gaza’s Khan Yunis refugee camp, he says, “His program is known, he’s strong, he’s politically aware, he lived in camps like us. This president never entered the camp.’’ Amari, which prides itself on being mukhayam al-sumud, the camp of steadfastness in the face of occupation, is ripe for change.
In an Internet café with dim fluorescent lighting ‒ situated among buildings plastered with pictures of youth who died in and after the second intifada ‒ hangs a yellow Fatah flag. But there is scant affection for Fatah leader Abbas.
Although cast by the Netanyahu government as being guilty of incitement, Abbas is widely criticized in Palestinian society for being too accommodating of Israel.
One unemployed young man shows a visitor a video clip about the president that unfolds against the backdrop of a song whose refrain is the word khawan – traitor. He turns it up to full volume, and it reverberates through the café.
“We’ll raise the flag of Palestine and get rid of filthy guys who betrayed you,’’ the song says as the screen flashes pictures of Abbas.
The man, dressed in camouflage pants and a black T-shirt, sits near a poster of Abbas’s predecessor, Yasser Arafat. “Yasser Arafat – the revolution continues,’’ the poster proclaims.
Like others in the camp, for this young man, the major sore point about Abbas is his adherence to the “security cooperation’’ with Israel, according to which the Palestinian Authority security services make arrests against fellow Palestinians and help thwart attacks against Israeli targets.
“Abu Amar is our soul, our spirit,’’ the young man says invoking Arafat’s nom de guerre. “Abu Mazen [Abbas] is serving the Israelis.’’ The dissatisfaction with Abbas extends beyond the camp.
According to a poll taken in June by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR), two-thirds of the public in the West Bank and Gaza would like to see Abbas resign amid a sense he has failed in his job.
“The reason for his loss in popularity is that he is not seen as having shown leadership,’’ Khalil Shikaki, director of PCPSR, tells The Jerusalem Report. The president’s credibility, he adds, has been severely undermined by threatening to do things and then not acting on the threats, be it to back away from the Oslo self-rule agreements or to “return the keys’’ of the Palestinian Authority to Israel unless it changed policies. And, increasingly, the public blames Abbas for the absence of a reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas.
“He failed in bilateral negotiations, in negotiations with the Americans, and in efforts to internationalize the conflict. Whatever he’s been pushing has failed, and the public says if you fail you need to resign,’’ says Shikaki.
At the same time, however, such anti-Abbas feeling has not translated into active pressure for resignation because the public fears what will come next, according to Shikaki.
“People don’t see a stable process of succession. There is concern among the public that the post-Abbas era will be violent and that there will be instability,” he says.
Abbas defenders say he has notable achievements to his credit during his tenure, including restoring a sense of law and order and security to the streets of the West Bank after the proliferation of armed men and chaos during the second intifada. They also highlight his eliciting of international support for the Palestinian cause, and gaining UN recognition of Palestine as a non-member state.
Nabil Shaath, a longtime Abbas associate and former PA foreign minister, says the fault for Abbas’s not being able to achieve gains through negotiations lies with Israel, not the PA president.
“Whatever government or prime minister there is, the Israeli colonial settlement project continues, bringing new settlers, destroying Palestinian homes, building new colonies,” Shaath tells The Report. “He tried his best to reach an agreement, but it is very difficult to get the Israelis to abandon their colonial settlement program in the West Bank.’’ Regarding Abbas’s threat to “return the keys’’ of the Palestinian Authority to Benjamin Netanyahu, Shaath says, “He has to decide the right moment to carry it out.’’ Right now, Shaath says, Abbas is “optimistic’’ that the Palestinians can make headway toward statehood through the French initiative to convene an international conference on the conflict by year’s end.
Whoever is right about Abbas’s track record, the prevalent sense in Ramallah is that things will get a lot worse when he is no longer in power because he has done little to prepare for a smooth succession when he dies. There has been no grooming of a No. 2, and he has failed to convene either his Fatah movement or the PLO’s parliament, the Palestine National Council, to discuss the matter.
ANALYSTS SAY the absence of preparations is a deliberate tactic by Abbas to cast himself as indispensable.
“He knows he is in a strong position as long as it is not known who succeeds him,’’ says Hani Masri, director of the Masarat think tank. “If that is known, his days will be numbered, and, therefore, he refuses to appoint a vice president, a deputy in Fatah, to convene a Fatah conference and to convene the PNC. He wants to stay on, not to go. If he wanted to go, he would make arrangements.’’
That leaves the field with at least six candidates in Fatah, ambitious men all, but none having the stature Abbas enjoyed when he succeeded Arafat in 2005, and none of them with enough power to emerge clearly as the main contender. Each is anxious to strengthen his position.
Jailed second intifada leader Barghouti is by far the most popular of the candidates, and polls show he would easily win an election for president.
Shikaki, the pollster and analyst, believes the election of Barghouti is the most likely outcome of the succession, and that if Israel does not release him, it will have to contend with a president in jail. Still, it is not clear that the Fatah central committee would nominate him while he is in jail.
