The day after Abbas: All possible scenarios
Analysis: The era of an international diplomatic battle against Israel alongside a ‘popular uprising’ is coming to an end, and the elderly Palestinian president is preparing the ground for the day after his retirement; meanwhile, the uncertainty regarding the new era has sent both internal and external players into a frenzy.
At the time, this comment marked the end of one era in the Palestinian Authority and the beginning of a new one. The Palestinians’ transition from one paradigm to another lasted three years—from late 2004 to 2007: PA Chairman Yasser Arafat had died, the second intifada had ended, the Palestinian security apparatus began gradually regaining control of the Palestinian cities and the anarchy died down. At the same time, Hamas began its political rise to power, until it forcibly took over the Gaza Strip and established its own sovereign entity.
In the past year and a half, the PA has been in the midst of changing paradigms. This is a special, complex and sensitive situation. The main paradigm is slowly changing and being filled with holes, but no one knows yet how and when the next paradigm—which will lead the Palestinians forward—will take shape. It could take several more months, and it could also take years. In the meantime, everyone is monitoring the process apprehensively and with plenty of interest: The United States, Europe, the Arab states and of course Israel.
The establishment process of the current paradigm took place from 2007 to 2015. The Abbas regime replaced the uniform, keffiyeh and holster with a suit and tie. It began focusing on an oppositional, diplomatic and international battle against Israel, with a hint of a popular struggle in the form of regular protests that attracted international and Israeli elements due to the fact that they included no use of firearms and were limited to the route of the controversial West Bank barrier. At the same time, former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad led the creation of state institutions in the PA.
Abbas positioned himself as a strong, centralistic and unshakable leader. His security apparatus obeyed him and was efficient, his Fatah movement was disciplined and had gone back to serving as a political tool after being completely shattered in the Second Intifada. Abbas openly fought two elements: Hamas, which had become very weak in the West Bank and was hit hard on a daily basis both by the apparatus and by the IDF, and West Bank terroriam, which remained at a very low rate during those years and was denounced for being illegitimate according to the rais’ outlook.
This battle achieved some success, like the recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations General Assembly, but the Palestinian strategy those years —that the State of Palestine would be founded through a diplomatic battle—failed.
Last year, something in this paradigm stopped working. The 81-year-old Abbas realized that the Palestinian state would not be established during his lifetime. He gave up on Israel and lost hope due to the lack of a real political horizon, announcing his desire to quit the PLO leadership, but he eventually reneged on his decision. In September 2015, he delivered a grim and desperate address at the UN General Assembly, which served as one of catalysts for the beginning of a violent escalation.
These moves created complete chaos over the thought of what will happen the day after Abbas steps aside. What had been whispered until then in utmost discretion became an almost open battle, with all contenders acting on their own behalf to prepare for the pivotal moment. Facebook pages were created to glorify and praise them in an effort to build a public support base for each one.
It could have all been allegedly simpler had Abbas appointed a deputy who would assume the position, at least temporarily, until new elections would be held. But for his own reasons, Abbas chose to keep “ignoring” the idea and the discourse occasionally raised by the issue.
So far, the only person who has declared his intention to run for Palestinian president is Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences for the murder of Israelis. Barghouti receives broad public support in surveys, but Israeli security officials believe that his popularity stems from the fact that he is a Palestinian prisoner in an Israeli jail, and that if he were free, he would not succeed to capture the hearts of the Palestinians. This is assumption, however, is disputed by others,and so for the time being there is no definitive answer. In any event, a Palestinian president jailed in Israel can turn Barghouti into a sort of new Nelson Mandela in the world’s eyes and put Israel in a particularly complicated situation.
Within Fatah, there are those who are unfazed by Barghouti’s announcement and see themselves as potential candidates for the position of the next Palestinian president. Last year, senior Fatah member told in a private conversation, “We need a leader who will free us, not a leader we have to free.”
A lot has been written about the possible contenders. The names that have been raised so far include Barghouti and senior Fatah members Jibril Rajoub and Saeb Erekat, Palestinian intelligence chief Majid Faraj, politician Mohammed Dahlan, or figures who will serve as a sort of possible compromise between “mainstream” candidates, such as Salam Fayyad, Rami Hamdallah or Ahmed Qurei (Abu Alaa). No one really knows who it will be, and a name which no one thought of could suddenly pop up as a potential candidate.
