Khalil Shikaki is the director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Research and a professor of political science, currently serving as a senior fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University. An expert on Palestinian society, Shikaki has conducted more than 200 polls of Palestinians in the territories. He is the author of Arabs and Israelis: Conflict and Peacemaking in the Middle East.
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.
How do you see the political atmosphere right now in the Palestine Authority?
It is very depressing because the Palestinian Authority (PA) lacks legitimacy in the eyes of the public. Most people want to see Mahmoud Abbas resign as president. Three quarters, in fact, in our last survey say he needs to resign, and only about 20-25 percent say they trust the government. And 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. 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.
There is also the split between the West Bank and Gaza with Hamas in control of Gaza and Fatah in control of the West Bank. So the PA’s capacity, although it exists to some extent with regard to social services in Gaza, is more or less absent in terms of law and order. Hamas is in charge of anything that has to do with security and money and control in Gaza.
In Israeli-Palestinian relations, things are grim as well. There is no peace process. The Israeli-Palestinian relations, which have been based on the assumption that there is in fact a peace process, is now being tested and challenged by new armed groups that are emerging in the West Bank and are likely to expand over time because there is a vacuum with regard to the PA’s capacity to enforce law and order. And the new Israeli government has, of course, added difficulties because it’s an extreme government that has extreme views regarding the two-state solution, sovereignty over the West Bank, annexation matters, expansion of settlements and so on. Not to mention holy places, which is an extremely unsettled issue.
Mahmoud Abbas is 87. If he has so little legitimacy, how could he confer authority to his successor?
He could decide to have elections today. This would be a very positive development and everybody would support it, including Hamas and of course his own political party (Fatah). New elections could create the legitimacy required. Abbas himself does not have a chance of winning elections, but the elected president would certainly have legitimacy and the entire political system would regain legitimacy. Abbas could also address the fragmentation within Fatah by creating consensus over what happens within the party after his departure.
Other than looking out for himself and not allowing himself to be deposed, does Abbas have a game plan?
Well, when you are in power for many, many years, you start to identify yourself and your interest with that of the body you are leading, so Abbas thinks that he and the Palestinian Authority are one. As long as he is able to run it, he will continue to run it. To put it differently, it means Abbas is in power and wants to maintain power, and that is the most important driver.
If Abbas were to actually call for elections, or enable and empower the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), who are his possible successors? Who should we be watching?
The most popular leader among the Palestinians, both within and outside Fatah, who would definitely win an election by a two-thirds majority no matter who the other candidates were, is Marwan Barghouti.
Barghouti is, of course, in an Israeli jail, serving several life sentences. Nonetheless, this is a technical issue. He can run from jail and he can win and become the president. In fact, if he does run, he will win. Barghouti is the single most popular Palestinian leader alive.
For the last year and a half, Abbas himself has been promoting Hussein al-Sheikh, who, like Barghouti, is from Fatah. Al-Sheikh is currently the secretary general of the PLO Executive Committee, which is the number-two position within the hierarchy of the PLO. So in the absence of the chairman, Hussein al-Sheikh would, on a de facto basis, call for meetings and chair those meetings until the committee elects somebody else.
Who else should we be looking at?
The deputy head of Fatah is a new position that was created by the last Fatah congress four or five years ago. Mahmoud al-Aloul, from Nablus, sits in that position. However, al-Aloul hasn’t really been able to assert himself as the number two within the hierarchy of Fatah. In fact, even if he is asked to become the head of Fatah, he might say, “Well, look guys, I’m not interested. Give it to somebody else.”
Jibril Rajoub is the number three as the secretary general of Fatah, which in the past was the number-two position before the creation of al-Aloul’s position. Jibril Rajoub is more popular, I would say, than al-Aloul within Fatah, and he has more name recognition.
And then, of course, there are others. The former head of intelligence is Fatah Central Committee member Majed Faraj, and he could compete for that position as well. The prime minister of the State of Palestine, Mohammad Shtayyeh, is also a member of the Fatah Central Committee, and in the absence of the president, he would be on a de facto basis acting as both president and prime minister. Mohammad Shtayyeh is also a very ambitious person.
But all these names are Fatah names; there are others outside Fatah. The man who ran against Abbas in 2005 is Mustafa Barghouti, another Barghouti. He received 22 percent of the popular vote back in 2005, so one can assume that if Marwan Barghouti is not running, Mustafa Barghouti will most likely run. They’re not closely related—the Barghouti family is a huge family.
And of course, there is likely to be a Hamas candidate, and Hamas has many leaders who are very well known to the public. The current head of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, is a very popular person—his support exceeds that of Hamas. So even Palestinians who do not share Hamas’s values and are not members of Hamas may perceive Haniyeh as a moderate leader who would seek to reunify the Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza.
