Analysis: Great uncertainty looms over who will take over from aging PA President Abbas

Questions over who will succeed Abbas raise the concern that his sudden departure could leave a power vacuum that would threaten the stability of the entire region.

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)
PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY President Mahmoud Abbas is 80 years old. Though he shows no sign of bad health and still travels frequently, he has repeatedly said that he will not run for a second term ‒ so it is only a matter of time before Palestinians will have to elect another leader.
Abbas, however, has never named a deputy, and those around him say he refuses to do so. His office dismissed a July 26 report in the Israeli media that he was planning to resign. And no one appears to be his obvious replacement.
Abbas, who heads the Western-backed Fatah party, was elected to a four-year term a decade ago. His mandate officially expired in January 2009, but because of internal splits between Fatah and the Islamist group Hamas and Israel’s arrest of dozens of Palestinian parliamentarians ‒ the parliament, formally known as the Legislative Council, has not convened since 2007.
Elections scheduled for January 2010 were never held.
The uncertainty over who will succeed Abbas raises the concern that his sudden departure could leave a power vacuum that would threaten the stability of the entire region.
Hani el Masri, an analyst based in Ramallah, says the uncertainty is in part a reflection of the lack of a political horizon in Palestinian politics amid deadlocked peace talks and a general lack of clarity over where the decades-old conflict is heading, whether toward more rounds of negotiations or violent confrontations with Israel.
Ultimately, however, Palestinians will have to elect a new leader tasked with taking the helm in negotiating with Israel for a Palestinian state.
“There are many people who aspire and are qualified for the position,” el Masri tells The Jerusalem Report, noting that there are members of Fatah, Hamas and several independents who will want to run. “When the time comes, there will be a strong competition, a real battle for the presidency.”
One of the most popular possible candidates is Marwan Barghouti, who was a leader in two uprisings against Israel. He is currently serving five life sentences in prison after being convicted in 2004 by an Israeli civilian court for murder. Palestinians have likened him to Nelson Mandela and have long demanded his negotiated release, but very few believe this will happen any time soon.
The aging Abbas heads the Fatah party, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). His critics say he has consolidated an immense amount of power over the years and runs a “one man show” in the West Bank with a consequent weakening of government institutions.
And, he has been able to issue presidential decrees, in the absence of the paralyzed parliament – raising important questions about democratic accountability and his political vision.
Recently, there have been some challenges to his leadership by political rivals and potential replacements. His response was suppression.
On June 30, Abbas fired Yasser Abed Rabbo, the secretary-general of the PLO, the effective second-in-command and a vocal critic of Abbas for some time. A few days later, he appointed Saeb Erekat, an adviser and chief negotiator of the two decades old peace process with Israel, as replacement.
According to the official news agency WAFA, Abed Rabbo was “relieved of his duties” in a decision that involved “internal concerns in the organization,” without elaborating further. Abed Rabbo said his dismissal and Erekat’s appointment were both done without due process.
On June 22, the PA froze the bank accounts of an institution run by former prime minister Salam Fayyad and accused him of money laundering. Fayyad, a political independent and a technocrat economist who enjoyed strong Western support, served as prime minister from 2007 until 2013, when he resigned after a dispute with Abbas.
He once said in an interview that he might try to run for president. He currently runs a non-governmental organization called the “Future for Palestine” development institute.
Palestinian media has reported that the institution recently received funding from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Fayyad said the money was raised for aid projects in Jerusalem and the West Bank and has denied any wrongdoing. On July 9, a Palestinian high court overturned the PA decision.
Palestinian media reported that both Abed Rabbo and Fayyad were targeted on suspicion that they were conspiring together with Mohammed Dahlan to stage a coup against Abbas. Abed Rabbo has denied plotting or having any ties to Dahlan.
DAHLAN, 53, is a former Fatah strongman and security minister. He fell out of favor with Fatah when his US-trained men were defeated and expelled from the Gaza Strip by Hamas in 2007. He first moved to Ramallah, then fled to the UAE in 2011 after Abbas expelled him from Fatah. In 2014, he was charged with financial corruption and tried in absentia.
“There is a general fear among PA leaders that any funding from the UAE will help finance political opposition to Abbas,” George Giacaman, a professor at Birzeit University tells The Report. “It’s all part of a Dahlan paranoia,” he says.
In a major blow to Abbas, on July 8, a Palestinian appeals court ruled that Dahlan was entitled to parliamentary immunity in the corruption case brought against him, increasing the likelihood that he would return to the West Bank to fight the charges and run for the presidency.
In recent years, Dahlan has emerged as a popular figure among some foreign officials, with a strong powerbase in Gaza, where he was born. As an important potential candidate for the presidency, he is a thorn in Abbas’s side.
