Ghaith al-Omari is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is the former executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine and has held a variety of positions within the Palestinian Authority (PA), including as an adviser to Mahmoud Abbas.
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 kind of shape is the PA in today?
I think the PA is in the worst shape it has been since its creation. If you look at public opinion polls, you would see that a majority of Palestinians consider the PA to be a liability rather than an asset. The Palestinians have given up hope now over everything and everyone. They don’t trust Israelis. They don’t believe in diplomacy. They don’t believe that a two-state solution is attainable. They don’t believe in their political leadership. There’s a total loss of hope.
Is there a risk of the PA collapsing?
We are already seeing some manifestations. In the northern West Bank, for example, Nablus and Jenin, these areas are basically outside the PA’s political and security control. When Palestinian security forces try to go in, they’re not only confronted by terrorist cells, they’re confronted by the public, because the public doesn’t trust the PA, which has possibly lost political and security control in the south, in Hebron, as well. Arguably the PA is now only really operative in the Ramallah-Bethlehem area. Yes, it continues to provide health, education and municipal services, but in terms of actual political or security control, we’re already seeing an implosion. Now, will it go out in a whimper or a bang? Who knows?
Is there any chance Abbas will resign?
I don’t see a chance of him resigning. He’s been in office way beyond his term. The number of people who want him to resign has been in the 70 to 80 percent range for years. He has not only done nothing to clarify succession, he has actually done the opposite. Every time someone emerges, he undermines them. That’s not the way a person who is planning to resign acts.
What happens when Abbas dies?
If I were to bet, I would say that the Fatah Central Committee will get together and choose among them the oldest, sickest, least threatening person to be a placeholder. Yet the possibility of them not reaching that decision and of a protracted succession process is becoming more real by the day.
Add to this the fragility of the PA and the fact that there are guns floating all over the West Bank now. So the possibility of the succession being the trigger either for widespread violence and instability or, frankly, collapse, can no longer be discounted.
Who are the most likely successors?
I would put them in three different baskets. There are people who are trying to leverage their closeness to Abbas for succession. The most obvious is Hussein al-Sheikh, the secretary general of the PLO Executive Committee. Then you have those who are trying to build a base within Fatah to position themselves. Here, I can think of two people who stand out. Jibril Rajoub, is using his longstanding Fatah status and his position as the head of the Palestinian Football Association and Olympic Committee to build a base. And there’s Mahmoud Aloul, the former governor of Nablus, who is presenting himself as the candidate of the old Fatah.
There are people who are presenting themselves as non threatening, consensus candidates. Here Mohammad Shtayyeh, the PA Prime Minister, stands out. I also think Nasser Kidwa, Arafat’s nephew, is playing this game. Then there is the unique case of Mohammed Dahlan, the former leader of Fatah in Gaza, who I don’t think is positioning himself to be the next guy, but is certainly positioning himself to be a kingmaker.
Are there some talented people in the PA who are not in the running?
There is no absence of talent in the PA. I’m not worried about talent, even though some of the talented people are exiting. The problem is that there isn’t a space for this talent to emerge. Today in the PA if you’re not someone’s lackey, your chances of promotion are nonexistent. So a lot of these talented people have no space to shine. If you get a leader, in my view, who can give them the space, the talent will emerge.
If Abbas were to pick a successor, who might that be?
If he’s pushed to pick a successor, he will probably choose the person who is least likely to succeed, who is non threatening, someone who will not cause the other aspirants to revolt. One can argue that the choice of Hussein al-Sheikh, as number two in the PLO, is exactly that. Hussein is capable and popular with the Israelis and the Americans because he delivers. Yet in Fatah he’s not very popular and is seen as corrupt by the public.
Is there a way to avoid the looming succession crisis in the PA? Could Mahmoud Abbas be convinced to resign?