Fatah has been a stabilizing force, if only for its symbolic value. How would infighting within Fatah play out?
Fatah has always been a movement that has a lot of fragmentation, but none of these past splits have weakened the movement.
However, two years ago, when the expectations were that we would be going to elections in May 2021, Fatah was split into three groups. The official group, led by Abbas, had its own candidates. Then, in the lead, we had Fadwa Barghouti, Marwan Barghouti’s wife, running a second list with Nasser al-Qudwa, Arafat’s nephew. And Mohammed Dahlan, a former member of the Fatah Central Committee, was running a third Fatah electoral list. After Abbas, these three groups could actually do very well running against each other, and eventually form a coalition government with the majority of the vote.
But this fragmentation within Fatah is one reason for the concern that, after Abbas, without a clear-cut legal and constitutional path to a successful succession process, each one of the members of the Central Committee with ambition might jockey for power, positioning themselves to take advantage of whatever coalitions might emerge. We don’t know whether this will escalate into any kind of internal violence within Fatah, but there is a lot of concern. In fact, we did a survey recently in which the majority of the Palestinians felt that after Abbas there will be a significant level of violence among Palestinians.
So what are the possible scenarios if Abbas disappears tomorrow?
One scenario is the leaders of Fatah and Hamas meet and they agree on a course of action that leads to an appointment of somebody approved by both sides to be an interim president. This person then issues a decree calling for elections within 60 days, as called for by the constitution. And the outcome of those elections determines who the president will be.
This scenario is the most optimistic scenario. It does not involve violence. It leads to eventual elections and maybe reunification of the West Bank and Gaza.
A second scenario is that Fatah and Hamas do not succeed in reaching a consensus on what happens after Abbas, on who is the interim president, or when elections will take place, under what conditions and so on. In this case, Fatah might turn to the PLO as a body that has legitimacy and appoint the speaker of the PLO, of the Palestine National Council, to be the interim president until some point in the future, nobody knows when. In the meanwhile, there would be questions of legitimacy raised and so on, but no dramatic challenge to the status quo.
The worst-case scenario is one in which Fatah itself is divided and doesn’t know what to do. If various Fatah leaders jockey for power using influence or trying to use the security services for coercion, it may lead to violence within Fatah. That could then be capitalized on by Hamas to destabilize conditions in the West Bank, leading to even greater violence there.
So these are three scenarios. They represent three extremes. I tend to expect the scenario in the middle: a de facto arrangement with the PLO assuming or providing the means to stabilize conditions through an interim presidency.
If there were elections, what would be the issues that concern voters?
Item number one is going to be reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas and the reunification of the West Bank and Gaza under one single political system. Item number two would be how to remove the siege and blockade over Gaza once it is under the control of the Palestinian Authority. And the third thing is shifting the PA away from authoritarianism towards a more open and more democratic political system. Of course economic prosperity and improvement of economic conditions in Gaza would be another priority, along with eventually developing a strategy to deal with Israel, no matter what strategy that is. Either a resumption of negotiations if that is feasible, or moving towards a confrontation. The status of Jerusalem is part of that—if Itamar Ben Gvir decides to allow conditions at the Temple Mount/, al-Ḥaram al-Sharīf to deteriorate at the time of the elections, this will be the central issue. If the status quo continues as it is today, then Jerusalem is not likely to be an important issue during an election campaign. It could become an important issue after an election, depending on what kind of strategy the Palestinians decide to pursue in their relationship with Israel.
If the PA collapses, will Palestinian technocratic civil society be able to maintain public services and the like?
Even if the Palestinian Authority collapses completely, this collapse will only affect its ability to enforce law and order; it will not affect its ability to continue delivering social services like health and education and so on. These things will probably continue just as the case was during the second intifada. The service was not optimal (it wasn’t all that good to start with), but you still had these institutions being run by the same bureaucrats who run it today in the name of the Palestinian Authority. The PA will continue to have a sufficient bureaucracy and financial resources to be able to run these social services.
We’re now talking about the succession process in situations where the Palestinian Authority remains relatively in charge. But what happens if armed groups like the ones in Jenin and Nablus are the ones who control cities, refugee camps and so on in the West Bank? What happens if Abbas goes under these circumstances?
The answer, unfortunately, is probably a great deal of chaos and violence and fragmentation and anarchy. The most important question in such a scenario is: Would the Palestinian security sector also collapse and join the ranks of the armed groups? Or would it remain cohesive even if it is unable to enforce law and order, continuing to exist as an institution awaiting a legitimate leader? That is certainly one of the big unknowns since we don’t know when Abbas will no longer be with us.