Is Mohammed Dahlan the next Palestinian president in waiting?

With Palestinians potentially going to the polls in 2021, eyes are turning to Dahlan as a potential challenger to Mahmoud Abbas.

MOHAMMED DAHLAN, a former Fatah security chief, gestures in his office in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, last year. (photo credit: REUTERS)
MOHAMMED DAHLAN, a former Fatah security chief, gestures in his office in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, last year.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On September 17, Hamas and Fatah, rivals for the leadership of the Palestinian people but united in their opposition to the Arab-Israeli normalization deals, agreed to hold the first general Palestinian elections since 2006. If their agreement does not go the way of numerous similar deals in the past and simply falls apart, polls will take place in March or April 2021.
“We have agreed first to hold legislative elections,” said Jibril Rajub, a senior Fatah official, “then presidential elections of the Palestinian Authority, and finally elections to the Central Council of the Palestine Liberation Organization.”
Two days later a statement was issued by a prominent Palestinian politician, now living in exile in the United Arab Emirates: “I am Mohammed Dahlan,” he announced. “I believe that Palestine is in urgent need of a renewal of legitimacy for its leaders and institutions, and this will not be achieved except through comprehensive, transparent, and national elections.”
Perhaps perceiving this innocuous statement as an opening bid in the forthcoming presidential election, on September 21, PA security forces arrested seven Dahlan supporters in the West Bank.
Mohammad Dahlan has lived in the UAE since being driven out of the West Bank in 2011 after a bitter row with PA President Mahmoud Abbas. He is an adviser to the crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. There has been widespread speculation, which Dahlan has not denied, that he played a key role in bringing the UAE-Israel normalization deal to fruition. Palestinian officials are quoted as saying they have no doubt about it.
Dahlan’s statement was actually in response to a reported comment – later denied – by US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman to the effect that the US was considering replacing Abbas with Dahlan. Dahlan was quick to say that no outside power could simply impose a leader on the Palestinian people, and that legitimacy could flow only from open elections.
Who is Mohammed Dahlan?
Born in 1961 in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, as a teenager he helped set up the Fatah Youth Movement. While in his 20s, he was arrested by the Israeli authorities on numerous occasions for political activism, but never for terrorist activities. He put his time in Israeli prisons to good use by learning Hebrew, which he speaks fluently.
After the Oslo Accords in the early 1990s, Dahlan was chosen to head the Preventive Security Force in Gaza. Building up a force of 20,000 men, he became one of the most powerful Palestinian leaders. He had regular dealings with the CIA and Israeli intelligence. During this period Gaza was nicknamed “Dahlanistan,” reflecting the extent of his authority, an authority severely dented in 1997 when it emerged that he had been diverting taxes to his personal bank account.
That incident appeared to have effected a sea change in Dahlan. In 2001, in a virtual challenge to Yasser Arafat, he began calling for reform in the Palestinian National Authority. A year later he resigned and, portraying himself as an outspoken critic of Arafat, repeatedly tried to campaign on a reform and anti-corruption ticket.
THE 2006 Palestinian elections saw Hamas gain a majority in Gaza. Dahlan called their election victory a disaster, and in January 2007 held the biggest-ever rally of Fatah supporters in the Gaza Strip, where he denounced Hamas as “a bunch of murderers and thieves.” His instinct was vindicated six months later when Hamas staged a bloody coup in Gaza, seized power and expelled those Fatah officials it had not murdered. Years later it was revealed that Dahlan played a key role in an abortive US plot to remove Hamas from power.
In October 2007 the Bush administration reportedly pressured PA president Abbas to appoint Dahlan as his deputy. Some Fatah officials asserted that the US and some European Union countries made it clear that they would like to see Dahlan succeed Abbas.
Aware of this, Abbas perceived Dahlan as his rival for office, and in June 2011 took action. Charged with financial corruption, Dahlan was tried in absentia by the PA, found guilty and expelled from Fatah’s ruling body. In addition, Abbas accused Dahlan of murdering the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Over the years rumors have persisted about Dahlan’s involvement in all manner of conspiracies. For example, his name became attached to the 2016 attempted coup in Turkey against the regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In December 2019, Turkey offered a $1.7 million reward for tracking down Dahlan, and issued warrants charging him with perpetrating the coup attempt.
As for the PA presidency, whenever the issue of a successor to Abbas comes up, Dahlan’s name appears, often embedded in a cloud of intrigue. Now, with the new UAE-Israel deal, the idea of a Dahlan bid for the Palestinian presidency resurfaces, stronger than ever.
Dahlan has set himself at odds with the current Palestinian establishment by coming out in somewhat equivocal support for the deal.
“The UAE,” he said, as if speaking for the administration as a whole, “will use its efforts to directly pressure the American administration and others to end the annexation plan completely and replace Trump’s settlement plan with decisions of international legitimacy and the Arab Peace Initiative.”
More than 10 years ago Abbas announced that he would not run for president again, but would stay in office until new elections were held. These have been scheduled and postponed on many occasions since then, and he may well have forgotten his pledge by now. If he has not, then the PA presidential poll will be wide open.
Should Dahlan succeed this time in establishing himself as Abbas’s successor, he may prove to be the new broom so long needed on the Palestinian political scene. Dahlan is no “conviction politician.” He is a wheeler-dealer rather in the Trump mold. He, more than any Palestinian politician, seems to have the qualities needed to sweep aside the outworn attitudes of the leadership that has shackled the Palestinian people for decades, and embrace a more realistic approach to reaching an accommodation with Israel and the brighter future that is surely attainable for the whole region.
The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020. He blogs at: