After Abbas: Palestinian Unification or Into the Lion’s Den?

By | May 05, 2023
Israel, Latest, Summer Issue 2023
A collage of Mahmoud Abbas with many of his potential successors in front of a flow-chart.

This article is part of a special package of coverage about PA President Mahmoud Abbas. To see our full coverage, please click here.

In 1999, Moment published a feature-length story speculating about the fate of Palestinian nationalism after Yasser Arafat’s death. In it, Mahmoud Abbas is mentioned only twice. The writer noted that Abbas lacked Arafat’s charisma and leadership skills, but that as Arafat’s number two in the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) he had a decent shot of taking over. (However, the writer thought a Palestinian confederation between Jordan and the West Bank was a likelier outcome.) The piece ended by saying that Arafat seemed irreplaceable. “As the founding father of Pales­tinian nationalism, he appeals to Palestinians across the region in a way that neither the Palestinian contenders nor Abdullah [King of Jordan] can. Whoever follows Arafat will be attempting to stand in for a man who has embodied Palestinian national aspira­tions for three decades—a tough assignment. The main thing will be to avoid chaos at Arafat’s passing.”

But chaos came well before Arafat’s death, just a few months after the article’s publication, with the failure of the Camp David Summit and the onset of the second intifada in 2000. With the United States and Israel refusing to deal with Arafat, Abbas skillfully gained more influence with these players by condemning incitement against Israeli civilians, eventually tussling with Arafat himself over control of the Palestinian security forces until the latter’s death in 2004. After a highly questionable presidential election boycotted by Hamas, during which Abbas received 94 percent of official Palestinian media coverage and Israel hampered the movement of his opponents, Abbas became president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 2005. He has remained so ever since, despite losing legislative elections to Hamas in 2006 and a supposed constitutional limit of two four-year terms.

Now 87, Abbas appears to be ailing, after a long tenure during which his signature accomplishment has been the maintenance of a politically untenable status quo in the face of the disintegrating Oslo Accords he helped negotiate. “The reports coming out from Ramallah say that Abbas’s health and mental capabilities are deteriorating,” says political scientist Menachem Klein of Bar Ilan University in Israel. “They say he has reduced his working hours, takes long midday breaks, and leaves Ramallah for short visits abroad.” The issue of succession, Klein reports, “is the talk of the day in coffee shops, in private houses, and so on.”

Like Arafat before him, Abbas has no clear successor. Analysts suspect Abbas is positioning someone from his inner circle to take over, even as polls suggest Palestinians would prefer someone from Hamas or—most strikingly—a person who is currently serving multiple life sentences in an Israeli prison. The final outcome is unknown, but if Abbas were to die suddenly, the resulting power vacuum could destabilize the West Bank and beyond.

Rise to Power: Our Man In Qatar

Mahmoud Abbas was born in Safed in 1935 in Mandatory Palestine. After 1948 his family fled to Syria, where he studied law. In 1961, while working in Qatar, Abbas was recruited into Fatah, a nascent Palestinian nationalist group. Financed by wealthy patrons in Kuwait and other Gulf States, Fatah was a leftist guerilla organization in the mold of the Cuban revolutionary movement under Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, and responsible for numerous attacks on Israelis. Abbas steadily rose in the organization while liaising with—or some say spying for—the Soviet Union.

After the Six-Day War and Israel’s subsequent occupation of the West Bank crushed Palestinian hopes for independence via outside invasion, Arafat also assumed control of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which had been founded by the Arab League in 1964 as a kind of Palestinian government-in-exile to achieve political independence through armed struggle. The PLO gained observer status at the United Nations since 1974, and orchestrated many high-profile attacks against Israelis throughout the 1970s and 1980s from Jordan, Lebanon and finally Tunisia, leading the United States to designate it as a terrorist organization in 1987. During this time, Abbas had various roles within the PLO, including fundraising and diplomacy. In 1983, he defended a dissertation about an alleged connection between Zionism and Nazism in Moscow at the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia, then known as Patrice Lumumba University. (Abbas has an inconsistent, but persistent, record of Holocaust denial.)

By the 1990s, Abbas had become a close aide of Arafat and had gained a reputation for diplomacy that endeared him to Israel and the United States, who in turn pressured Arafat to grant Abbas more leadership. In 1993, Abbas helped negotiate the Oslo Accords, which, by creating an interim government called the Palestinian Authority, turned the PLO into a largely symbolic organization based in the West Bank and Fatah into the more moderate of the major Palestinian parties. Before his death in 2004, Arafat headed all three entities.

