Argument

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Will Abbas Get Tripped Up by the Palestinian Diaspora?

Palestinians abroad are looking beyond the aging leader.

By , a Jerusalem-based nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former Middle East correspondent for Bloomberg News.
Abbas shows maps of Palestine
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas holds a placard showing various maps of Palestine as he speaks in Ramallah on Sept. 3, 2020. ALAA BADARNEH/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

At 85, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas walks a wobbly tightrope, inching forward with skills he learned from Yasser Arafat—but little of his shrewd mentor’s charisma. Now in his 17th year as an undeclared president-for-life, Abbas once again appears on the verge of either being knocked down by one of his younger rivals or precariously hanging on.

Among West Bank Palestinians, Abbas is grudgingly tolerated. In the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, he is ignored and mocked. And in diaspora communities around the world—once the stronghold of Palestinian political power—the grim-faced, white-haired president generates frustration and despair.

But it’s in the Palestinian diaspora that longtime Abbas rivals have been mustering strength. Potential successors include Qatar-based Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, United Arab Emirates-sheltered Mohammed Dahlan, and perennial Washington favorite Salam Fayyad, a former Palestinian prime minister. When Abbas eventually quits, falls in a coup, or dies, these outsiders will be coming on strong. In the meantime, they’re rubbing shoulders with power and building grassroots support.

At 85, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas walks a wobbly tightrope, inching forward with skills he learned from Yasser Arafat—but little of his shrewd mentor’s charisma. Now in his 17th year as an undeclared president-for-life, Abbas once again appears on the verge of either being knocked down by one of his younger rivals or precariously hanging on.

Among West Bank Palestinians, Abbas is grudgingly tolerated. In the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, he is ignored and mocked. And in diaspora communities around the world—once the stronghold of Palestinian political power—the grim-faced, white-haired president generates frustration and despair.

But it’s in the Palestinian diaspora that longtime Abbas rivals have been mustering strength. Potential successors include Qatar-based Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, United Arab Emirates-sheltered Mohammed Dahlan, and perennial Washington favorite Salam Fayyad, a former Palestinian prime minister. When Abbas eventually quits, falls in a coup, or dies, these outsiders will be coming on strong. In the meantime, they’re rubbing shoulders with power and building grassroots support.

The one thing they’re not waiting for is a normal democratic succession. It’s unlikely that Abbas will be voted out of office, given that he wields firm control over the mechanisms of the Palestinian Authority (PA) government. Back in 2005, he was elected president; when his term expired four years later, he called off the election and stayed on because Hamas—which had taken over Gaza in a violent 2007 coup—wouldn’t accept Abbas’s election rules. Since then, he has reigned as an unelected strongman, most recently canceling the presidential vote that was scheduled for July 31. Were an election to be held now, Abbas and his secular Fatah party would be swept from power overwhelmingly, according to a recent poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.

Among diaspora Palestinians, Hamas is experiencing a resurrection in popularity after having been considered an obstacle to Palestinian dreams of statehood.

As if Abbas’s stock wasn’t low enough, Palestinians were horrified by the death in June of Nizar Banat, a persistent critic of the PA leadership, who was beaten by police after being arrested and died in custody. Since then, thousands have taken to the streets of Ramallah to protest Banat’s killing, some drawing parallels to the gruesome 2018 murder of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi hit squad in Istanbul. The U.S. State Department has called for an investigation.

For the Palestinian diaspora, Abbas’s political failures and the perception that he is constantly outplayed by Israel have bred a sense of alienation in place of the pride and solidarity that previous generations felt. In a recent report, Al-Shabaka, a Palestinian policy center, traced the development to the domination by the PA—created by the 1993 Oslo Accords as a temporary mechanism for self-government in the West Bank and Gaza—over the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the once revolutionary body built up by Arafat that is supposed to represent both the 5.1 million Palestinians within the territories Israel occupied in 1967 and the estimated 6 million others around the world.