“How can anybody function from jail running a country like Palestine?” asks Shaath, a member of the Central Committee.
Erekat, meanwhile, is the secretary general of the PLO executive committee, but lacks wide support among the public and in Fatah.
Former West Bank preventive security chief Jibril Rajoub, using his post as head of the Palestinian Football Association, has been deploying a strident anti-Israel and anti-occupation line to build up support, and is seen as an important player in the succession.
Other names circulating are Nasser Qidwa, former foreign minister and a nephew of Arafat, Mohammed Shtayyeh, a former minister who managed Abbas’s 2005 election campaign, and Majid Faraj, the West Bank intelligence chief.
“I think it will be difficult for Fatah to decide on one when all have ambitions to be president,’’ says Hasan Khreisheh, an independent politician and a deputy speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council. “Everyone among Abbas’s friends thinks that he is the leader.’’
Dahlan, best known to the Israeli security establishment as a cooperative security chief of Gaza during Oslo’s heyday in the 1990s, is thought to have the inside track if he can engineer a return to Fatah. But there is no sign Abbas will allow such a reconciliation.
“I don’t think it’s a relevant question now,’’ says Shaath.
Still, Dahlan has boosted his candidacy by lining up the support of the UAE, Egypt and Jordan, all of which are pressing Abbas to agree to a rapprochement. And Dahlan, despite his reputation as a Hamas basher until his forces lost to Hamas fighters during a brief civil war in Gaza in 2007, has also had some success in recent years in mending fences with the Islamic movement based on shared enmity toward Abbas.
Hamas allows Dahlan supporters, including his wife, Jalila, a relatively free hand for the charity projects in Gaza, which Yaghi, the legislator and Dahlan ally says is in contrast with the authorities’ position in the West Bank.
“We don’t know what the situation will be like after Abu Mazen, but when everything settles down, Dahlan will have a chance,’’ Yaghi says.
Working against Dahlan is that he is seen as having been too close to Israel, lacks long-standing ties to the West Bank, and is perceived as being tainted by corruption, something he denies.
The crowded field and absence of a clear successor means the succession threatens to become a profound crisis. Indeed, it may well translate into violence, infighting, Hamas machinations and possible Israeli intervention when the time comes.
Abbas supporters, however, insist the situation is under control and that the transition will be smooth.
“AFTER YASSER Arafat was martyred, the PLO executive committee met and appointed Abu Mazen as head of the PLO, then he was nominated as president for the PA. We will do the same if something happens to Abu Mazen,’’ says PLO executive committee member Wasel Abu Yusuf.
“No, there will be no chaos,’’ he tells The Report. “We are civilized people. There will be a smooth transfer of the authority. Your questions indicate that the Israeli media intends to create chaos and confusion and shake up the foundations of Palestinian society. We have institutions, and I assure you there will be a democratic process.”
But Palestinians, too, are worried.
At Bir Zeit University, in the hills north of Ramallah, the somber assessment of Samir Awad, a Columbia University-educated political scientist, contrasts with the carefree air of nearby students sipping coffee in the sunshine, between classes.
“The issue of succession will be decided by force,’’ Awad says.
He envisions a violent power struggle among contenders and their allies, with security forces being deployed to take control of the streets.
“There will be the use of firearms,” Awad says. “It won’t be settled easily and logically. There will be a lot of firearms shot in the streets. Even if one candidate accepts another contender, he’ll want to trade his leverage for power, for something,” says Awad.
But much trouble could be averted if Barghouti is released from jail. “If released in time, he’ll be the obvious candidate,” he says. “If not, Dahlan will assume authority.’’ Awad and other analysts contrast the situation today with that which prevailed during the peaceful and orderly transition from Arafat to Abbas in 2005.
That succession adhered to the Palestinian Basic Law, which stipulates that the speaker of parliament, in that case Rawhi Fattouh of Fatah, becomes interim president for 60 days while elections for the presidency are prepared and held. But now, due to the Fatah-Hamas split, the legislative council is not functioning, and, in any event, its speaker since 2006, Aziz Dweik, is a West Bank Hamas leader.
Fatah seems to have no intention of handing power over to Dweik and, by extension, Hamas, if something happens to Abbas. This sets the stage for a constitutional crisis, and Hamas calling into question the legitimacy of presidential elections.
Fatah’s leaders are already reinterpreting the Basic Law to exclude Dweik.
“There is no problem whatsoever in terms of who takes over from President Abbas,’’ Fatah central committee member Mohammed Madani tells The Report. “The mechanism is like this: even if something happens now, as we are speaking, the Central Committee would nominate someone. They agree on this nominee, they meet with the PLO executive committee, and they agree with it that this nominee would take over for three months as acting president until elections are held.’’
Hamas is making clear it won’t accept this process.
“It will not be legitimate, and it will not be accepted,’’ says Ayman Daraghmeh, a West Bank legislator elected on Hamas’s Change and Reform list during the Islamic movement’s stunning victory in the 2006 parliamentary elections.
