Meet the next Palestinian president
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Meet the next Palestinian president

Marwan Barghouti, jailed in Israel for murder and deep in plans with Hamas to 'non-violently' free Palestine, is the people's choice to succeed Mahmoud Abbas. This would not be good news for Israel

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

A poster at Al-Quds University in the West Bank city of Jenin shows, from left, Yasser Arafat, jailed Palestinian Marwan Barghouti and Mahmoud Abbas and reads: "Going to Jerusalem". (AP /Mohammed Ballas)
A poster at Al-Quds University in the West Bank city of Jenin shows, from left, Yasser Arafat, jailed Palestinian Marwan Barghouti and Mahmoud Abbas and reads: "Going to Jerusalem". (AP /Mohammed Ballas)

What conclusions should we draw from the plans for a new “nonviolent” intifada campaign to “free Palestine,” conceived for the post-Mahmoud Abbas era by Marwan Barghouti and his associates together with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and reported earlier this week by The Times of Israel?

From the Hasharon Prison where he is serving five life terms for his role in Second Intifada murders, Barghouti, the Fatah Tanzim leader who anticipates succeeding Palestinian Authority President Abbas, has reached understandings with Hamas’s leadership abroad in recent weeks about coordinating a struggle against the Israeli occupation, forcing Israel back to the pre-1967 lines, ending the Oslo Accords and reversing Palestinian recognition of Israel.

The ostensible idea is for a nonviolent struggle, to include marches and sit-ins and other acts of resistance, without terror attacks or shooting. As we have long been aware, however, the Middle East, like any other battlefield, is a “realm of uncertainty.” So with all due respect to the talk of nonviolence and whether or not such talk is genuinely meant, an intifada — any intifada — is a law unto itself.

Clearly, the day after Abbas leaves office will be a much gloomier day for Israel. We may well end up missing the rais, however troubling his hierarchy’s ongoing incitement against Israel, simply because, in principle, he supports talks with Israel and opposes terror attacks and intifadas.

Palestinian Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti is escorted by Israeli police into Jerusalem's Magistrate Court to testify as part of a US civil lawsuit against the Palestinian leadership, in January 2012. Barghouti was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2002 for organizing murderous anti-Israeli attacks during the second intifada (photo credit: Flash90)
Palestinian Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti is escorted by Israeli police into Jerusalem’s Magistrate Court to testify as part of a US civil lawsuit against the Palestinian leadership, in January 2012. Barghouti was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2002 for organizing murderous anti-Israeli attacks during the Second Intifada (Flash90)

 

 

If Barghouti does indeed take over, we may miss Abbas even more, especially as the convicted and jailed killer is planning intensively for his succession, and right now it does not seem that anyone is going to seriously challenge him.

Barghouti was arrested 14 years ago this month in the home of his friend Ziad Abu Ein (who later died of a heart attack at an anti-Israel demonstration). Since then, although imprisoned in Israel — indeed, partly because he is imprisoned in Israel — Barghouti has become the most popular Palestinian leader in the West Bank and Gaza. He has already declared his intention to run in any presidential election, and if such elections are held, his chances of winning are excellent.

Israeli officials, and perhaps also the Hamas leadership in Gaza, may want to prevent such elections — and there is potential for argument, confrontation and endless delay over such modalities as whether such a vote would extend to East Jerusalemites. But in light of the bleak political reality and the backing Barghouti enjoys from Hamas’s leadership abroad as well, there could be such widespread support for Barghouti as to prompt the Palestinians to hold elections even without Jerusalem; almost anything, just to get him elected.

Would Israel try to prevent such elections at the risk of nasty conflict with the international community and the Palestinian public alike? Probably not.

A Palestinian Mandela?

In the interim, Barghouti’s associates have nominated him as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, with the help of Nobel laureates from Argentina and Tunisia, and are trying to brand him as a Palestinian Nelson Mandela. He is, of course, nothing of the sort. He was an integral supporter and orchestrator of the armed Second Intifada, including suicide terror attacks after his comrade Raed al-Karmi was eliminated in Tulkarm in early 2002.

His new plan may declaredly focus on nonviolent protest, but he is emphatically more radical than Abbas — hence the trust Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders place in him. His ostensible preference may be for a two-state solution arrived at via talks, but unlike Abbas, he believes that if talks do not work, the next recourse must be to take action — in other words, an intifada.

US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat wave before a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the presidential compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah January 4, 2014. (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90/file)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat wave before a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the presidential compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah January 4, 2014. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

Among the obvious indications of Barghouti’s rising public status are the endorsements he has been receiving from other high-ranking Palestinian figures who are also considered possible successors to Abbas. The most prominent of them is Mohammed Dahlan, Gaza’s former Fatah strongman.

