Palestinian leadership may choose Abbas’s successor, and tear itself apart
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Analysis

Palestinian leadership may choose Abbas’s successor, and tear itself apart

An imminent Fatah congress in Ramallah will shape the future of the Palestinian movement, laying bare its rivalries and its rifts

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.

Palestinian students supporting the Fatah movement wave both their national and the movement's flag during an election campaign rally for the student council at Birzeit University, near the West Bank city of Ramallah on April 26, 2016 / AFP PHOTO / ABBAS MOMANI
Palestinian students supporting the Fatah movement wave both their national and the movement's flag during an election campaign rally for the student council at Birzeit University, near the West Bank city of Ramallah on April 26, 2016 / AFP PHOTO / ABBAS MOMANI

On November 29, in the muqata’a in Ramallah, 1,400 members of Fatah will hold the organization’s Seventh General Congress in the recently opened Ahmad Shukeiri Conference Hall, which is named for the Palestine Liberation Organization’s first chairman. On the third day of the conference, they will elect Fatah’s leadership, the Central Committee, which — it seems likely — will, at some subsequent stage, decide who Mahmoud Abbas’s successor will be.

This is not as it should be. According to Palestinian law, if the president is unable to continue in the position, the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, the parliament, is supposed to stand in for him, at least until general elections are held. But the Palestinian Legislative Council has not met since 2007, and its speaker happens to be Sheikh Aziz Duwaik — a high-ranking member of Hamas. No one in Fatah plans to allow Duwaik to serve as president, not even temporarily.

It is therefore quite likely that President Abbas’s “temporary” replacement, who could become permanent, will be chosen by the PLO’s Executive Committee, the organization’s leadership. That PLO’s Executive Committee, in turn, is composed mainly of Fatah delegates. Hence the significance of the Fatah Central Committee elections: These Palestinian leaders will choose a candidate for the PLO leadership — and, for all practical purposes, for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority as well.

At this month’s congress, 18 Fatah Central Committee will be chosen. Soon afterwards, they themselves will choose four additional Fatah members to join the committee. Abbas himself, chairman of Fatah and chairman of the PLO, will also join, making a total of 23 members. They will elect a secretary-general of the Central Committee, who will be considered the acting chairman of Fatah. Whoever is chosen for this position will naturally become one of the leading candidates to be appointed Fatah’s chairman after Abbas’s departure, and to succeed him as rais.

Who, then, is likely to win the coveted post of secretary-general of the Fatah Central Committee? Who will be the members of that committee? It’s far from clear. Quite a few names are being mentioned, none of them surprising.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, and Mohammad Dahlan, left, leave a news conference in Egypt, in February 2007. (AP/Amr Nabil)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, and Mohammad Dahlan, left, leave a news conference in Egypt, in February 2007. (AP/Amr Nabil)

One thing we can say for certain is who will not be at the general conference or serve on the Central Committee: Abbas’s great rival, Mohammad Dahlan.

Indeed, one of the unstated goals of the upcoming conference is to keep Dahlan’s associates out — and it seems that Abbas has so far succeeded in doing so. He recently threw dozens of Dahlan’s supporters out of Fatah and told Egypt that he was not willing to postpone the conference — acts that have led to a severe increase in tension between Cairo and Ramallah.

The bottom line: Dahlan’s camp, and Dahlan himself, will be kept out of the assembly and out of the circle of Fatah’s decision-makers.

Dahlan, whom Abbas expelled from the Palestinian territories in early 2011, is considering how to respond. At one point, his supporters in Gaza threatened to hold their own conference in the Strip to parallel the general conference in Ramallah. But now Dahlan’s associates are quietly indicating that they are looking into the option of establishing a whole new movement. Refusing to call it a split within Fatah, they are talking of calling themselves the “original Fatah.”

If this threat should be carried out, it could constitute a historic split within Fatah. Dahlan would try to recruit prominent Fatah activists from all over the West Bank who are on his side, such as Jamal Tirawi and Jihad Tummaleh. He would also likely present it as a temporary movement, to operate until Abbas is removed from power.

But this would be a high-risk strategy for Dahlan. If Fatah’s next leader should turn out to be an ally of Abbas or a long-time rival of Dahlan’s, such as Jibril Rajoub, he could be sentencing himself to long-term exile.

