Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is 86; with persistent rumors of his failing health circulating, and with no designated successor, his death could create a power vacuum in Ramallah.
And in a sign of how delicate and serious the situation is, an American delegation on Thursday visited the office of the PA minister of civil affairs and newly appointed secretary general of Palestine Liberation Organization, Hussein al-Sheikh, for a meeting, according to a source in Ramallah who spoke on condition of anonymity.
There are no details on what they discussed.
The elderly president has suffered deteriorating health in recent months and years and still has not named a successor. Reports of his death have been swirling in Palestinian news outlets and on social media.
Sheikh quickly dispelled the news in a tweet calling the reports “yellow news,” or rumors.
Nabil Amr, former PA information minister, said that PA officials close to Abbas have remained discreet, leading to the uncontrolled rumors about his condition.
“The PA leadership is mistaken when it does not speak openly to the Palestinian people about the president’s health. This is the right of the Palestinian people to know what is going on,” Amr said.
The only semi-appearance by Abbas since the recent flood of rumors began was on Wednesday when he gave a short, remote speech to a conference on solidarity with the Al-Aqsa Mosque held in Ramallah. He did not appear on camera.
The absence of public appearances by Abbas has fed further speculation that his health is deteriorating.
The most recent news has raised new concerns about the octogenarian PA president, renewing fears of a potentially chaotic, and even bloody, succession battle.
This is further complicated by the fact that there have been no elections held in the Palestinian territories since 2005; democratic institutions have been eroded and power in Ramallah rests in the hands of a small group of unelected Fatah officials.
The aging leader has never appointed a deputy, putting a seamless transition of power in jeopardy.
Some 17 years into what was supposed to be a four-year term, Abbas – who now rules by presidential decree – presides over three distinct Palestinian political institutions, each one with its own problems of legitimacy.
Abbas was elected president of the PA in January 2005. Though his term ended in 2009, he remains in office.
Jihad Harb, an expert on Palestinian affairs, said that there are legal texts specifying the mechanisms of how to choose the next PA leader.
“The constitutional frameworks regulating the position of the president of the State of Palestine as well as the position of the chairman of the Executive Committee ensure a smooth transition. The problem lies in the internal conflicts and the leadership competition, which may be mainly in the Fatah movement,” he explained.
Harb says that, in the event the position of PA president becomes vacant, there are bylaws of how to choose the next leader.
“The most likely possibility is that the speaker of the National Council, who is also the president of the Central Council, for the temporary transitional period will take over as the so-called interim president in accordance with the provisions of Article 37 of the Basic Law,” he explained. The law states that the elections “shall be held within 60 days of the vacancy of the position. The transitional period shall not exceed three months.”
Harb explains there are two ways that the PA government can proceed with elections.
“The first is that presidential elections be held in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and this grants legitimacy to the elected president,” Harb said, adding that if elections cannot be held in Gaza, then holding a vote just in the West Bank would be the “only option.”
As for the second way, Harb says: “In the event that Hamas refuses to hold elections in the Gaza Strip, elections will be held in the West Bank, and the elected president will have legitimacy, even if he has a problem regarding his ability to represent the Gaza Strip or all the Palestinian people.”
If it ends up this way, he says, the PA will be in the same situation as it is now.
Harb says that there will be no constitutional or legal defect in the election of the president if it takes place in the West Bank alone, but the problem lies in the extent of legitimacy for the next president.
Abbas holds titles in the PA, the PLO, and the Fatah party. And, since 2012, Abbas has held a fourth title – President of the State of Palestine, a largely symbolic title which is the result of his campaign to upgrade the status of Palestine at the United Nations.
When Abbas dissolved the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2018 and took several steps that weakened the judiciary, he made the executive branch more powerful. Many say that without restoring legitimacy to the judicial and legislative branches, the Palestinian political system will continue to be ruled by one man: the president.
Article 14 of the PLO Basic Law states that the executive committee should meet and choose from among its members a president of the organization.
“This meeting is preceded by a meeting of the Central Committee of the Fatah movement, especially that the head of the Executive Committee of the PLO must necessarily be from the Fatah movement. Consequently, the movement will choose from among the central members of the Executive Committee who represent the Fatah movement,” Harb a.
Fatah elites are engaged in a fierce battle over who will replace Abbas. Many of the veteran leaders of the Palestinians' largest and oldest faction are involved in making complex deals among themselves in an attempt to secure a consensus on one person, and they are all planning deals to protect their interests.
Sheikh’s stocks have risen sharply in the last few years, amid whispers in Ramallah that the close confidant of Abbas has been groomed for the position. But Harb downplays the news that Sheikh is a shoe-in for the presidency.
“By appointing him to the position of secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Abbas paved the way for him to become the next head of the PA, but it does not give him the ability to control or be the head of the Executive Committee of the PLO.”
Amr says the only way to avoid chaos is by holding elections.
“What will lead to the stability of the Palestinian political situation and to relative regional stability on the issue is the holding of periodic elections. The existence of a state of institutions is the solution,” he said.
Having internal disputes is natural in any political system, Amr acknowledges.
“Wherever you go in the world there is an internal conflict that exist; the Palestinians are no different from the rest of the world. Even the United States had infighting during January 6th, when Congress was stormed,” he said, adding, “there is a struggle among Palestinians over the political program, how to run the government, negotiations and elections.”
The Palestinian political situation is volatile and is shifting daily, with multiple factions vying for political influence.
Whoever is selected to be the next president of the Palestinian Authority must handle the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip with care, as well as the economy, the lack of political horizon and a stalemate in negotiations with Israel.
Amr, who also is the former PA ambassador to Russia, says the time of a charismatic leader leading the Palestinians is over.
“Now the Palestinian people must be led by democratically produced institutions. It should result in a president bound by constitutional laws that prevent him from being exclusive,” he concluded.
Written by Mohammad Al-Kassim and reprinted with permission from The Media Line.