I think Abbas could be made an offer he can’t refuse. This would be a real challenge, as Abbas has proved to be very skilled in being slippery. It would have to include both incentive and pressure. He has to be pushed and at the same time given a dignified exit strategy and assurances that he will not share the fate of [former Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarak. We have to remember that at the end of the day, the PA is a weak, aid-dependent entity. So pressuring it is not that difficult, but it has to be done in a smart way. The question is, who can do this?
Here I might borrow a page from George W. Bush’s playbook. I was a PA official when Bush was pushing for reform of the PA. I remember hearing in Washington, “We’re not going to pay you money until you do this or that,” and hearing the exact same talking points in London, Paris and Berlin. Then we started hearing the same talking points in Riyadh, Cairo and Amman. That’s because the Bush administration basically got to all of the key donors or supporters of the PA, and got them in line. At that point the PA had no choice but to play along. We have to look at doing something very similar right now.
Ultimately, you need the United States to organize a coalition of key actors, most importantly the Arabs. Abbas’s main buffer is the Arab states; even though the relationship between the Arabs and the PA is poor, now he sees this constellation as his safe space.
You need the Jordanians as they have the best insight into the West Bank, both politically and in terms of intelligence. You need Egypt because even though it’s declining, it’s still a major actor in the Palestinian cause. And you need Saudi Arabia—it is the center of gravity of Arab politics right now. The problem is that these countries don’t trust each other and each has its own internal tensions.
This is nothing new. Anyone who’s followed the Arab world knows that intra-Arab relations have never been as brotherly as Arabs like to pretend. In the past, it was always the United States that was the glue that got them together. The Americans would go to the Jordanians and say, “Do this, and we will deliver the Saudis and Egyptians,” then go to the Egyptians and say the same. The problem today is that the United States’ ability to organize in the Middle East is limited.
What about Israel? Does the new government want the PA to collapse?
On this issue, I think the Israeli government is actually two governments. You have components in the government who understand that the PA is an asset to Israel. I would put the defense minister, Yoav Gallant, in that category, both personally, and as a representative of the security and defense establishment. I would put Tzachi Hanegbi, the national security adviser, within that camp as well.
On the other hand, Bezalel Smotrich is not particularly interested in the survival of the PA. I have to suspect that Itamar Ben Gvir is in the same boat. So the Israeli cabinet is split. The traditional view of the security establishment is to invest in the survival of the PA. That’s where the Shin Bet is. This is where the IDF is. But then you have the ideologues, and of course Bibi, and Bibi is playing both sides. He winks one day in that direction and nods the next day in the other direction.
What we end up with, though, is almost paralysis. The security establishment is on autopilot. I know that they have ideas about how to stabilize the PA, but they feel they can’t move beyond what has already been approved. I would say the malicious actors are much more motivated, and we see it with the whole issue of the continuing settler violence. The situation on the ground is very much moving in the direction of the destabilizing elements. So all of this, to my mind, is leading to a very grim outcome.
So back to Fatah, what is the state of the party? Is it healthy?
No, not healthy. On the one hand, I would say the brand is still strong. It’s recognizable. It’s still identifiable with the Palestinian struggle historically. But under Abbas it’s becoming more and more similar to the Ba’ath Party or to the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. Not in terms of brutality, but in terms of becoming so identifiable with the government that it cannot really exist outside government. Under Arafat, Fatah was vibrant and there was a spectrum of views within the organization. This diversity was encouraged by Arafat because he saw it as a big tent organization.
Also Arafat had a good eye for young talent. Part of the reason that he allowed that kind of vibrancy was to identify and promote talent. Dahlan, Rajoub and Barghouti were junior street activists who showed talent and promise. Fatah was attractive if you were talented and politically minded, but also if you were looking for promotion and to be fast-tracked toward relevance. Today, if you deviate from the party line, you get expelled. As we saw in Egypt with Mubarak’s party, when a party is just identified with government, it’s fragile.
What about Hamas? Is it capable of leading the PA if it comes to that?
