After Abbas | An Interview With Menachem Klein

By | May 04, 2023

Menachem Klein is a professor of political science and senior lecturer at Bar-Ilan University who served as an advisor to Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2000. Today he is a visiting professor at King’s College London and a senior fellow at the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue. Klein’s books include Between Israel and Palestine: An Insider’s Account of the Geneva Initiative and Arafat and Abbas: Portraits of Leadership in a State Postponed.

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 is the general atmosphere right now in the West Bank and Gaza, both in terms of domestic issues and vis-à-vis Israel and its new government? 

There is a high concern in the Palestinian territories. The general conclusion there is that the new government will try to implement a second Nakba. That’s the word that they use. They call the new government the Nakba Government, the Return of the Nakba or Nakba Number Two.

The issue of succession is the talk of the day, or let’s say the talk of recent years, in coffee shops, in private houses and so on, because Mahmoud Abbas is aging. The reports coming out from Ramallah say that his health and mental capabilities are deteriorating. They say he has reduced his working hours, he takes long midday breaks and he leaves Ramallah for short visits abroad.

So Palestinian society is occupied with discussions about the next president, and there are different names in the air. I personally prefer discussing the type of leadership, not the name, because the person may change. For instance, Saeb Erekat, who was a favorite, passed away due to COVID. So it’s much less the person or the name than the different types of successors.

What are the types?

The first type is a successor from another movement, let’s say Hamas. Ismail Haniyeh is the leading candidate and in fact has beaten Abbas in public opinion polls for years. Or it could be Khaled Mashal, or Yahya Sinwar. Regardless, the type is from the movement that struggles with Israel, that challenges Israel, that is very different from Abbas’s Palestinian Authority (PA).

The other type is compatible. Let’s say Abbas 2.0. Here, the most relevant name is Hussein al-Sheikh. Abbas named him as the general secretary of the executive committee of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO); he’s number two in the PLO, and the PA is under the supervision and direction of the PLO. Hussein al-Sheikh was and is the person who maintained contacts with Israel, with the civil administration over everyday life.

I assume that the October 2022 Hussein al-Sheikh visit to Washington was made in order to introduce him to the American administration as perhaps the preferred next PA president. But he has to build his reputation and understanding and experience in international politics and negotiation. Negotiating with Israel over a permanent status agreement is different from negotiating over issues of daily life, like workers’ permission and so on. As I understand, Israel prefers this type, who would assure Israel the continuation of Abbas’s policy, not making too much noise about final status.

Another option is a Fatah candidate, but with a very different agenda, like the highly popular Marwan Barghouti, who is currently serving five life sentences in Israeli prison, or somebody on behalf of him with Barghouti directing from prison. He is the only Fatah candidate who can beat anyone else, including from Hamas, which Marwan enjoys very good relations with. He concluded the prisoners’ agreement inside the Israeli prison, which was a joint agreement about reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. And unlike Abbas, he enjoys open lines with Hamas so, in the public opinion, he can lead to reconciliation. Abbas rejects almost any reconciliation agreement or conclusions, largely because of the pressure coming from Israel and the United States. So Marwan Barghouti will reject such pressure, and  could lead the next stage of the national struggle for independence.

And the fourth type is the security person, like Majed Faraj, the head of the General Intelligence Services, or any other from the PA security sector. There is also Mahmoud al-Aloul, the deputy chairman of Fatah. The difference between al-Aloul and Faraj is that Faraj can bring the security apparatus to support him. Mahmoud al-Aloul is very anonymous to the public, and does not have divisions backing him inside the Palestinian establishment. Another name that is raised in the same category as al-Aloul is Jibril Rajoub.

Now, another name that is mentioned and who has made much noise and much effort is Mohammed Dahlan. But he doesn’t have any mass support, so I don’t see him as a real candidate. In my view, anyone who will succeed Abbas, even Hussein al-Sheikh, cannot stay in power for long without general elections. Arafat, with all his glory and support, ran for elections; Mahmoud Abbas was elected.

A generation ago.

Yeah, and there is no political discourse on how we move ahead towards liberation. What we have or what the Palestinians have is only Abbas’s way, which is, “Let’s pretend that we are independent, with a president and a presidential guard, and ceremonies and a flag.” It mimics independence as a kind of preparation towards real statehood.

The Palestinians don’t buy it, the international community doesn’t buy it. Actually, it is well acknowledged by international donors that the PA seniors are corrupt, but the donors are ready to finance the PA in order to keep it quiet. By quelling resistance and violence in Palestinian areas, the Palestinian Authority buys quiet in Western European capitals.

