The beginning of the end of the Abbas era
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AnalysisCould it be back to the future with Ahmed Qurei?

The beginning of the end of the Abbas era

A rise in terrorism, and internal Palestinian violence, underline the growing instability in the West Bank -- and the sense of an imminent leadership change

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.

President of the Palestinian National Authority Mahmoud Abbas addresses the media at the European Union Commission headquarters in Brussels on June 22, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / THIERRY CHARLIER)
President of the Palestinian National Authority Mahmoud Abbas addresses the media at the European Union Commission headquarters in Brussels on June 22, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / THIERRY CHARLIER)

Here is a name that most of us have not heard in quite a while: Ahmed Qurei, also known as Abu Alaa. However improbably, he is currently the hottest of the possible successors to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen).

Abu Alaa, a former PA prime minister (2003-6), is not even a member of Fatah’s leadership — its Central Committee. Yet he is widely touted in Ramallah as a temporary appointee (the operative word here being “temporary”), acceptable to the upper echelon of Fatah and the PLO. One of his key advantages: He’ll turn 80 in March (Abbas is 81), and wouldn’t likely fill the post for long, enabling a longer-term leader to emerge from the still mostly covert battles over the succession that Fatah’s highest-ranking members are waging.

Formally, if the Palestinian president should be unable to continue in office, the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council (parliament) is supposed to take his place for 60 days until general elections are held. But the speaker of the parliament is Sheikh Aziz Dweik, a member of Hamas. Formally, for that matter, parliament is supposed to confirm the speaker’s appointment to office every year. But parliament has not actually convened for nine years.

These little hiccups have produced an alternative plan: With the speaker a non-starter to fill in for Abbas, the thinking in Ramallah right now is that the PLO chairman could hold the fort until elections are held. (Which could be a very long time, since Israel would almost certainly oppose both Hamas participation in elections and any voting in East Jerusalem, without either of which the Palestinians would probably not go ahead.)

Who is the current PLO chairman? Well, that would be Abbas, kind of. He actually announced his resignation from the post last summer.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas attends a Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) executive committee meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, August 22, 2015 (Flash90)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas attends a Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) executive committee meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, August 22, 2015 (Flash90)

How is a new PLO chairman chosen? The 22-strong PLO Executive Committee (the highest-ranking, and smallest, leadership group) could hold a vote, electing its preferred candidate by a simple majority. Fatah’s Central Committee might also choose its preferred candidate, most likely one of its own members, and submit the choice to the PLO Executive Committee. Or the approximately 120-strong PLO Central Council, which ranks just below the PLO Executive Committee, could choose the chairman.

If the Constitutional Court recently established by Abbas determines that the choice of chairman must be made by the PLO Central Council, this would probably trigger some bitter infighting in Fatah. It is one thing to win a majority in Fatah’s Central Committee, quite another in the larger PLO Central Council.

The way things look right now, rivalries within Fatah’s Central Committee are so deep as to make it impossible for a consensus candidate to emerge. Everybody is competing against everybody else, and everybody wants to keep Marwan Barghouti (jailed by Israel for his involvement in Second Intifada murders), the most popular would-be successor, out of the race.

Former Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia gestures as he speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in his office in Abu Dis, near Jerusalem, Monday, April 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
Former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei gestures as he speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in his office in Abu Dis, near Jerusalem, Monday, April 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

One man whose name has been mentioned more than once as a potential compromise candidate is Nasser al-Kidwa, Yasser Arafat’s nephew. But it’s Qurei who is increasingly seen as the potential interim leader. Yes, Qurei was removed from Fatah’s leadership in the elections for the Central Committee at the “Sixth Convention” in 2009 — and the man who neutered him was Abbas, fearing him as a rival. But Qurei does sit on the PLO Executive Committee, and would therefore be potentially eligible.

Qurei is rightly regarded as a wily old fox — not only in negotiations with Israel, but also in everything connected with Palestinian internal politics and especially the machinations of Fatah. He follows developments in Israel closely and could dampen down some of the internal Fatah conflicts. Whether the young people of the West Bank would support him is another question entirely.

Sultan Abu al-Einein, a Fatah Central Committee official (screen capture: MEMRI, YouTube)
Sultan Abu al-Einein, a Fatah Central Committee official (screen capture: MEMRI, YouTube)

For now, the mood in the territories is reminiscent of “ASAK,” the vintage acronym Israeli soldiers use to describe the somewhat reckless atmosphere at the end of a training course. The Palestinian public, like many high-ranking members of Fatah, realize that Abbas is fast approaching his final days, and that not much is going to change as long as he remains in office. This could be why we’ve seen certain senior members of the PA and Fatah recently allowing themselves to issue particularly unpleasant and aggressive statements against Israel, such as that last week by Sultan Abu al-Einein, an odd politician from Fatah who made headlines when he promised that if he met an Israeli, he would slit his throat. Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai unsurprisingly promptly confiscated Einein’s VIP Israel-entry papers, and thus turned him into the hero of the moment for the West Bank masses.

Hence, too, the increasing number of internal shooting incidents among the Palestinians in the West Bank — all evidence of chaos or, to use the well-known Arabic term, fauda. Ramadan is always considered a dangerous month. Hunger, thirst, and the craving for a cigarette raise the levels of tension and frequently of violence. But this year, Ramadan left more people dead and wounded than average in the internal Palestinian “tusha” battles — wars between families and clans, and between armed men and members of the security services. And then of course there was the upsurge in fatal terror attacks — the Sarona killings followed by the stabbing of Hallel Ariel and the drive-by shooting of Rabbi Miki Mark.

View of the bedroom of Hallel Yaffa Ariel, 13, who was stabbed and killed in a terror attack in the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, in the West Bank on June 30, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
View of the bedroom of Hallel Yaffa Ariel, 13, who was stabbed and killed in a terror attack in the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, in the West Bank on June 30, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gun battles in the West Bank between clans (in Yabed) and between armed men and members of the security services (in Nablus) claimed the lives of five Palestinians last week alone. The Nablus incident began when armed men fired at the home of a Palestinian police officer, wounding his wife. By the time the shooting was over, two officers were dead.

Ramadan is at its end now. But signs are that the internal Palestinian instability is not going away with it. Whether or not it’s Ahmed Qurei who emerges from the bickering Palestinian leadership, the beginning of the post-Abbas era seems close at hand.

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