If Fatah insists on choosing the interim president through its Central Committee and excluding Dweik, Hamas could announce that Dweik’s deputy in Gaza, Ahmad Bahar, is the legitimate acting president, Daraghmeh says.
The Palestinians would then have two rival presidents: one in the West Bank and one in Gaza.
Asked whether the succession will lead to violence, Daraghmeh responded, “We can expect anything at that time. I don’t think there will be violence between Fatah and Hamas, but rather between Fatah and Fatah. I don’t think there will be problems in Gaza, but rather in the West Bank.’’
One possible ray of light regarding the succession is Hamas’s agreement last month to participate in municipal elections in October.
The arrangement is a compromise for both parties, with Hamas accepting that the polling in West Bank municipalities will be held under Fatah security control of that area, and Fatah accepting that the Gaza balloting will be under Hamas auspices. If each side can claim a victory in the elections, it is thought that it could set a precedent for subsequent holding of presidential and parliamentary elections under similar circumstances.
But there is no guarantee the municipal balloting will go smoothly.
Hamas is accusing the PA in the West Bank of stepping up arrests of Hamas supporters in order to influence the outcome. And it looks like Fatah will be hampered by the split between Dahlan supporters and Abbas supporters, paving the way for Hamas gains.
In the hallway corridor of the political science department at Bir Zeit is a small poster of Barghouti in Israeli prison uniform, his shackled arms raised upwards in defiance.
The poster invites the public to mark the anniversary of Barghouti’s 2002 incarceration.
BY NOW, it is almost forgotten that the Hebrew-speaking Barghouti was once a key supporter of the 1993 Oslo agreement and a popular interlocutor of Israeli politicians.
During the second intifada, he shifted to heated confrontation, and was a leading force in clashes with the army. An Israeli court convicted him of responsibility for attacks that led to the deaths of five people, and sentenced him to five terms of life imprisonment.
Although to many Israelis he is a terrorist, his history and jail time accord him a legitimacy as a freedom fighter among the Palestinian public that the other candidates lack.
But which Barghouti would emerge if he were released? Haaretz last month was able to elicit a statement from him, given to an interlocutor who visited his cell in Gilboa Prison, that points to him being a far tougher leader than Abbas.
“Among the Palestinian people, there is readiness for struggle but it needs someone to lead it,’’ Barghouti said. “I still fully support the idea of two states. The Palestinian Authority can move today in two directions: to serve as a tool for liberation from the occupation or as a tool that endorses the occupation. My job is to return the authority to its role as a tool for national liberation.’’
Balad Party Knesset Member Jamal Zahalka, who visited Barghouti recently, says the jailed leader told him he will run in the next presidential election.
“He has a different style and different positions on the issues than Abbas,’’ Zahalka says. “He will work more for Palestinian unity, for unity with Hamas. And he will work more against the occupation. He will organize a non-violent popular struggle that Abbas says he supports but has done nothing to achieve.
“Abu Mazen relies on diplomacy as strategy. Marwan will rely on the Palestinian people more.’’ Brig.-Gen. (res.) Gadi Zohar, former head of the civil administration in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and currently chairman of the Council for Peace and Security, a left-leaning group made up largely of retired army officers, believes that in its grappling with the question of Palestinian succession, Israel should be weighing Barghouti’s release.
“We have to be thinking of all the possibilities, including preparing Barghouti, since he is the only one who can be accepted in the field and who has popular standing,’’ Zohar says.
But Zohar does not believe the government is willing to pay the political price of taking such a step, which would be criticized on the Right as caving in to terrorism and betrayal of victims’ families.
But even without Barghouti’s release, Israel could easily become an active participant in the Palestinian succession, Zohar believes.
“I don’t know if Israel is preparing itself, but if this situation breaks out and there is shooting in the streets and on the roads, then from a security point of view Israel will certainly have to intervene,” says Zohar. “I assume Israel will do everything so as not to arrive at complete control of all the area but, if there is anarchy, Israel will have to impose order.’’ In that case, he believes, some people in power might advocate annulling the Palestinian Authority and “creating a new order’’ more to the liking of advocates of West Bank annexation.
“All of this is the kind of situation in which you can anticipate in advance what will actually happen,” Zohar says. “Abu Mazen knows he won’t live forever but is doing nothing to prepare an orderly transition to a successor. And Israel also has to know that it needs to be ready in terms of the forces and to know what you do in a situation of anarchy.’’ If the succession does translate into anarchy and infighting, a major part of Abbas’s legacy will be that he abandoned his own people to disarray — and left them much further away from statehood.
By not doing anything, Awad says, Abbas is creating a situation where there will be chaos after him.
“All he has to do is assign a deputy leader who can assume authority after he dies,’’ says Awad. “But he does not want that. He doesn’t want to choose between the different candidates ‒ he wants the support of all of them. He won’t be there after he dies so he doesn’t really consider himself responsible for the situation.”