Who will lead the Palestinian Authority after Mahmoud Abbas?

Over the past decade, the 87-year-old Mahmoud Abbas has become increasingly unpopular among Palestinians. But he has also refused to appoint a successor.

 Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the funeral of Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, September 30, 2016.  (photo credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM/GPO)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the funeral of Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, September 30, 2016.
(photo credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM/GPO)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is 87, and there have been rumors of his failing health for years. He has even been reported dead several times. But at some point the Palestinian leader, who is currently in the 17th year of a four-year term, will die, and it is not at all clear what will happen in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip afterwards.

Over the past decade, Abbas has become increasingly unpopular among Palestinians, with many seeing him as autocratic and serving Israeli interests by preventing terrorist attacks on Israel. The last Palestinian elections were held in 2006, and Abbas canceled several elections since then, likely afraid that the Islamist Hamas movement, which took over the Gaza Strip in 2007, would win in the West Bank, too.

Abbas has also refused to appoint a successor, leading to fears of chaos when he passed away. 

“He is towards the end [of his life], but it could be tomorrow or it could be five years,” Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror, the former head of Israel’s National Security Council, told The Jerusalem Report. “The worst situation for Israel would be chaos. Our security forces’ job will be not to let it spill out of the Palestinian area.”

Who will succeed Mahmoud Abbas?

According to Palestinian law, there must be an election within 60 days after Abbas dies, according to Dmitri Diliani, the spokesman for Fatah’s Reformist Democratic Faction, and a sharp critic of Abbas. Diliani is a supporter of Mohammed Dahlan, the former Fatah security chief whom Abbas exiled to Dubai, and who many say is the most likely candidate to succeed Abbas.

 US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets PLO Secretary-General Hussein al-Sheikh in Ramallah, January 31.  (credit: Majdi Mohammed/Pool/REUTERS)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets PLO Secretary-General Hussein al-Sheikh in Ramallah, January 31. (credit: Majdi Mohammed/Pool/REUTERS)

“Anybody who comes after Abu Mazen [Abbas], especially because of the way he has ruled, would need popular legitimacy and would need to be elected at least once in his life,” Diliani told The Report. “Fortunately for our people, Abu Mazen has surrounded himself with unelectable personalities. I hope that new leadership will come about when he dies.”

Diliani may have been referring to Hussein al-Sheikh, the head of the “Israel Desk” in the Palestinian Authority. He is also the secretary-general of the Executive Committee of the PLO and is considered the favored successor to Abbas from within the PA.

Other candidates to replace Abbas include Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh; former Preventive Security Force head Jibril Rajoub; Marwan Barghouti, the Tanzim leader jailed in Israel; and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh.

Diliani says that Abbas has damaged the Palestinian cause on many levels.

“Abbas decided that it was not important to him to lose half of the occupied territories,” he said, referring to the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Hamas. “He failed to cause any political progress vis-à-vis Israel, he failed to stop the expansion of colonial settlements [in the West Bank], and he caused the deterioration of the Palestinian cause as an international priority.”

After Abbas dies, chaos is also a real possibility, according to a report published earlier this year by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG). The battle for succession could trigger “mass protest and repression” and even the outright collapse of the Palestinian Authority, it said.

The ICG also said that the elections as called for in Palestinian law were the least likely option, and it criticized Abbas for failing to ensure a peaceful succession.

Abbas has “hollowed out or disabled the institutions and procedures that would otherwise decide who will take his place,” it said.

It is therefore “unclear who will succeed him, and by what process,” the ICG said, warning of a possible “descent into mass protest, repression, violence, and even the PA’s collapse.”

Diliani said that new elections are critical to a peaceful transition of the PA.

“No elections means no legitimacy, which means no rule of law, and that is a disaster for everyone,” he said. “People want the rule of law.”

Israel’s official position is that it does not intervene in internal Palestinian affairs, but Israel is very worried about possible violent attacks. A recent Palestinian poll found that a large majority of the Palestinian public supports violent attacks on Israeli soldiers, and 2023 was the most violent year since the Second Intifada in terms of the numbers of Israelis and Palestinians killed in violent incidents.

Many Palestinians say they no longer support the concept of the Palestinian Authority, which was established by the 1993 Oslo Accords as an interim measure toward an independent Palestinian state. They say that as it is currently not possible to move toward a Palestinian state in diplomatic talks with Israel, they should simply dissolve the Palestinian Authority, leaving Israel responsible for running the West Bank, including schools and all municipal services.

Diliani pointed out that Mohammed Dahlan evades the question when asked if he would like to take over after Abbas but said that in the Gaza Strip, the Reformist Democratic Faction is dominant, with 90,000 people holding elected positions ranging from district leaders to local councils.

In many ways, the West Bank is more of a challenge for Israel than the Gaza Strip. Israel has constructed a hi-tech barrier between Israel and Gaza that has made it impossible for Palestinians to enter, and even the thousands of rockets fired by Hamas and Islamic Jihad from Gaza into Israel are not seen as an existential threat.

The West Bank, however, with its 2.9 million Palestinians and more than half a million Jewish settlers (not including east Jerusalem), is another story. The West Bank and Israel proper are integrated in a way that Gaza and Israel are not, despite the barrier that Israel built in and around the West Bank to stop Palestinian attacks.

Israelis and Palestinians share roads such as Route 60, the main artery that traverses the West Bank from north to south, making Israelis potential targets of shooting attacks, as has happened several times recently and led to the deaths of several Israelis. Settlers have also attacked Palestinian towns and villages such as Hawara in response to Palestinian shooting attacks against Israelis.

In addition, the PA has lost much of its control over the northern West Bank, especially the Jenin Refugee Camp, where a two-day Israeli operation in early July left 12 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier dead, and caused massive damage in the camp.

Home-grown militias that are not identified with either Fatah or Hamas have sprung up in Nablus and Jenin, claiming responsibility for a series of shooting attacks on Israelis. These militias could complicate any peaceful transition after Abbas if they disagree with the choice of a new leader.

This does not augur well for the state of the PA or the situation in the Palestinian territories after Abbas. It’s a predicament of which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli officials say they are well aware, but over which they have almost no control. ■