Everyone is fully aware that the institution building the PA will not lead to state building. The hope was once that foundingthe PA and PA institution-building would lead to independence within, let’s say, five years, and at that point the international community would support the state, not a corrupt PA. That’s over.

Now, another change that was made in the 21st century, and expressed by the Abraham Accords, is the position of the Arab world. As far as I understand, the Arab world basically said that the Palestinian issue is not an Arab foreign policy problem anymore; it is an Israeli domestic problem.

Is there a such a thing as a young Fatah guard?

The only young Fatah guard that is active is around Marwan Barghouti. And actually Barghouti presented a document to Abbas, I think it was maybe five years ago, on unarmed resistance led by Fatah, led by his people. He asked Abbas’s permission to go ahead with it. Abbas refused. I saw the leaked document that was rejected by Abbas. He’s afraid to lose his status.

Abbas mistrusts his people and thinks that non-violent resistance will lead very shortly to violence encouraged by Israeli reaction. Now, what last year’s experience in Jerusalem showed, is that only non-violent action brings Israel to withdraw.

It was non-violent protest in front of international media cameras, with no leadership. Like the first intifada, it was spontaneous, and all social groups were united, old and young, religious and secular, Muslim, Christian and so on. And this moved Israel to withdraw. This is very clear, but Abbas cannot lead this kind of movement, and he refuses to let others in Fatah, the young generation, the alternative leadership, take over.

Is there a popular resistance to Abbas?

Of course, there are demonstrations. Teachers demonstrate, judges demonstrate here and there. But they are small incidents within the system, not against the system. The members of the young generation that demonstrated against the system in Al-Manara Square in Ramallah were beaten heavily by the police and the security.

What happens if Abbas goes suddenly? Is there chaos?

If there is chaos and Israeli forces reoccupy the West Bank, the Israeli plan is to bring back, at least for an interim period, the military rule over municipalities and let each municipality get donations of financial support from abroad and from taxes. There would be a local administration—health, education, and so on—without an overall administration.

The Likud government is afraid that overall administration will lead to an independent state. They want local administration, but they don’t want to finance the local administration, although it is under Israeli rule indirectly. They hope that the Europeans and perhaps Americans as well will financially support the local administrations. That’s the idea. And then if there is a military governor, it can withdraw once order is restored.

Do they have the capability to maintain at least a civil society right now?

The health and education systems are functioning even under the harsh conditions of military conflict with Israel Defense Shield. They work. They work with problems, but they work. Even with COVID, they do their best and they can manage. But they are dependent on external financial support.

We have to bear in mind that the working norms of PA employees are not like Western norms. Reports that come out from people who spend some time in the West Bank say that the employees come to the office in the morning, but at one o’clock they leave for their second jobs. And it’s very easy to understand why—they get easy money from abroad.

Is there any chance that Abbas would call for elections, with a reasonable transition of power and perhaps not even run?

We were almost there in the spring of 2021, when Abbas and Hamas issued a joint document on how to manage general elections in the West Bank and Gaza and Jerusalem. He sent the document to all capitals, including Moscow and Beijing, to Western countries and so on, asking them to put pressure on Netanyahu to agree to hold elections in Jerusalem as had happened in 1996 and in 2006. Israel rejected it. There was no international response, although Hamas and others told Abbas, we have ways to bypass the Israeli refusal— let’s go for elections and we will deal with Jerusalem in other ways. Abbas rejected it. Maybe he had a mix of motivations. Perhaps he did not really want elections. Perhaps he only wanted elections in the same format as 2006 and 1996.

But since then, things have deteriorated. There is no political society or politic with which the Palestinians can build on statehood. The movement is broken. Before struggle, before moving from PA to statehood, they need a movement.

So what you’re saying is the only scenarios in which Abbas leaves are he’s forced out because he’s incapable or he dies?

And even then we don’t know. There’ll be something interim. It’s not clear how long that something would hold, nor how much legitimacy it’ll have in the Arab streets. And then there will need to be elections, which Israel will agree to, assuming that the candidate Israel prefers will win. That’s the only way that Israel will agree that Palestinians have elections. That’s it.

The tragedy is that Israel has no historical perspective. Israel does not look at other countries, other areas’ history, and instead hopes that the present will hold in one way or another—with Abbas, with his successor—forever. I doubt it. Because history shows that colonialism, imperialism, and occupation always end eventually. The occupied resist.

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