Itamar Marcus is a researcher and the founder of Palestinian Media Watch, which studies Palestinian society by monitoring and analyzing its media. He is a preeminent critic of Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. Marcus is the co-author of Deception: Betraying the Peace Process.
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.
Mahmoud Abbas is 87, what happens if he dies or retires?
Right now, about 80 percent of the Palestinian population sees him as corrupt and a similar percentage wants him to leave office. There are a number of scenarios his exit could follow.
If Abbas were to, say, suddenly die of a heart attack, he would leave a power void, since you have a number of people who would like to be the next leader: Hussein al-Sheikh (Secretary general of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization), whom Abbas has been pushing, and Jabril Rajoub (secretary general of Fatah’s Central Committee), who in the last Fatah central committee received the highest number of votes. If there were no clear message from Abbas, then there could be really serious turmoil in the Palestinian Authority (PA).
And in that situation, Hamas would also try to take over. Hamas is very strong in Judea and Samaria and probably would have won the last election, which had been scheduled for May 2021. That’s why Abbas cancelled it—he didn’t want to lose to Hamas.
If Abbas realizes it’s time to retire, and he organizes a smooth transition and appoints al-Sheikh to be the next leader, then it could work. The problem we see there is that al-Sheikh has not been a popular figure in the PA; He wasn’t known for being active in terror or a major force in any public way, until he was appointed as his deputy in the PLO. He 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.
Marwan Barghouti would have legitimacy among the population, but that is a farce because he is a convicted multiple murderer, and Israel will never release him.
I think the Palestinians would accept a Hamas leader over anyone that comes from the PA. Not that they have great expectations from Hamas, but because they feel that things are going so poorly, at least they should let Hamas give it a try. And while Hamas will certainly try to take over, I don’t think that it will go for an all-out civil war, nor would Palestinians take to violence in the streets in order to support Hamas.
And yet a third scenario, whereby Abbas goes willingly but violently would not be without precedent. Right now, the Palestinian Authority has very little legitimacy, and that is one of the reasons that it is giving a positive message about the current violence to its own people, through its own channels and media. Abbas would like to go down having led some kind of a violent crusade against Israel and be seen as a hero.
Arafat, in the summer of 2000, was at the lowest-ever point of his popularity, which is why he decided to start what was later coined as the al-Aqsa Intifada. He too had lost his legitimacy, so he used the opportunity of Ariel Sharon’s walk to the Temple Mount as an excuse for an extended conflict with Israel. (A subsequent book written by one of his advisors confirmed he told his staff just that.) Of course, Arafat could not have known how successful—from the PA’s point of view, of course—that struggle would turn out to be.
Would Abbas be able to organize a similar campaign today?
Suicide bombings would be very unlikely. On the other hand, there is a tremendous amount of weaponry in the West Bank, and we see that drive-by shootings and other attacks are very lethal, not in terms of numbers but in terms of psychological and traumatic impact.
Abbas sent his people to the February meeting in Aqaba with Jordan and Israel and claims to want to stop the violence—but the only security cooperation that he is undertaking with Israel is specifically focused on Hamas, and maybe the Islamic Jihad, because he is afraid that they are going to take over in the West Bank. The whole myth of security cooperation is that it is supposed to help Israel fight terror. From Abbas’ perspective, the point of the cooperation is to keep him in power, because if not for the security cooperation, Hamas would have taken over long ago. It certainly has enough military strength in the West Bank to take over. The security cooperation is not popular among the Palestinian people, most of whom support Hamas or, at a minimum, are not interested in Hamas operatives being turned over to the Israelis, which is done in the security cooperation.
Would a new leader, even if sanctioned by Hamas, need to also build credibility and start violence?
It all depends on the circumstances. If they are in the middle of a months-long terror wave, intifada-style, the leader who comes in will not stop it, because he would not want to be seen as doing that for Israel.
By the way, whenever the Palestinians refer to the intifada, they refer to it as the glorious intifada. They don’t care about the thousands of deaths of Palestinians (most of them terrorists). For them it is irrelevant, because they made Israelis suffer, and for them it was the best thing. If they have a situation where Israelis are afraid to drive on the roads, they are happy. We see on Hamas TV, they take from Israeli TV funerals and shiva, the al-Aqsa Brigade does it too, and they can say, you see, we made the Israelis cry. This is what makes them popular.
Hamas and Fatah fight Israel as a means to compete with each other and as means to achieve popularity among the Palestinian population. In these struggles, Israel is merely a pawn for their internal needs. I have demonstrated that every single time there has been a terror-wave, every one of them was done by Fatah when they were way behind in the polls vis a vis Hamas. They use the al-Aqsa mosque as the trigger for the violence, but it is really because they are behind in the polls, even though nothing is actually happening at the mosque. And when Fatah was seen as leading the struggle for al-Aqsa, their numbers in the polls increased. They create an artificial conflict, where they are seen as the heroes.
Hamas feels that they should be the rightful leaders. They would have won the last elections; they were ahead in the polls and the Fatah party was split into factions. They would have won the presidency and the Parliament. That is why the Europeans and the Americans didn’t criticize Abbas for cancelling 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 OK to cancel the elections.
So much of the terror today is being credited to Hamas, not just from Gaza but from Judea and Samaria, too. They believe that they should be in power. And yes, this would create turmoil.
Who does Israel want to succeed Abbas? What would it look like for Israel if Hamas took power?
Israel would like Hussein al-Sheikh to come in, because he has never been associated with terror, he hasn’t called for terror, even at the very bad times when others were openly calling to kill Israelis, he didn’t call for it.
Majed Faraj (head of Palestinian General Intelligence Service) is also acceptable to Israel, he’s been actively in touch with Israeli leaders for years, he’s given endless information to Israel about Hamas, from his own sources, it’s done quietly, efficiently. Which means that for the same reasons that Israel would want him—the Palestinians certainly would not.
Hamas would know that Israel has put up with a lot, has restrained itself against Palestinian terror even if it was directed by the PA, because Israel has decided that the survival of the PA is in Israel’s interests. With Hamas, they know that Israel would put up with nothing. So they would probably feel the need to restrain terror. They wouldn’t dare send a missile from any Palestinian city over the Green Line, because they know that Israel would go into their territory in a second. They would have to restrain the militias because they know that Israel would be very happy to move in and destroy their military infrastructure.
So, paradoxically, it might even be better for Israel if Hamas were in control?
Exactly. Because Hamas is not in power, they feel free to do whatever they want in the West Bank and they get away with it. And the PA can get away with whatever they want, because we don’t want to weaken the PA. The PA glorifies the terror committed by the al-Aqsa Brigades. Recently, there have been a number of terrorist attacks committed by PA policemen and Fatah glorified them as “policemen by day and resistance fighters by night.” Israel swallows this because we don’t want to weaken the PA—but we would not tolerate that from Hamas, and they know that.
That was the tragedy of 2000-2004, which was initiated by Arafat—because it was the PA, we were fighting with one hand tied behind our backs. But had Hamas started on October 1, 2000, we would have been in there on October 2nd, and it all would have been over in two weeks. As much as Israel does not want to see Hamas in power, in terms of containing terror it will be much, much better, and if there is terror, we will go back in, even with tanks. But again, Hamas knows that, so they would be deterred.
The important thing: Even the so-called worst-case scenario isn’t so awful for Israel. Not only militarily, but also internationally and diplomatically—no one will be asking Israel to make all those concessions that they ask us to make for the PA. No one will expect us to make those concessions for a designated terrorist organization, so politically and internationally, I think the situation would be better.