Observers say these political squabbles have revealed the deep, unresolved internal political schisms that have developed within the Fatah party itself and with Hamas over the years. And they are irreconcilable.
Abbas once headed a dominant, revolutionary and secular Fatah movement.
Back in the 1990s, it recognized Israel and renounced violence in favor of peace talks with the Jewish state. The party has seen its popularity drop over the years as Palestinians have grown increasingly frustrated with more than two decades of on and off negotiations that have failed to deliver an independent Palestinian state.
Many Palestinians are also critical of the PA. Established in 1993 under the interim Oslo agreements, it was meant to be a temporary body that would govern over parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip until the signing of a final peace agreement that would seal the deal for a state.
Palestinian negotiators contend that the PA today is an “authority with no authority” – only in charge of administering the daily lives of the 2.8 million people in the West Bank and providing Israel with its security requirements. Also, Palestinians increasingly question the PA’s ability to govern the territory credibly. According to an opinion poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Research Studies (PCPRS) published in June, 79 percent of respondents said they believed that the PA institutions are corrupt.
Meanwhile, the Islamist movement Hamas, founded in Gaza in the 1980s as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, has risen to prominence on the Palestinian street over the years by providing a powerful ideological and religious alternative to Fatah, refusing to recognize Israel, supporting and carrying out armed attacks on Israel, and opposing negotiations.
In April, the Hamas student group, the Islamic Wafaa bloc defeated the Fatah affiliated Martyr Yasser Arafat bloc in the student council elections at Birzeit University.
Because parliamentary elections have not taken place since 2006 politicians and analysts have long regarded the Birzeit University student elections, known for its political activism, as an indicator of popular thought.
Located near Ramallah, the seat of the PA, the university has also been historically known for its allegiance to Fatah.
Officials at the university said the Hamas-affiliated group won 26 seats of the 51-seat body, and that last year, it had won 22 seats.
Hamas’s popularity first took the world by surprise when it swept the 2006 parliamentary elections. A year later, it wrested control of the Gaza Strip in a brief but bloody civil war, known in Arabic as al-Inkisam, “the division”, leaving the two sides bitter, feuding rivals.
In the June PCPRS poll, 39 percent of Palestinians said they would vote for Fatah in the next parliamentary elections, 35 percent for Hamas.
THE TWO sides signed a reconciliation deal in April 2014 and announced a unity government in June aimed at sharing power, overseeing new elections and ending years of mutual animosity. But very little has changed on the ground, and both sides have blamed each other for the continued state of separation.
PA officials accuse Hamas of running a “shadow government” in Gaza and of refusing to share power by preventing ministers of the new unity government from doing their work.
“We have no real presence in the Gaza Strip, politically or as a government,” PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah told reporters at a news conference in Ramallah on July 15. “Call it what you like ‒ a shadow government, or that a ‘certain side’ is running the Gaza Strip – this is what we have.”
In response, Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri, in an official statement, said that the four ministers of the unity government based in Gaza are able to do their jobs “normally” and that Hamdallah’s government “wants control over Gaza’s borders without having to assume responsibility for the pain and suffering of the people of Gaza.”
Hamas accuses the PA of refusing to pay the wages of its 40,000 public sector workers, despite an agreement that should have seen thousands of Hamas employees added to the new government’s payroll. Hamas also criticizes the PA for continuing to pay the salaries of their own 70,000 employees who were hired before 2007 – many of whom have refused or been unable to work under Hamas rule. The PA says the payroll is highly inflated and posts in Gaza need to be reviewed.
On July 2, PA security forces launched a massive crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank, arresting hundreds of its members over the course of two weeks.
In a statement issued on July 7, Hamas said at least 200 of its members have been detained across the West Bank and that the raids were politically motivated and coordinated with Israel.
On July 1, the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) announced that it had arrested 40 Hamas men in the West Bank over the previous months, drawing further accusations from Hamas that the arrests were closely coordinated with the PA.
The PA and Israel are both interested in keeping Hamas at bay and trade information regarding Hamas activists in the West Bank, fearing the group would plan to stage a takeover of the territory. Naji Sharab, a Palestinian analyst based in Gaza says the arrests are simply a PA attempt to establish dominance since a Hamas takeover of the West Bank is highly unlikely given Israel’s control of the territory and the constant threat of arrests.
Sharab says reconciliation efforts are doomed to fail because division has become deeply entrenched in Palestinian politics. In addition to being ideologically opposed to each other, they also have complete separate sets of interests based on their different regional alliances and reconciliation would undermine their authority.
