The aging Mahmoud Abbas is more likely to preside over the collapse of Palestinian institutions than the creation of an independent state.
- By Grant RumleyGrant Rumley is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the co-author of the forthcoming book The Last Palestinian: The Rise and Reign of Mahmoud Abbas (Prometheus, July 2017).
President Donald Trump visits Israel next week at a supremely awkward moment, amid reports that he shared Israeli intelligence with Russian officials in the Oval Office. Both sides are likely to do their best to bury the issue. The Israelis value intelligence sharing too much to raise the issue publicly, and Trump will no doubt prefer to speak about his efforts to restart negotiations with the Palestinians — a process he hopes can yield the “ultimate deal.”
The president appears serious about trying to bring a solution to this interminable problem. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster went so far as to say that the U.S. goal was Palestinian “self-determination,” a term previous administrations also used to describe Palestinian statehood. But rather than overseeing the creation of a Palestinian state, Trump’s term could very well witness the collapse of Palestinian institutions.
Who will lead a future Palestinian state is no small matter to resolve. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has held office for 12 years, surpassing his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, in his time as president. And, like Arafat, Abbas shows no sign of abiding by term limits or stepping down. Since his first election to a four-year term in 2005, Abbas has continually put off another presidential vote. It’s not hard to see why. According to polls, two-thirds of the public want him to go, and his Fatah Party mustered a dismal showing in last weekend’s municipal elections — despite the fact that it ran unchallenged by its rivals in Hamas.
But unlike during Arafat’s tenure, there is no clear second rung of leaders who emerge as likely successors to Abbas. Rather, there are several figures and factions that stand to play a prominent role in the event of a sudden vacation of the presidency. The possibility of a power struggle in the West Bank increases every day the 82-year-old Abbas, who reportedly smokes a pack of cigarettes a day, refuses to step aside or name an heir apparent.
Trump will arrive in the West Bank city of Bethlehem looking for a strong Palestinian partner. But Abbas’s weak position makes that nearly impossible. He is unable to speak for half his people, and even his advisors have urged Trump not restart peace talks too quickly. That may not be music to Trump’s ears, who has designed this trip with stops in Saudi Arabia and the Vatican to make a grand splash on the international stage. Still, the White House would be wise to consider the West Bank’s long-term stability in its pursuit of peace — and at the root of that stability is resolving the question of who will come after Abbas.
There are several ways the post-Abbas era could play out. Assuming Abbas does not step aside or call for elections, here’s what to expect in Palestinian succession.
What should happen
When Arafat died in the middle of the night in November 2004, succession went relatively smoothly. Power was transferred to Rawhi Fattouh, the speaker of the Palestinian Authority’s parliament, for 60 days while presidential elections were planned. The leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization selected Abbas as chairman, and Fatah anointed him their candidate for the presidency. In January 2005, Abbas defeated six other candidates to win the presidency, garnering 62 percent of the vote.
While this is still how the transfer of power should legally occur in the Palestinian Authority, there’s a snag in any plan to repeat it. By merit of their surprise victory in the 2006 elections, Hamas controls a majority stake in the parliament — the speaker, Aziz Dweik, is a member of Hamas. Were Abbas to pass away, the party with the strongest legal case for interim control of the presidency would be the terror group that forced Fatah out of Gaza in the 2007 civil war. Largely because of this, Abbas has ruled since then by presidential fiat, insisting on sidelining the parliament and refusing to hold any elections save those for local city councils.
What Abbas seems to want to happen
It is because of this reality that everyone in Ramallah understands one simple truth: The next succession will not follow the rule of law. Few observers foresee any situation where Fatah grants even temporary control of the Palestinian Authority to Hamas. Abbas, meanwhile, has initiated two measures that may actually make the succession process more complicated.
Abbas’s first move came in April 2016, when he reestablished a constitutional court of nine handpicked members. The move was viewed by many as a power grab to create a body that would supersede the parliament, and thus would take interim control in the event of a crisis. A Hamas-linked court contested this claim, but it appears to provide one possible avenue toward a transition of power.
The second measure was the appointment this year of Mahmoud al-Aloul as Fatah’s first-ever vice president. Aloul, a former governor of Nablus and head of Fatah’s mobilization efforts, is a respectable figure within the party — but he is neither a national figure nor a leader who commands widespread support from party cadres. Rather, many observers cynically saw his appointment as a way for Abbas to pit the two most powerful figures within Fatah — the imprisoned Marwan Barghouti and the former security chief Jibril Rajoub — against a new target.
Both of these measures seem to serve only Abbas’s short-term interests. The constitutional court’s mandate is murky, and Aloul’s term as vice president of Fatah is for only a year. Indeed, rather than providing for a stable transition, Abbas’s measures will probably set the stage for a power struggle when he goes.
What will likely happen
Barring a voluntary abdication of power, Abbas’s departure will probably leave Palestinian politics in chaos. Multiple parties will have competing claims, with varying levels of popular legitimacy. Hamas will base their claim to the presidency on rule of law (elections they won in 2006), Barghouti on his popularity (most polls show him leading in a hypothetical presidential race), Rajoub on his clout within the party (and not being in an Israeli prison), and Aloul on his rank as vice president (however fleeting). And that’s not even counting other potential wild cards, such as the exiled Fatah leader Muhammad Dahlan, Abbas’s trusted security chief Majid Faraj, or Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah.
Two scenarios are now likely. First, the factions could enter a period of open conflict. Barghouti could galvanize thousands into the streets, Rajoub could rely on the support of his former security services members, Aloul could hunker down in Nablus. In turn, various cantons outside of the Palestinian Authority’s control could emerge. Local leaders in refugee camps across the West Bank could flex their muscles and look to assert dominance. Already, camps like Balata, which has been fighting a low-level conflict with the Palestinian Authority for years, are bastions of anti-Ramallah sentiment.
The second possibility is that Palestinian politics enters a coalition-building phase. No one actor is strong enough to succeed Abbas on their own, but with strategic allies they could ascend to the presidency. Such a scenario would require unity and common cause to prevail over self-interest — something that seems increasingly unlikely in a fragmented Palestinian body politic. However, the risk that the Palestinian Authority could collapse due to a political vacuum may be enough for a governing coalition to set aside its differences.
In short, if Trump cares about the fate of the Palestinians, he would be wise not to ignore the looming crisis. Abbas’s advisors have billed the Palestinian president as Trump’s “strategic partner” for peace negotiations. If that’s true, when Trump repays the visit next week he’ll want to consider what his newfound partner is doing to ensure a stable future in the West Bank.
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