The PA “views the diaspora as expatriates, rather than as Palestinians with the fundamental right of return,” the report says. Both the PA and the PLO “are conscious of the alienation and the need to reverse it.”

Amid the disenchantment with PA leaders, hopes for change have been buoyed by the limited gains around the world of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, which persuaded Ben & Jerry’s this month to stop selling ice cream in the West Bank. A small cast of public figures such as U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat whose grandmother lives outside Ramallah, have put Palestinian concerns on the U.S. national agenda.

What has faded dramatically in recent years, according to the June Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research poll, is support for the two-state solution, which was the basis for more than two decades of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. Any hopes among Palestinians that the removal of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israeli prime minister would resuscitate the peace process collide with the fact that the new coalition is unlikely to be significantly more flexible on the status of the West Bank. After all, the new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, is a former director-general of the Yesha Council, which represents and advocates for the 500,000 Israelis who live in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

When the time comes to replace Abbas, prominent diaspora Palestinians will lead the list of contenders. The June survey, conducted by veteran pollster Khalil Shikaki, shows Haniyeh—a former PA prime minister who now leads Hamas’s international activities from Qatar—would draw more than twice as much support as Abbas in presidential elections. The fact that Hamas is labeled a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union, and, most recently, the United Arab Emirates detracts little from Haniyeh’s current popularity.

Among diaspora Palestinians, Hamas is experiencing a resurrection in popularity after having been considered an obstacle to Palestinian dreams of statehood because of the group’s refusal to forswear violence and its unwillingness to reconcile with Abbas and the PA government. The Islamist group is coming off the 11-day Gaza conflict in May, in which Palestinian fighters launched some 4,500 rockets and mortars while being pummeled by Israeli airstrikes. Hamas won admiration for daring to unleash its weaponry against panicked Israelis, who were seen on television scrambling into bomb shelters or cowering in their Tel Aviv stairways. Hamas leaders were lionized throughout the Arab world, having framed their attacks as a fight to defend Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site, from Israeli incursions.

Hamas also claims credit for galvanizing international opposition to Israel’s eviction of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood from homes they lived in for decades. The properties are the subject of an ownership dispute between Jews and Arabs dating from before the state of Israel’s establishment in 1948. The Israeli Supreme Court postponed ruling on the evictions in May after protests over the issue turned violent. Hamas appears also to have gotten past the stigma that led many countries to withhold their pledges to a $5.4 billion Gaza reconstruction fund following the devastating seven-week war with Israel in 2014.

Dahlan’s beachfront villa in Abu Dhabi is a magnet for politicians, advisors, and donors betting on his return to Palestinian politics once Abbas leaves the stage.

The rise in Hamas’s status and popularity among the diaspora is a depressing development for tens of thousands of Palestinians who fled Gaza—many of them abroad—after Hamas overthrew the elected PA government in 2007 and took control of the tiny coastal strip, whose population has grown to approximately 2 million. As in Iran, women must wear veils outside the home, LGBTQ people are persecuted, and courts administer punishment under strict interpretation of Islamic law. The Gazan photojournalist Jehad al-Saftawi, who is seeking U.S. asylum while living in Berkeley, California, said he’s constantly astonished by the willingness of diaspora Palestinians to overlook the oppressive ways in which Hamas maintains control, including widespread human rights abuses.

“People outside don’t understand the brutality,” said Saftawi, 29, whose recently published book, My Gaza: A City in Photographs, seeks to convey the complexity of his former home. His father, Imad al-Saftawi, was imprisoned by Israel for 18 years on terrorism charges and released three years ago to a hero’s welcome by Hamas, which promoted him to brigadier-general in its interior ministry. Jehad al-Saftawi and his wife, Lara Aburamadan—also a photojournalist—said they had to pay thousands of dollars in bribes before they were allowed to leave Gaza in 2016. Now living freely in the United States, they say they feel pressure from other Palestinians to muzzle their criticism of Hamas on the grounds that it detracts from the greater fight against Israel. Saftawi rejects that view. “We cannot surround ourselves with people who tell us what we can’t say,” he said.