The soccer chief

Jibril Rajoub, meantime, has emerged as a prominent contender in the elections for the Central Committee, and also for the position of secretary-general. The Palestinian Football Association Chairman, Rajoub has used the sport to build himself up politically in recent years, acquiring many fans among Fatah’s members. The largest number of delegates to the Ramallah conference will be coming from the Hebron sector, Rajoub’s home court. (He was born in Hebron-area Dura.)

FIFA president Sepp Blatter, right, releases a dove next to Palestine Football Association President Jibril Rajoub, during his visit to the West Bank on May 20, 2015. (AFP/ABBAS MOMANI)
FIFA president Sepp Blatter, right, releases a dove next to Palestine Football Association President Jibril Rajoub, during his visit to the West Bank on May 20, 2015. (AFP/ABBAS MOMANI)

Ex-security chief Rajoub has also allied himself with other figures who are considered highly influential in Fatah’s upper ranks, such as Mahmoud Aloul, Hussein al-Sheikh, and, some say, Palestinian intelligence chief Majid Faraj. While Faraj is not running for a seat on the Central Committee, he may still be brought on board by the Central Committee’s elected members as one of the four appointees. Former top PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat may also be appointed to one of those four positions due to his closeness to Abbas.

Another important camp in these elections is that of Marwan Barghouti, the would-be Abbas successor who is serving five life-terms in Israeli jail for orchestrating Second Intifada murders.Two of his close associates, Qadura Fares and Ahmed Ghanem, are seeking seats on the Fatah Central Committee.

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 in January 2012. Barghouti was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2002 for organizing murderous anti-Israeli attacks during the Second Intifada (photo credit: Flash90)

But the most important camp is that of Abbas himself. While it is not yet fully clear who he wants to bring into the Central Committee, several of his “recommended ones” will likely be elected, as happened at the previous congress in 2009. Erekat and Faraj are worth watching in this regard.

Several more independent figures, such as Yasser Arafat’s nephew Nasser el-Qidwa, Mohammad Shtayyeh, and Tawfik Tirawi, are also seeking Central Committee seats.

Elections for the second most important Fatah body, the Revolutionary Council, will also be held at this congress. Quite a few unknowns are running, as are journalists (how could they not?). Among them are Amira Hanania, a well-known presenter on Palestinian television, and Nasser Abu Baker, a reporter for Radio Falastin. Abu Baker, who used to maintain close ties with his Israeli colleagues, has boycotted Israeli journalists since he began nurturing his political career.

There will also be a rearguard action at the congress by the members of the old generation, such as Abbas Zaki and Zakariya Al-Agha, who are trying to keep themselves in the leadership, though they have little chance of doing so. Zaki, for example, is holding many parlor meetings and assemblies in the Hebron sector in hopes of boosting his status.

How does the Palestinian public regard this congress? With a great deal of indifference, and in some cases outright hostility. Fatah has not managed to improve its status or image in the public’s eyes over the past several years, giving rise to the demand by Barghouti’s camp to “update” its platform. Barghouti’s supporters want Fatah to issue a statement at the close of the conference in support of “resistance by peaceful methods” (al-muqawama al-silmiyya) — in other words, demonstrations.

A divorce from the Arab world

As noted, a dark cloud looms over the upcoming congress and the elections — the threat of a possible split the next day if Dahlan and his supporters should decide to form a competing movement. But Abbas and the PA have an even bigger problem than Dahlan or his emissaries in the West Bank, who have been trying to heat things up against the PA in many refugee camps.

Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (right) meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (left) in the Saudi Red Sea resort of Jeddah, on June 18, 2014. (AFP/HO/Saudi Press Agency)
Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (right) meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (left) in the Saudi Red Sea resort of Jeddah, on June 18, 2014. (AFP/HO/Saudi Press Agency)

A severe, unprecedented crisis has broken out between the Palestinian Authority and the moderate Arab world. Abbas is close to cutting off relations with the Sunni Arab states, Egypt and Saudi Arabia first among them. Cairo stands behind Dahlan and encourages his various activities. Saudi Arabia has suspended its financial aid to the PA. The United Arab Emirates is giving Dahlan official protection, and Jordan could not care less about what happens in Ramallah.

Together only with part of Fatah, Abbas, 82, stands alone, in near-isolation, against Hamas, the State of Israel, the Arab countries, and his own enemy from within — Mohammad Dahlan.

And yet there is no shortage of would-be successors.

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