Avi Melamed is a former Israeli intelligence officer and strategic consultant to some of Israel’s top politicians, such as Teddy Kollek and Ehud Olmert. A Middle East analyst and fellow of intelligence and Middle East affairs at the Eisenhower Institute, Melamed currently serves as the chief education officer of Inside the Middle East, a nonprofit dedicated to non-partisan education on the regional complexities of Israel and its neighbors. His most recent book is Inside the Middle East: Entering a New Era.
This interview is part of a special Moment package about what will happen after Mahmoud Abbas no longer controls the Palestinian Authority. For the rest of our coverage, click here.
What might the Israeli-Palestinian relationship or governmental relationship look like after Mahmoud Abbas is no longer in power?
To a large extent, it depends on what will happen within the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Fatah organization. Will we witness stabilization of the situation in the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority or will we witness a growing instability, even a situation of disintegration? All the scenarios are quite valid.
I would guess that Israel will of course maintain all the channels of communication with the different PA counterparts: security intelligence, civil affairs, all those things that are actually part of this ongoing relationship between the governments. Israel also will have a plan B, particularly vis-à-vis the possibility of some very severe deterioration of the security situation in the West Bank or in the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority. But I would guess that Israel’s guiding line would be hoping that stability will be maintained or the transition phase will be as smooth as possible, even if it takes some extra gestures or extra support. That’s my expectation.
What do you think that plan B might entail if the security situation were to deteriorate in the West Bank?
Well, it depends again how it’s going to be translated on the ground. Let’s say, for example, tomorrow there will be clashes between different Palestinian armed forces, either local militias or security or national security Palestinian forces. I don’t expect Israel to rush in militarily to stop them or to participate. Israel will more likely just follow them very closely. But if there is going to be a percolation or threat of something like that into areas of the West Bank under full Israeli control or even Israeli territory, that’s a different story.
What is the perspective of everyday Palestinians?
That’s very mixed. On one level the Palestinians in the West Bank, at the end of the day, are happy that they don’t have to deal with the same challenges the Gaza Strip has to deal with. But Abbas is identified with the old regime. There has been a lot of criticism regarding nepotism, corruption and inefficiency, and to a large extent that criticism is not baseless. We have to remember that most Palestinians are young people, many of whom are very educated but lack opportunities for employment. In fact, the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who make their living in Israel working blue-collar jobs are making more than Palestinians who graduated from universities in the territories.
Do you see anybody else in Fatah or in Palestinian politics or civil society that could balance all of these pressures the same way Abbas has?
There are different figures who are considered to be close to Abbas and possible successors, like Hussein al-Sheikh or Mahmoud al-Aloul. You’ve got different names that are mentioned. I think that it’s more likely that we will not see one person take the lead decisively, immediately post-Abbas.
Instead, we will probably see a couple of power centers within Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. The question will be, what will be the nature of the relationship and split of power between those power centers? Even today there are militias or smaller semi-militias operating in areas that are controlled by the PA. Some of the semi-militias are not affiliated with a specific political ideology. Some of them come from a more criminal-affiliated background. Some of them represent local powerful families in Hebron, in Jenin, in Nablus.
In a functioning democratic system, it’s common to see that there are different centers of power. There are different people representing different groups and political interests, and they have to interact one with the other. The major difference in a regime like the PA is that their supporters don’t walk around on the streets with weapons.
It sounds like you’re saying that the most likely outcome of a disorganized succession from Abbas is some kind of armed struggle.
If tomorrow morning we wake up to a reality of violence and tensions, it shouldn’t be shocking. That being said, it’s not necessarily the case because such tension may have a deterring effect that actually will further push the potential successors into saying, “We’d rather find some ways to live one with the other, other than kill one another.” This very severe potential for instability might deter anyone from doing something decisive that could easily spin out of control.”
There is an expression in Hebrew that basically says, if you’re not going to cooperate, you’re going to find yourself hanging on a pole one next to the other. That’s a logic that is powerful. If I had to make a prediction, I would say we’ll probably see a process where the potential successors try to improve their positions, but are very careful not to overreach militarily.
Would that same logic apply to Hamas and Islamic Jihad?
Hamas and Islamic Jihad have made it very clear: Their interest is to pour more gasoline on this potential fire. Hamas just recently marked its 35th anniversary, and what the Hamas spokesperson said was, “We want now to let Gaza recover from all the violence. And we want now to turn the West Bank into a laboratory.” Hamas and Islamic Jihad obviously have a clear interest in further destabilizing the situation in the West Bank, in the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority. That’s always been their tactic.
Monetizing the whole issue of the Temple Mount compound/Haram Sharif is also part of this tactic. I would say that Islamic Jihad is even more decisive than Hamas because Islamic Jihad has an open military presence, for example in Jenin. They are operating in broad daylight. If they decide to turn their military might against Israel directly, that’s one story. But if they decide to use it to undermine the Palestinian Authority’s sovereignty and to provide some sort of an external umbrella for terror attacks, thinking this will deter Israel from operating against them, that’s a situation that has a larger potential for explosion.
Who are some of the other possible successors to Abbas?