Rashid Khalidi, a Columbia University historian and author of The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood, says time is running out for both Abbas’s Fatah party and Hamas even if they control the current discourse. “A new generation of young Palestinian activists has no time for the slogans, politics, and leaders of the past,” Khalidi recently wrote. “These activists are operating on the same wavelength throughout Palestine and in the diaspora.”

Haniyeh is not the only Palestinian expat pulling strings from the Gulf to prepare for a post-Abbas era. Dahlan, who was born in Gaza’s Khan Yunis refugee camp and whose mere name is reported to send Abbas into fits of rage, drew 7 percent in Shikaki’s poll. Tweeting frequently, the former PA security minister manages his Democratic Reform Current faction from his exile in the UAE, having planned a run for parliament in the aborted May legislative election. Dahlan, 59, who was a young lieutenant when Arafat steered the PLO’s global political, financial, and terrorist activities from Tunisia, fled the West Bank in 2011 to escape a police raid ordered by Abbas.

Now, Dahlan operates as an international business consultant and advises Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed on the knotty Palestinian elements of the 2020 Abraham Accords with Israel. While the Emiratis said they negotiated the peace deal in part to stop Israel from annexing the West Bank and to keep prospects for a Palestinian state alive, Abbas considers the agreement a “stab in the back.” Dahlan’s beachfront villa in Abu Dhabi is a magnet for politicians, advisors, and donors betting on his return to Palestinian politics once Abbas leaves the stage.

Other dark horses who shifted their center of gravity abroad after being sidelined by Abbas include Fayyad, a former International Monetary Fund economist who has doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin. Fayyad, who received 3 percent of the vote in Shikaki’s poll, spent much of the past decade on the U.S. think tank circuit, filling various fellowship posts at the Brookings Institution, the Atlantic Council, the Harvard Kennedy School, and Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs. While the 70-year-old Fayyad’s proximity to Washington money and power has stoked Abbas’s suspicions, the PA president has reportedly warmed recently to his former subordinate. Abbas even sent Fayyad on a mission to Gaza to explore prospects for a new round of reconciliation talks with Hamas.

Having spurned repeated appeals to designate a political heir, Abbas totters on as the angry old man on the flying trapeze.

Rounding out the list of Abbas rivals with international perches is Nasser al-Qudwa, a nephew of Arafat who was previously Palestinian foreign minister and ambassador to the United Nations. Splitting his time between Ramallah and Paris, Qudwa holds an unmasked ambition to challenge Abbas and head his own faction within Fatah, which got him stripped of membership in March by the party’s Central Committee. Qudwa barely registered as a presidential contender, but his Freedom faction would have garnered 9 percent in the legislative contest, according to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.

Even though Dahlan, Fayyad, and Qudwa all stayed at or below 7 percent in the poll, it’s striking that the Ramallah insiders most commonly viewed as potential Abbas successors poll even worse. They include Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh, Fatah Secretary-General Jibril Rajoub, and PA intelligence chief Majed Faraj. Diaspora figures seem less tainted by many years of failed Palestinian politics and the PA’s unpopular cooperation with Israel.

All that said, there is one Palestinian figure who has consistently outpolled both Abbas and Haniyeh. Marwan Barghouti, an underground leader of the two intifada uprisings against Israel, would clearly become the next Palestinian president—if it weren’t for the fact that he sits in an Israeli prison. He was jailed by Israel in 2002 and later sentenced on murder charges to five life terms.

Having spurned repeated appeals to designate a political heir, Abbas totters on as the angry old man on the flying trapeze. He (and Israel) may have grounded the contenders to replace him in his backyard, but the gusts of change are blowing in from the diaspora.

Correction, July 29 2021: Jehad al-Saftawi is Gazan but was not born there, as the original version of this article stated.

Jonathan H. Ferziger is a Jerusalem-based non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former Middle East correspondent for Bloomberg News. Twitter: @jhferziger

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