In recent years Dahlan has spun a web of political and financial connections all over the Arab world: Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and most recently Jordan. He owns a great deal of property and also has connections in Gaza and the West Bank (mainly in the refugee camps). Officials in Arab states believe for some reason that he is an expert in dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood, even though he signally failed to do so in Gaza in 2007, when Hamas easily and brutally ousted Fatah and took over the Strip.

Mohammad Dahlan in 2006 (Michal Fattal/Flash90)
Mohammad Dahlan in 2006 (Michal Fattal/Flash90)

Dahlan has endorsed Barghouti for president because he plainly recognizes the public mood, which sees Barghouti as a kind of “savior.” Likewise Saeb Erekat, who, as secretary-general of the PLO’s Executive Committee, is the formal second in command in the organization after Abbas and officially, at least, would be Abbas’s interim successor when the time comes. Erekat announced that he would support Barghouti’s presidential candidacy even before Dahlan did — again, because of an awareness of the Palestinian public mood.

What does this mean for Israel? It means a great big headache, plenty of embarrassment and perhaps international pressure to release Barghouti from prison. The idea of Israel feeling compelled to release Barghouti from prison may seem unrealistic now, but it is definitely a possible scenario in the not-too-distant future.

Abbas is staying put

For now, it should be stressed, the long-time president, battle-seasoned fox that he is, has no desire to step down.

Ten days ago Abbas announced the establishment of a “constitutional court,” supposedly a legitimate measure that will serve the Palestinian legal system faithfully. Supposedly.

The first to criticize the measure, not surprisingly, were members of Hamas, whose spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, made no attempt to hide his organization’s anger. Abu Zuhri claimed that unilaterally establishing the court was “illegitimate,” and that the measure should have been confirmed by national consensus.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah on April 11, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah on April 11, 2016. (AFP/Thomas Coex)

Why should the establishment of a constitutional court arouse such ire in Hamas, precisely when reconciliation talks between high-ranking members of Hamas and Fatah are resuming? Because such a court, loyal to Fatah, would presumably seek to pass the baton from Abbas, come the day, in a manner that would preserve Fatah’s control over the Palestinian Authority’s institutions and keep Hamas away from the centers of power.

In the immediate practical sense, the establishment of a constitutional court will also help the Palestinian president to manage and control the PA. The passage of legislation in the Palestinian Authority is meant to require the approval of parliament. But that parliament, the Palestinian Legislative Council, has not convened since Hamas’s coup in Gaza in June 2007.

When legislation of whatever sort is required from time to time, therefore, Abbas issues a “presidential order” approving the passage of “temporary” laws. The new court will be able to ratify such orders. It will also be able to lift the immunity of rebellious members of parliament — those who are considered Abbas’s rivals, particularly among supporters of Mohammed Dahlan.

And what of more critical, fundamental and central decisions relating to the Palestinian Authority’s basic laws and their interpretations? The PA has a Supreme Court in Ramallah, but there are issues connected to the basic laws that even this court is not empowered to discuss. Abbas’s new constitutional court, whose justices were sworn in before the rais in Ramallah, is now supposed to handle such matters. In the immediate post-Abbas period, this court may thus be able to make vital political decisions, at Hamas’s expense.

Palestinian parliament speaker Aziz Dweik (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
Palestinian parliament speaker Aziz Dweik of Hamas (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

Palestinian basic law states that if the president is unable to remain in office due to incapacitation (for whatever reason), the speaker of the parliament takes his place for about two months until general elections are held. In the last parliamentary elections, which took place in 2006, Hamas won by a large majority. The elected speaker of the parliament is Sheikh Aziz Dweik, a high-ranking member of Hamas. If Abbas should be unable to function any longer, his would-be heirs, therefore, would have to prevent Dweik from becoming his temporary successor.

Enter the new constitutional court. It could plausibly rule that since no parliamentary elections have been held for more than a decade, the Palestinian Legislative Council has lost its legitimacy and the PLO is the only group that can legitimately represent the Palestinians. And thus PLO chairman Abbas’s departure would not leave some of his key positions in Fatah hands and others in the hands of Hamas, but rather would see him succeeded, in all his various positions, on an interim basis at least, by Erekat.

Abbas’s decision to set up the constitutional court, therefore, might usefully be regarded as an indication that he has finally begun to the ground for the day after. Will these preparations be completed and the issue of the succession be clarified completely? We shall see.

It is highly likely that Abbas will take further measures in the near future. After all, Abbas would probably wish to be succeeded either by Erekat or by the PA’s intelligence chief Majed Faraj — and not by the unarguable people’s choice, Marwan Barghouti.

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