Several senior Fatah party officials urged Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to appoint former Fatah strongman Marwan Barghouti — who is serving five life sentences for murder in an Israeli prison — as his vice president, The Times of Israel has learned. Such a move would aim to expedite Barghouti’s release and line him up to be Abbas’s eventual successor.

The issue of succession — Abbas is 78 years old — was raised at the end of September during a meeting in Ramallah of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council and the party’s Central Committee, the two most influential bodies in the hierarchy of Fatah, Abbas’s dominant faction of the PLO.

At the meeting, committee member Tawfiq Tirawi, an adviser to Abbas, took the floor to propose that Abbas appoint a vice president, and recommended Fatah Tanzim leader Barghouti (who was once a political rival of Tirawi’s) as the man for the job. Tirawi argued that Barghouti’s appointment would pave the way for his release from Israeli incarceration.

Several other senior Fatah members expressed support for Tirawi’s motion, and also demanded to know why the Palestinian Authority’s negotiating team had not demanded Barghouti’s release as a precondition for the latest round of talks with Israel, which commenced in late July.

According to individuals who were present, Abbas responded, laughing, “You can ask, but why are you interrogating me?”

Tawfiq Tirawi (screen capture: ScreenNews/YouTube)

Tawfiq Tirawi (screen capture: ScreenNews/YouTube)

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, the sources said, responded to Tirawi’s motion. Erekat said he agreed that Barghouti’s appointment as vice president would indeed help the PA exert international pressure on Israel for his release.

Abbas agreed in principle to the appointment of a deputy, if and when the Central Committee agrees upon and elects a candidate. As things stand, however, it is not thought that any candidate could gain the support of even half of the committee’s 23 members.

Barghouti is highly popular among the Palestinian public, but does not enjoy broad support from the Fatah leadership, which fears his influence and popularity. Another leader whose name has featured in headlines recently, Jibril Rajoub, is considered relatively popular compared to other Fatah elites, but also does not command the support of the Central Committee members.

Discussion of a vice president underlines the growing concern within Fatah about a successor to Abbas. The PA president has suffered from health problems in the past, and has threatened more than once to resign — though that option, for now at least, is not on the table.

According to Palestinian law, if the president of the Palestinian Authority is unable to continue serving, he is temporarily replaced by the Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council– the PA’s parliament. At present, through, most inconveniently for Fatah, the PLC speaker is a Hamas politician, Aziz Dweik.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during the 68th session of the General Assembly at United Nations headquarters on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Seth Wenig)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during the 68th session of the General Assembly at United Nations headquarters on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Seth Wenig)

Some in Fatah argue that since Dweik’s appointment was not formally renewed a year after he took office, it is no longer valid. (Hamas, for its part, argues that since Abbas’s term as PA president formally expired in January 2009, his presidency is no longer valid.) Fatah is emphatically not interested in reconvening the PLC, where Hamas holds a majority, and has no desire to raise the issue of a succession to Abbas in a forum where it is outnumbered.

Abbas holds three major titles at the moment: president of the Palestinian Authority, chairman of the PLO, and chairman of Fatah. It is possible that Fatah’s Central Committee, a sort of intermediary group between Fatah’s executive committee and the PLO’s Palestinian National Council (PNC), could select a figure who could step in as a temporary replacement for Abbas if for some reason an interim leader is required. This same body is also empowered to choose a new PLO chairman if and when necessary. As for the Fatah chairman’s role, should a new chairman be needed, the most likely scenario would see the appointment of Mohammad “Abu Maher” Ghneim, currently the general-secretary of the Central Committee as a temporary chairman until Fatah’s wider forum, the Seventh Committee, were to convene.