General Majed Faraj is the head of the General Intelligence apparatus and considered to be one of the strongest contenders. He’s very close to the American administration. He and Hussein Sheikh and Mahmoud al-Aloul are all part of Abbas’s inner circle. Faraj has been around for a long time, and he also enjoys the trust of the Jordanians, the Egyptians and the Israeli government. So he has a lot of power. Colonel Tawfiq Tirawi is someone who used to be a very significant security figure in the Palestinian Authority, but Abbas seemingly is pushing him out. You’ve also got people affiliated with the legacy of Yassar Arafat, like his nephew, Nasser al-Kidwa, who used to be the foreign minister. And you have others who are considered to be more independent, like Mohammed Dahlan and Marwan Barghouti. Though he’s imprisoned in Israel, all of the polls indicate that a majority of Palestinians would choose Barghouti to be their leader. Jibril Rajoub is another possible successor. Each and every one of these people has their own power base one way or another.
Why is Barghouti so popular among the Palestinian public?
He was 14 or 15 when he became an activist in Fatah. He comes from a village called Kaubar, next to Ramallah. He was very involved in the Palestinian political work in Fatah. Then he spent time in Israeli jails and so on for his activities. He later climbed all the way to be the leader of the Tanzim, the military wing of Fatah, which was responsible for the major terrorist attacks during the second intifada. Barghouti was caught and received several lifetime prison sentences in Israel, and has spent the last two decades in Israeli prison.
Israel wouldn’t be inclined to let him go if he were to win an election?
You never know. He’s viewed by the Palestinians as an authentic leader, a person who made the ultimate sacrifice, other than giving his life. He isn’t seen as part of the corrupt, old regime and establishment that is mostly engaged in taking care of its own people. 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.
In the game of possible successors, what cards does Israel have to play?
Israel will have to navigate very carefully during the transition phase. If Israel openly embraces and endorses specific powers, that may automatically boomerang, because those people will be viewed by the Palestinians as collaborators. I would guess that Israel would silently try to support the actors within the Palestinian Authority that Israel thinks are constructive, like the people who are close to or inside Abbas’ circle. Some of them are even fluent in Hebrew and also are accepted by the American administrations. That being said, we have to take into consideration the regional players: Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates. Israel has to be very tuned in with those players, vis-à-vis the question of succession.
What have the Abraham Accords changed, if anything?
In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian trajectory, the Palestinians were very unhappy with the Abraham Accords. Shortly after they were signed, the PA briefly called back their ambassador from the United Arab Emirates as a protest gesture. Once the Palestinians were done expressing their discontent, frustration, anger and criticism, the significant question that the Palestinians, to a large extent, avoided answering was: What do we, the Palestinians, want to be when we grow up? The major subtext of the Abraham Accords, which was directly expressed to the Palestinians by the Saudis, the Emirates, the Jordanians and the Egyptians was, you are frustrated, you are disappointed. We get 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 those questions.
What other factors are important?
Iran is also significant. From the Iranian perspective, the more unstable the situation is, the better. The IRGC has a constant interest to constantly fuel the flames of the conflict. Turkey is also involved in what’s going on. Jordan is enormously significant. Jordan is dealing with growing tensions and challenges, economically and socially. The Palestinian component is very significant in the Jordanian political and cultural and public discourse scenery.
There are many components. We also have to take into consideration, of course, the Israeli political scene, the new government, and the outcome of elections in the United States. There are many, many factors that have to be taken into consideration in trying to evaluate whether we’re going to see more of this stagnation, or are we going to see some sort of movement.
My tendency is to assume that we will see some sort of a new dynamic. One of my predictions that I made in my recent book was that we might also see an emergence of a new political player in the Palestinian arena. Today, one of the major things that also fuels that stagnation from a Palestinian perspective is the disappointment of Palestinians with both Hamas and Fatah, their two major political players. There’s a lot of disappointment. That may result in also a process, a dynamic for the emergence of a new political play within the Palestinian arena.
Could any movement happen before Abbas steps down or dies?
No, I don’t think it’ll take place before Abbas is gone. Abbas is the last dinosaur of a disappearing generation. Once he’s gone, it’s a new ball game. Abbas is not only ideologically and politically opposed to Hamas; Abbas is also emotionally, personally, a bitter opponent of Hamas. He’s not the one who is going to pave the bridge for reconciliation.
Also, Hamas is not really interested in inner reconciliation according to Abbas’s terms and conditions. I think it will be more likely to expect that dynamic to evolve in the post-Abbas era.
Do you think Abbas is likely to relinquish power with all of his faculties intact, just because it’s time for a change?
No. Abbas is a very vengeful guy. He’s coming from the mindset and generation of Yasser Arafat. Arafat was master of divide and conquer, divide and rule. He had different organizations and different security apparatuses and establishments. He always made sure that no one would have too much power in their hand. Abbas is doing the same. He’s in control of the finance. He makes sure that neither the intelligence nor the security sector has too much power. He’s obviously put his people and loyalists in the key positions. And he has a strong Soviet heritage; he spent time in Russia. I think that he looked at Russian politics very favorably and took a couple of tricks from Russian and Soviet politics. One more thing: Abbas’s son runs economic empires. Lots of money.