The next few years were deeply consequential not only for Abbas but for the whole region. Abbas succeeded Arafat as head of the PLO and was elected president in 2005. However, the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections resulted in a surprise victory for Hamas over Fatah, leading Israel and the United States to pressure Abbas to nullify the results. The subsequent power struggle between the two factions culminated in Hamas’s 2007 takeover of Gaza and Abbas’s suspension of the Palestinian Legislative Council. By 2009, Abbas had consolidated control of the same positions as his predecessor—although Hamas has continued to rule the Gaza Strip and Abbas never managed to regain control there.

“Arafat had different organizations and different security apparatuses and establishments. He always made sure that no one would have too much power in their hand,” says Avi Melamed, a security consultant for the Israeli Defense Force and an analyst of Arab politics. “Abbas is doing the same. He’s in control of the finance. He makes sure that neither the intelligence nor the security apparatuses have too much power. He’s put his people and loyalists in key positions. And he has a strong Soviet heritage—I think that he looked at Russian politics very favorably and took a couple of tricks from Russian and Soviet politics.”

Inherit the Wind, or Nakba Number Two

Sixteen years later, many are frustrated that Abbas is still in control. According to Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, three quarters of Palestinians want Abbas to resign, and Palestinian trust in the government is between 20 and 25 percent.

The reasons for this are political, economic and security-related. Throughout his time in power, Abbas has cooperated with Israeli forces on the ground and worked alongside Israel to curb Palestinian terror groups. He has continued doing so even during times of open conflict, and paid a heavy domestic price. “Under Abbas, all political institutions are paralyzed, dysfunctioning or not functioning at all, overseen by a small elite that enjoys some benefits from Israel for cooperation,” says Klein. “The PA under Mahmoud Abbas itself has turned into a subcontractor for the Israeli occupation and de facto annexation.”

A normalized relationship between Hamas and Fatah leading to the reunification of Gaza and the West Bank under one Palestinian Authority would be a major success for Palestinians.

The Palestinian Authority’s security apparatuses are also floundering—many of its members supplement their salaries with jobs in construction or hospitality in Israel, and the PA cannot arrest Palestinian militants without risking violent and embarrassing backlash. “The Palestinian Authority’s capacity to enforce law and order is now shrinking; it can no longer do so in certain parts of the West Bank,” says Shikaki. “This is the direct result of both the loss of legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority and the end of the peace process as people have known it.”

Melamed points to the Lions’ Den, a small but influential Nablus-based militia composed of a core group of young armed militants. The Lions’ Den—currently estimated to have several dozen members—amassed more than 200K followers on TikTok and Telegram in the last year by sharing videos of Israeli soldiers harassing or attacking Palestinians and subsequent videos of Lions’ Den members attacking individual Israelis in response. “The interesting thing about the Lions’ Den is that they don’t affiliate themselves with any of the formal major Palestinian powers,” Melamed notes.

Gaza-based Islamic Jihad is another militia openly defying the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. “In Jenin, they are operating in daylight,” says Melamed. “If they decide to use this military might to undermine the Palestinian Authority’s sovereignty and to provide some sort of an umbrella for terror attacks, then you have a situation that has a larger explosive potential.”

According to Klein, these militias are composed of disaffected young people frustrated by the lack of leadership and direction coming from Abbas. More than half of Palestinians are under 45, with almost 40 percent under the age of 15 and fewer than 3 percent over 65. Yet young Palestinians have little to no real political outlet. “These are small groups of young people who are too young to remember the bad experiences of the second intifada in which Israel used mass force and crackdowns,” says Klein, who sees the young fighters’ attacks as expressions of despair. “Shooting a soldier or two settlers never in the past brought the end of the occupation.”

“Israel hopes that the status quo will hold forever, one way or another. It’s a kind of historical blindness that the right wing has—and after the elections, they are now in euphoria.”

Political developments within Israel are exacerbating tensions within the Palestinian civil society as well. “We’re talking about an extreme government that has extreme views regarding the two-state solution and regarding sovereignty over the West Bank, annexation matters, and expansion of settlements,” says Shikaki. Klein goes further. “The general conclusion in the Palestinian territories is that the new Israeli government will try to implement a second Nakba,” he says, referring to the name Palestinians give to the events and aftermath of 1948 (in English, also called the “Palestinian Catastrophe”).“They call the new government the Nakba Government, the Return of the Nakba or Nakba Number Two.”