“Fatah wants Hamas to be a silent minority in their government,” Sharab tells The Report. “But Hamas thinks it is powerful and that it should be a more dominant player in Palestinian politics.”
ABBAS, WHO only controls parts of the West Bank because Israel maintains a large military presence in the territory and has built dozens of settlements, cannot make any progress diplomatically in peace talks or at the United Nations where he has recently gained traction, without control over Gaza.
Hamas, meanwhile, is facing crises of its own, trying to oversee the rebuilding of the Strip after a devastating war with Israel last summer in which more than 2,100 Palestinians were killed, over half of them civilians.
On the Israeli side, 67 soldiers and six civilians were killed. A cease-fire ended 50 days of fighting, the third war in Gaza in six years.
Israeli air strikes and shelling levelled entire neighborhoods in the densely populated area ‒ causing widespread destruction to homes and institutions in the already impoverished Strip. A year on, no homes have been rebuilt, and some 100,000 people, more than half of them children, are still homeless, living rough near their flattened homes or in shelters.
The World Bank, in a report released in May, said the Strip suffers from a 39 percent poverty rate with 80 percent of the territory’s 1.8 million residents relying on aid.
The report said unemployment has reached a staggering 43 percent, the highest in the world, with youth unemployment reaching 60 percent. Residents say they suffer from as many as 18 hours of power cuts a day, after the enclave’s sole power plant stopped production in July in an ongoing dispute between Hamas and the PA over fuel tax.
“The status quo in Gaza is unsustainable.
Recovery is conditional upon easing of the blockade to allow reconstruction materials to enter in sufficient quantities and to lift the exports out, as well as donor financing for reconstruction,” according to a World Bank press release.
After Hamas took over the coastal enclave nine years ago, Israel imposed a tight blockade on Gaza, severely restricting the movement of people and goods in and out of the territory, controlling its airspace and its access to the Mediterranean Sea ‒ effectively isolating it from the West Bank.
Neighboring Egypt, which views Hamas as an Islamist enemy, has destroyed hundreds of its smuggling tunnels that used to run across the border and were Gaza’s economic lifeline. It has also shut Gaza’s main gateway to the world, the Rafah crossing.
A Cairo conference of international donors in October 2014 pledged $3.5 billion for Gaza’s reconstruction. But only a quarter has been delivered so far because donors want to see the PA assume the main role in governing Gaza, controlling its border crossings and overseeing aid.
Israel allows hundreds of truckloads of goods a day into Gaza but imposes tight restrictions on construction materials, saying they could also be used to arm Hamas. Aid agencies have said that only a small fraction of the materials needed for reconstruction have been allowed into the enclave and, at the current rate, it would take decades to rebuild the Strip.
Though Hamas initially announced that it had won the war, a year after the latest war and nine years since it took over power, reality is ever more striking amid the grinding struggle to keep the territory afloat – that the living standards of the residents of Gaza have steadily worsened under its rule.
WITH RECONCILIATION with the PA at a deadlock, in a move that sidesteps Abbas and would cause the two sides to drift further apart, Hamas has been eyeing a hudna, or a long-term truce with Israel, in exchange for an easing of border controls.
Analyst Giacaman says Hamas, which is currently not interested in renewed fighting with Israel, is under pressure to speed up the economic recovery and reconstruction of the Strip, raising the prospects that a five or 10-year cease-fire agreement that includes the opening of a seaport and an end to Israel’s naval blockade, could be in the making.
“For Hamas, reconstruction, the opening of the Rafah crossing and the establishment of a sea port are its main priorities at the moment,” Giacaman said.
Israel and Hamas, he says, amid a shared concern over the rise of Salafists, an Islamic State-affiliated group in Gaza, have been employing “the devil we know is better than the devil we don’t know” strategy, whereby Israel is willing to negotiate with Hamas so long as it reins in radical Islamic groups, secures the borders and fulfills Israel’s security demands. And Hamas could make some political gains, too, by securing the long-held goal of easing the blockade.
Analysts, however, have likened a possible agreement to a “mini Oslo.” “Ironically, these negotiations will just turn Hamas into another PA,” Giacaman says.
Talal Okal an analyst based in Gaza, says that, for Hamas, negotiating with Israel requires a fundamental change in its policy toward the Jewish State, which it officially refers to as the “Zionist entity” – but a move that would ultimately be detrimental to its survival, given the impasse in unity talks with the PA and the new political line-ups in the Middle East created by the Arab Spring and the war on ISIS.
“It is certainly a forced relationship,” Okal says. “But it is a relationship Hamas is currently willing to invest in, in order to improve the lives of the people of Gaza. Who could say no to that?”