Abbas is currently wearing three hats: he is the PLO chairman, the head of Fatah and the PA president. The groups within the Palestinian leadership may be able to put together a mix that will satisfy everyone as an alternative to Abbas, in which the three main positions would not be held by one person but would rather be divided between the different groups. Yet Fatah has already proved to be a destructive movement, and such a fragile coalition is not necessarily possible. So what are the different Palestinian camps?
The national camp: Comprised by the closest group of people to Abbas, who he believes in and who follow his path. Saeb Erekat, who was promoted by Abbas to the position of secretary-general of the PLO Executive Committee; Majid Faraj, who in addition to his position as intelligence chief is also Abbas’ closest associate and confidant; and the rais’ loyal spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh, who is also a member of the Fatah leadership.
The Fatah camp: Comprised of senior Fatah members such as Jibril Rajoub, who is also chairman of the Palestinian Football Association and has gained popular support through it; Hussein al-Sheikh, who holds the civil coordination portfolio and part of the security coordination with Israel; and Mahmoud al-Aloul, head of Fatah’s Tanzim military faction, who belongs to the more hawkish side of Fatah regarding Israel.
The Dahlan camp: Mohammed Dahlan, Abbas’ archnemesis, is waiting for the day the Palestinian president vacates his seat in order to try and return to the West Bank and to the arms of the leadership. Dahlan, who is originally from Gaza, is a wealthy marketing expert who built his wealth with the help of Gulf states and who has established a good relationship with Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime in Egypt, as well. He is currently trying to market an alternative to Abbas and recently convened a conference in Cairo to discuss the future of the issue of Palestine. He has tried buying different elements in the West Bank, including in the refugee camps, with his money. Some of his loyalists, including Yasser Abed Rabbo and Sufian Abu Zaida, have been removed from key positions.
Another possibility is that due to the emergency situation, a military council will be established after Abbas' last day in power to run the PA until the elections, which will be held (or not) at an unclear time and place (in the West Bank alone or also in Gaza? With or without Hamas?).
The problem is that during a leadership race, the candidates have a habit of radicalizing the discourse—in this case, the discourse against Israel—and this applies to moderate candidates from the central stream, as well. In addition, external elements are attempting to intervene in order to present a candidate suitable for them.
Accordingly, over the past few months Egypt has summoned senior Fatah officials for interviews on the day after Abbas in a bid to hear their opinions and outlooks. There have also been insistent rumors that Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have created an ambitious road map under which Dahlan will return to Fatah without running for leadership, and after the achievement of an internal reconciliation in the movement, talks will be launched to achieve a real reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas that will put an end to the split between Gaza and the West Bank. Finally, a united Palestinian front will launch serious negotiations to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
However, this alleged external intervention infuriated Abbas, and as a result he delivered an angry speech several weeks ago, in which he slammed the capitals (without mentioning the countries’ names) meddling in internal Palestinian issues. “Enough already with those sending satellites from here and there. Whoever is sending threads from here and from there had better rip them up, and if they don’t rip them up, we will!”
Abbas understands that his rule is coming to an end, but he won’t have anyone spoil his future plans. He has therefore recently begun to thoroughly clean up Fatah: he removed four members affiliated with Dahlan and made sure that his men clarified to Dahlan and to the rest of the world (mainly the Arab capitals) through the media that Dahlan’s removal from Fatah was final and for good.
In addition, Abbas has decided to convene Fatah’s seventh conference, likely before the end of the year, after several delays in the past years. He now has an interest to convene the conference, in order to get his associates—led by Majid Faraj—into the leadership, sweep out members affiliated with Dahlan and infuse young blood into the leadership instead of the Fatah elderly who are no longer sufficiently active in favor of the movement.
Just like all Palestinian uprisings (some of which received the name "intifada") have been different, every Palestinian era has been different, too. The Abbas era is in its swan song stage, and the uncertainty regarding the following era is creating tensions in all systems—the Palestinian, the Arab, the Israeli and the Western system.