In 2017, Religious Zionist party leader Betzalel Smotrich laid out a detailed proposal whereby the PA would be dissolved, and all Arabs living in the West Bank would either accept Israeli sovereignty without voting rights, be encouraged to emigrate, or be considered enemy combatants. Under the current right-wing government, Smotrich has been put in charge of the Civil Administration which runs the parts of the West Bank not controlled by the Palestinian Authority. With an empowered settler movement pushing for Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank, political chaos after Abbas’s demise could give the Israeli right an opening to fully annex the West Bank, foreseeably leading to the final end of any hope at all for an independent Palestine there.

“Israel hopes that the status quo will hold forever, one way or another,” says Klein. “It’s a kind of historical blindness that the right wing has—and after the elections, they are now in euphoria.”

Best and Worst Case Scenarios

The constitution of the Palestinian Authority states that new free and fair elections should be held within 60 days after the president’s death. However, it also says that the president’s maximum tenure should be two four-year terms, and Abbas is currently in his 19th year as president. The document states that in the case of the president’s death the interim president should be the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), which Abbas effectively suspended in 2007 after Hamas won a majority of its seats. Thus, if Abbas were to die, according to the Palestinian constitution his immediate successor would be Aziz Dweik, 75, considered to be a relatively moderate Hamas figure who, since the PLC was suspended, has worked to reconcile Fatah and Hamas within the West Bank despite intermittent administrative detention by Israel.

If Abbas were to die in office, the “most optimistic” scenario for Palestinians, according to Shikaki, would be for representatives from Fatah and Hamas, as the two largest factions in Palestinian politics, to meet and select an interim president—Dweik, or someone else—to serve until an elections could be held. An election would be needed for anyone, even someone handpicked by Abbas, to establish credibility. Israel, says Klein, would agree to holding one—”assuming that the candidate Israel prefers will win.” In the past, Israel has detained Palestinian candidates without charge to hinder their campaigns. The United States, too, has viewed Abbas as the best option.

The unanimous opinion among four expert observers interviewed by Moment—Shikaki, Klein, Malamed and a fourth expert, Itimar Marcus—is that Fatah’s Marwan Barghouti, currently serving the first of five lifetime prison sentences in Israel for his role in the second intifada, could handily win a presidential election. “Marwan enjoys high popularity. He is the only Fatah candidate who can beat anyone else, including anyone from Hamas,” says Klein. “Marwan Barghouti would definitely win elections by an almost two-thirds majority, no matter who the other candidate is,” says Shikaki.

Barghouti, 63, was born in Kobar, a village near Ramallah in the West Bank. He became involved with Fatah at age 15 and was arrested by Israel while still a teenager for his membership in the organization. Barghouti learned Hebrew and completed high school while serving this first term in Israeli jail in the late 1970s. Eventually, he rose to be the leader of Tanzim, Fatah’s military wing, which, according to Melamed, was responsible for the major terrorist attacks during the second intifada. After he was caught by Israel, he contested the legitimacy of his trial and refused to mount a defense. He was sentenced to five life sentences, plus 40 years, for his involvement in the deaths of five Israelis. Notably, he was not convicted not of direct involvement in the murders, but of leading the organization which carried out the attacks. “He’s viewed by the Palestinians as an authentic leader, a person who made the ultimate sacrifice, short of giving his life,” says Melamed, adding that Barghouti is also seen as being outside the corrupt establishment. “He’s not Hamas, obviously, but he’s viewed by the Palestinians as a person who could be a bridge to evoke or generate Palestinian reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas.”