I don’t think so. There are obstacles on a practical level, an ideological level and a political level. Practically, Israel and Jordan will not allow Hamas to rule the West Bank. They both have the capability from a security point of view to prevent Hamas from coming in. Ideologically, Hamas also has a problem. One of Fatah’s strengths and the reason that it has survived is the fact that it’s not ideological. The only requirement to be a Fatah member is that you believe in the Palestinian cause. So you could be a leftist, you could be a rightist. So it could have a wide appeal. Hamas is ideological. If you do not follow the ideological line, you have no place there.
I think the worst thing that happened to Hamas politically was taking over Gaza. They won the elections in 2006 on a platform of clean governance. Anyone who’s familiar with their governing of Gaza would tell you that this is not a platform they can run on again. They have proved as corrupt, if not more corrupt, than the Palestinian Authority. Even their “resistance narrative” is being questioned. And the resistance that is coming from Gaza has only proved disastrous for the Palestinians.
However, Hamas could end up being the last man standing if the PA collapses. And by the way, if the PA collapses, I think Fatah will collapse with it. But in the immediate term, Hamas is not well positioned to take over the PA from a security, ideological or political point of view.
What about unity?
I don’t think real unity is possible. There is no agreement on core issues, such as one state or two? What’s the nature of the state? Theocracy? It’s not like the Democrats and Republicans. There is no uniting frame of reference for them.
Also, frankly, there’s no political logic today for unity. Both the PA and Hamas are quite secure in their areas of operation, and neither of them has an interest in bringing the other actor in. But I do see the possibility of a make-believe unity. Jibril Rajoub, for example, is saying, “If I’m president, I will provide unity.”
In the past, we’ve had a couple of unity governments that were unity on the face of things. These kinds of arrangements are very fragile. But I wouldn’t be surprised if you end up with a Jibril, or someone like him, as the next president, who starts with a declaration of unity, but then nothing follows to reflect that declaration.
What would you like to see happen after Abbas’s succession?
We need an energization and rehabilitation of Fatah because that continues to be the avenue in which Palestinian people, particularly young people, can exercise their political energy. Because if you don’t have a channel like that, you have the Lions’ Den and the Jenin Brigade as the alternatives.
I would also like to see a process of rehabilitating the Palestinian Authority. That requires two elements: from the Palestinian side, it requires recommitment to reform, institution-building, and creating an efficient, responsive government that can serve the people. On that front, there’s a lot that you can do without the Israelis. But ultimately for the PA to become credible again, it’ll have to show that a peaceful, diplomatic, cooperative approach with Israel could pay dividends.
Right now, one of the weaknesses of the PA is that security cooperation is seen as one-sided. Israelis benefit, and what are the Palestinians getting in return? So post-Abbas, I hope the Israelis, if there is a real effort to build a renewed, clean, uncorrupt PA, reciprocate by giving this new government deliverables that the government can take to its public. Once we have a reinvigorated Fatah and a rehabilitated PA, one can talk about the wider democracy.
Do you see anything that makes you optimistic?
No, unfortunately not. Look, if you’re a young person in Palestine, you have one of three paths. The majority just check out of political life and public engagement. Some turn toward activism. Yet, none of these activists have managed to have anything beyond a localized impact. The third option is to move toward Jenin Brigade type groups. None of these avenues is particularly reassuring. Checking out creates fragility in the political system, and disconnected or localized activism doesn’t fill the vacuum. And I don’t believe that violence is good for the Palestinians. Full stop.
I also don’t see the diaspora playing a role. The center of gravity of Palestinian politics has moved to the West Bank and Gaza since the creation of the Palestinian Authority. Today, the diaspora is completely disconnected from the situation on the ground. Fatah and the PLO were both diaspora movements in the 1950s and 1960s,and the Palestinian issue was an important issue for the Arab world. This brought both political support and financial support. That’s just not the case right now. No one cares and certainly no one’s going to allow the Palestinian diaspora in the Arab world to organize.
All this to my mind leads to a very grim outcome. That’s why my realistic hopes remain focused on rehabilitating existing things, because I just don’t see the dynamics on the ground showing any progress. But maybe I’m an old guy. Who knows?