The PA at the end of Abbas’s reign

Each of the candidates sees himself as a serious candidate to replace the Palestinian president, but none of them has been named by Abbas as his heir.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas waves in Ramallah, in the West Bank May 1, 2018 (photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMAD TOROKMAN)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas waves in Ramallah, in the West Bank May 1, 2018
Quite a few research papers and intelligence assessments have been written on the performance of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and especially on what will follow him. The problem is the sheer number of possible scenarios they propose.
Abbas inherited from his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, a governmental authority that was partially defunct. However, that was not a result of its political, social, leadership, managerial or administrative perspective.
Exactly as it did 10 or 20 years ago, the PA today still relies entirely on international aid on the one hand, and on the tax collection, electricity and transportation infrastructure of the State of Israel on the other. Over all these years, the PA has not developed its own economy and has continued to rely entirely on Israel’s, so that nearly all Palestinian households depend entirely on livelihoods earned from Israeli employers.
The refugee camps in the West Bank today look exactly as they did when Israel pulled out of these areas in 1991. Since then, the PA has done nothing to improve the status or living conditions of the people living there.
Abbas, as was clear from the start, is a very weak leader who lacks charisma and administrative ability. In all his years of control, he has not carried out one important move to benefit his people or strengthen his authority. Due to of this weakness and lack of political leadership, Hamas began to sneak into West Bank politics in recent years, with the intention of instigating a popular coup that would end Fatah’s dominance, similar to what happened in the Gaza Strip.
Fatah leaders themselves already understand that Abbas will not make any significant decisions before the end of his term. The struggle for succession over the Palestinian leadership already began two or three years ago, without Abbas officially announcing the end of his rule.
In addition to the dangers coming from Hamas, many challengers to and opponents of Abbas have risen, even from within Fatah. Most notable are Mohammed Dahlan and Marwan Barghouti, who want to replace him as soon as possible and inherit his leadership.
While there are other figures in the Palestinian arena who are chasing this prey, they are building their status in Abbas’s shadow and under the pretense of loyalty to him. Among these are: Jibril Rajoub, former head of the Preventive Security Force in the West Bank and now head of the Palestinian Olympic Committee, and Majed Faraj, who is the current head of Palestinian intelligence and a loyal confidant of Abbas. Both of them marked their target long ago.
However, in the last few months, two additional figures have joined the race.
The first is Mahmoud Aloul, the current deputy chairman of Fatah. Aloul sees himself as the natural choice to serve as chairman of the organization after Abbas’s departure. The other is Tawfiq Tirawi, who served as head of general Palestinian intelligence in the West Bank during the Second Intifada. Tirawi was forced to leave his post after being found to be involved in terrorist activities against the State of Israel and allowing those under his command to attack the IDF and West Bank settlers.
ALL OF THESE characters have a significant foothold in the field. Dahlan has excellent relations with Hamas in the Gaza Strip and brings with him a substantial dowry from the Gulf states. He also enjoys the faith of Egypt and profits from the popularity of Barghouti. Rajoub gained considerable support and strength from working with PA security forces in the West Bank and still has a great deal of influence, specifically in the Hebron area. Majed Faraj has the benefit in his current position of having forces under his command, and is widely accepted in the halls of the US administration. Aloul also benefits from his current position and is widely supported by the Fatah-led Tanzim organization he has headed for many years.
Each of these men sees himself as a serious candidate to replace the Palestinian president, but none of them has been named by Abbas as his heir. This means whoever wants to take the job will have to fight for it and demonstrate his power. The candidates have already been establishing this power for a long time: They have built support bases within the refugee camps and cities; they have established armed militias that are loyal to them and are funded by their own money; and they continually try to increase their media and organizational presence.
The most likely scenario is that nothing new will happen under Abbas’s rule, and he will disappear in the pages of history without leaving a significant mark. But what will the future bring?
If Abbas tries to build a natural heir to take his place, then Faraj’s chances are higher for getting the post, and he would be received with open arms by the government in Washington. But Dahlan, Barghouti, Rajoub, Aloul and Tirawi do not intend to sit idle and watch the regime being taken from them.
Possible scenarios for what comes after Abbas range from a murderous gang war that continues until one group gains an advantage over its adversaries, to an arrangement that distributes power and political roles among all the candidates – much like how drug barons operated in South America in the 1980s. Another possibility is that Hamas takes control of the government institutions in the West Bank as a result of disorder and lack leadership. That is what Hamas is building on today.
Whatever happens, it is highly unlikely there will be any real change in the PA leadership as long as Abbas is still in office. Abbas is likely to continue standing like a solid wall in the way of any American peace initiative.
We can only hope that the PA’s next leader will show courage and leadership. Let us hope that whoever emerges from the ruins of the struggle will succeed in leading to change in the Palestinians’ approach to a realistic political settlement that Israel will also be able to live with, devoid of unreasonable national fantasies and aspirations.
The writer is a former brigadier-general who served as a division head in the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).
Translated by Juliane Helmhold