Barghouti’s political activities have continued in prison, where he has organized hunger strikes, facilitated negotiations between Hamas and Fatah and submitted manifestos about nonviolent resistance to Abbas. “Abbas rejects almost any reconciliation agreement or conclusions with Hamas, in large part because of the pressure coming from Israel and the United States,” says Klein, adding that “Marwan Barghouti would reject such pressure, and lead the next stage of the national struggle for independence.” Itimar Marcus, director of Palestinian Media Watch, a conservative think tank, agrees that Barghouti would have legitimacy for Palestinians but that the possibility of his being elected “is a farce, because he is a convicted murderer several times over, and Israel will never release him.” Shikaki, however, disagrees, calling his imprisonment “a technical issue.” “He can run from jail, and he can win, and become the president,” says Shikaki. “In fact, if he does run, he will win.” Campaigning for an election that was scheduled for 2021, Barghouti and his wife, Fadwa, joined with Yasser al-Qudwa, Yasser Arafat’s nephew, who lives in New York City, to launch a campaign against Abbas. Barghouti’s popularity is one likely reason why the elections were canceled.

The other most significant name from within Fatah is Hussein al-Sheikh, 62, the secretary general of the PLO’s Executive Committee—the position Abbas held shortly before his own ascent to the presidency. Al-Sheikh appears to be Abbas’s own pick, and that of Israel as well. “Hussein al-Sheikh is the person who maintains contacts with Israel and with the civil administration over everyday life,” says Klein. “But he is not known in international politics, in negotiations. He has to build his reputation and understanding and experience in international politics and negotiation.” Adds Marcus, “Israel would like Hussein al-Sheikh to come in, because he has never called for terror, even at the very bad times when others were openly calling to kill Israelis.”

Abbas’s unpopularity within the PA has rubbed off on al-Sheikh, however, and he is considered by many Palestinians to be a collaborator with Israel. His best chance for power would be for Abbas to manage the transition while alive. “If Abbas realizes that his days are limited, and he organizes a smooth transition and appoints al-Sheikh to be the next leader, then it could work,” says Marcus. Al-Sheikh “is rarely on TV or interviewed. It would be a struggle to have him gain power, but if Abbas orchestrates it, I do think the Palestinian public would accept him.”

There are other prominent members of the establishment considered, with varying degrees of support or name recognition, as potential successors. Mahmoud Aloul, 72, is from Nablus and is the newly installed “number two of Fatah,” says Shikaki, but he “hasn’t really been able to assert himself.” Major General Majed Faraj is the head of the General Intelligence unit, but has reportedly fed information about Hamas to Israel for years and so would also be seen by many Palestinians as a collaborator. Jibril Rajoub, 69, from Hebron, sits behind Aloul in the Fatah party hierarchy but has greater popularity and name recognition as the former head of security services and current chairman of the Palestinian Football Association. Mohammad Dahlan, 61 and originally from Gaza, led a third Fatah faction in the canceled 2021 elections. Dahlan “has some military power bases in different parts of the West Bank, including some of the refugee camps,” says Melamed. “He enjoys an open door to Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, but in 2011 Abbas accused him of poisoning Arafat.” Mohammad Shtayyeh, prime minister of the PA, is also a member of the Fatah Central Committee and is “a very ambitious person,” according to Shikaki. There are more names, even within Fatah, but none has a clear advantage over the others.

“Each and every one of these players has some cards they can play,” says Melamed. “They all have a power base one way or another. But everybody also has weaknesses.”

Without a clear legal and constitutional succession process, some are concerned that the fragmentation within Fatah could lead to political chaos. “The worst-case scenario is serious disagreement within Fatah, the PA, and the various security services, where it’s not clear who’s in charge and who is giving orders,” says Shikaki. A power struggle, he says, could be capitalized on by Hamas to destabilize conditions in the West Bank.” According to a recent survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, a majority of Palestinians feel there will be violence among Palestinians after Abbas.

After Abbas: Palestinian Unification or Into the Lions’ Den?

But Hamas would not necessarily need to resort to violence in order to gain control of the Palestinian Authority—the party could simply win elections, just as they did decisively in 2006. “Hamas would have won the 2021 elections; they were ahead in the polls and Fatah was split into factions. They would have won the presidency and the Parliament,” says Marcus. “That is why the Europeans and the Americans didn’t criticize Abbas for canceling the elections. They claimed that they wanted democracy among the Palestinians, but they realized that Abbas was going to lose, so they gave him the okay to cancel the elections.”

Ismail Haniyeh, 61, is still a senior political figure in Hamas, and he is much more popular than Abbas. “The support that Haniyeh has exceeds the support that Hamas has,” says Shikaki. “He is seen by many Palestinians, even those who do not share Hamas’s values and are not members of Hamas, as a moderate leader and a unifier, somebody who would seek to unify the Palestinians in both West Bank and Gaza.”

