Who will succeed Mahmoud Abbas?

The Arab world is busily engaged in placing its bets.

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
Reaching the age of 83 is no big deal these days. Centenarians abound. But PA President Mahmoud Abbas is 83 with a long history of health problems. Some 20 years ago he underwent an operation for prostate cancer. Subsequently, as a heavy smoker, he has struggled against a succession of health issues, many connected with his heart.
In an emergency heart procedure in 2016, he had stents implanted to counter arterial plaque. On February 20, while addressing the UN Security Council, he appeared at times to struggle for breath. After a series of tests at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, a German-Palestinian cardiologist was engaged to be available in the Mukata presidential compound in Ramallah whenever Abbas is there. Abbas’s personal physician also visits the compound every day.
On May 16 Abbas was hospitalized for what was described as minor surgery on his ear. Some sort of infection followed, and over the next few days he was in and out of the hospital several times. On May 20, he was readmitted with what was widely reported as severe pneumonia. The Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, published in London, claimed that he had a very high temperature and was breathing on a respirator. Eight days later he was discharged, claiming to be thoroughly fit and ready to resume work immediately.
This latest episode has highlighted a major weakness at the core of the Palestinian body politic – the absence of a clearly nominated successor to the presidency. Fearful of the political consequences, Abbas for years steadfastly resisted naming a deputy, or putting in place a mechanism for producing one in an emergency.
In the last few months, however, he has taken two significant steps.
The first was in relation to Fatah’s Revolutionary Council. He passed a resolution specifying that if he were to become incapacitated, his vice chairman, Mahmoud al-Aloul, would replace him for 60 days as chairman, until an election could be organized.
In addition he manipulated matters so that, if he left the scene, the election of a new Palestinian Authority chairman would fall to the Palestine Liberation Organization Central Committee, not as previously to the Palestine Legislative Council, which Hamas controls. Hamas has therefore been sidelined in the future struggle over the succession.
But neither of these moves addresses the vital issue of who is to succeed Abbas when the time comes. As a result, a galaxy of hopefuls are in orbit, and Abbas’s departure will trigger a no-holds-barred rush to fill the vacancy.
THE PEOPLE surrounding Abbas are led by Gen. Majid Faraj, head of the intelligence service, and Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the PLO’s steering committee. Erekat, the Palestinians’ chief negotiator, although 20 years younger than Abbas, is reliably reported to be suffering from pulmonary fibrosis and in need of a lung transplant. He is therefore scarcely in the running.
At least five other senior Fatah party members see themselves as potential successors to Abbas. There is Aloul, Jibril Rajoub (secretary-general of Fatah), Dr. Mohammad Shtayyeh and Tawfik al-Tirawi (both members of the Fatah Central Committee). But at the top of the list is Marwan Barghouti, who is in an Israeli jail serving five life sentences for the murder of Israeli citizens. In the most recent poll of Palestinian public opinion, Barghouti emerged as by far the most popular Palestinian leader.
But lurking in the backwoods of Palestinian politics is a man whom Abbas recognizes as his deadly rival. Nearly 30 years younger than Abbas, he has been a thorn in the president’s flesh from the moment of his election, continually criticizing him for weak leadership and corruption, a charge he extends to Abbas’s two sons. In response, Abbas has had him and his followers expelled from the Fatah party and exiled from the West Bank. This 57-year-old hate figure – hated and feared not only by Abbas but by all within the Fatah movement with aspirations to succeed the aging president – is Muhammad Dahlan.
Born in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in the Gaza Strip in 1961, Dahlan became politically active as a teenager. His CV contains the necessary items for political acceptance in Palestinian circles – time spent in an Israeli jail for terrorist activities. Between 1981 and 1986 he was arrested no less than 11 times.
In 2010, to a closed meeting of the Fatah Revolutionary Council, Abbas accused Dahlan, along with two others, of acting as spies for Israel. He had knowledge, he claimed, of ties between Dahlan and Israeli leaders. He followed this up by asserting that Dahlan and his followers were involved in the assassination of Salah Shehadeh, the leader of Hamas’s military wing, who was killed by an Israeli air strike in 2002. Then he topped the list of accusations by hinting that Dahlan and his associates – “the three spies” Abbas dubbed them – were involved in the death of Yasser Arafat.
Dahlan, declared Abbas, would never be allowed back in Fatah, nor, he suggested, was there room in the party for those still loyal to him. In response, Dahlan asserted on his Facebook page that Abbas’s speech was “full of lies and deception,” which he proposed one day to disclose.
With the recent poll of Palestinian public opinion registering a dissatisfaction rating for Abbas of 63% and two-thirds of respondents favoring his resignation, reports are circulating that Egypt and the UAE are encouraging Dahlan to form a new Palestinian party in order to challenge Abbas now, and to run in the next presidential election. Egypt could support Dahlan politically, and the UAE and Saudi Arabia could cover him financially.
However, the Arabic Nabd news agency reported that earlier in 2018 Dahlan held a referendum in Gaza, Lebanon and Jordan, where many of his supporters reside, to gauge support for a new party, but that it did not produce a clear result. Fatah seems too deeply embedded in the Palestinian consciousness, and Dahlan appreciated that forming a new party could result in his being accused of trying to pull Fatah apart, while Abbas attempted to keep it together. Consequently, he is resisting the call.
These, then, are the runners and riders in the grand political Palestinian Derby that is in the offing. The Arab world is busily engaged in placing its bets.
The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is: The Chaos in the Middle East: 2014-2016. He blogs at: www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com