Fatah’s Marwan Barghouti, currently serving the first of five lifetime prison sentences in Israel for his role in the second intifada, could handily win a presidential election.

A normalized relationship between Hamas and Fatah leading to the reunification of Gaza and the West Bank under one Palestinian Authority would be a major success for Palestinians—according to Shikaki, this would be among the electorate’s highest priorities, along with ending the blockade of Gaza, addressing corruption and authoritarianism within the PA, and improving economic conditions. Both Haniyeh and Barghouti are seen as possibly being able to accomplish these goals.

According to Marcus, Hamas coming to power in the West Bank may not be as fearsome as we might expect. “Even this so-called worst-case scenario isn’t so awful for Israel,” he says. “Hamas knows that Israel would put up with nothing [if they were in control]. Because they are not in power in the West Bank, and [Israel doesn’t] want to weaken the PA, Hamas feels free to do whatever they want and they get away with it.”

“Each and every one of these players has some cards they can play. They all have a power base one way or another. But everybody also has weaknesses.”

But Fatah—either for its own reasons or due to pressure from Israel or the United States—may not want to risk losing to Hamas. According to Shikaki, Fatah could instead unilaterally appoint an interim president through the PLO until an agreement is reached. “This may never come, and so this interim president would be the de facto president,” says Shikaki. “Meanwhile, there would be questions of legitimacy raised and so on, but no dramatic challenge to the status quo.”

It’s not likely Hamas—or its fellow extremist Islamic militant sects—would accept this development. “Unfortunately there is no lack of players who are looking to enhance instability. And there are a lot of weapons out there,” says Melamed. “Hamas and Islamic Jihad are constantly trying to fuel the flames, hoping for an incitement that actually produces more and more lone-wolf terror responses—such as ramming into soldiers or stabbing.”

In Melamed’s view, Israel will seek to avoid chaos by planning ahead, in coordination with its regional allies—if it isn’t already. “I would guess that Israel will, wisely, silently try to support the actors within the Palestinian Authority that Israel thinks are constructive,” he says, adding that the threat of anarchy and Israeli intervention will keep the important players within Palestinian politics civil as well. “This very severe potential for instability might deter anyone from doing something decisive that could easily spin out of control.”

In the past, Israel has detained Palestinian candidates without charge,  hindering their campaigns.

If that doesn’t work, a new intifada may push Israel to intervene directly and reoccupy even the municipalities in the West Bank formally under the control of the Palestinian Authority. Klein says that in this case, a right wing government would seek to further weaken the central Palestinian Authority—which Likud fears could lead to an independent state—in favor of local administrations that could be financed internationally until the military governorship could withdraw. “Even if the Palestinian Authority collapses completely, this collapse will only affect its ability to enforce law and order, but it will not affect its ability to continue to deliver social services like health and education and so on,” says Shikaki. “These things will probably continue just as the case was during the second intifada when the Palestinian Authority was more or less almost totally collapsed.”

Unanswered Questions

When Mahmoud Abbas came to power, his hope was to negotiate a final status agreement with Israel. In the eyes of many Palestinians and other observers, his major failure is that he had no plan B other than to “mimic independence,” according to Klein. With political alternatives restricted within the Palestinian Authority, due somewhat to interference by Israel and the United States, efforts toward independence have been stagnant for a generation.

“That was the major context of the Abraham Accords that was directly expressed to the Palestinians by the Saudis, by the Emiratis, as well as the Jordanians and the Egyptians,” says Melamed: “‘You are frustrated, you are disappointed. We got it. What do you want to do? Where do you want to go? Do you want the Hamas way? Do you want the Fatah way?’ The Palestinians are, for different reasons, unable to answer these questions.”

To a large extent, this inertia is a product of Abbas’s leadership. Although it is unlikely that there will be any movement until he dies, and Abbas himself has little to no credibility within the Palestinian Authority, Shikaki says there is still something Abbas could do for his people.

“He could decide to go to elections today,” says Shikaki. “He may not win a presidential election, but the elected president would certainly have legitimacy and the entire political system would have legitimacy. This is something where he can have an impact. He could also address the fragmentation within Fatah, his own political party, by creating consensus over what happens within the party after his departure.”

One thought on “After Abbas: Palestinian Unification or Into the Lion’s Den?

  1. hag says:

    gee… sounds just like BEBE

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