Abbas succession battle could ‘collapse’ Palestinian Authority, think tank says

International Crisis Group warns aging and unpopular Palestinian leader has no successor, has hollowed out government institutions, setting stage for chaos when he vacates office

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Ramallah, West Bank, on January 31, 2023. (Ronaldo Schemidt/Pool/AFP)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Ramallah, West Bank, on January 31, 2023. (Ronaldo Schemidt/Pool/AFP)

AFP — The future battle to succeed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas could trigger “mass protest, repression” and the outright collapse of the Palestinian Authority, the International Crisis Group (ICG) said Wednesday.

The think tank released its forecast a day after the aging and increasingly unpopular 87-year-old Abbas met in Ramallah with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who urged calm amid a spike in Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Given Abbas’s age and persistent rumors about his health, speculation on his successor is common in the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority (PA) is based.

The Brussels-based ICG predicted in its report that “elections based on legal procedures” were “the least likely” outcome when Abbas vacates the presidency.

Abbas heads the PA, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Fatah, the secular political movement founded by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Abbas was elected president after Arafat died in 2004. Palestinians have had no presidential elections since despite Abbas’s term officially expiring in 2009.

The think tank’s report said Abbas, who has been unwilling to designate a successor, has also “hollowed out or disabled the institutions and procedures that would otherwise decide who will take his place.”

It is therefore “unclear who will succeed him, and by what process,” ICG said, warning of a possible “descent into mass protest, repression, violence and even the PA’s collapse.”

According to the report, any last-ditch effort to name a successor to ease a transition process “would go awry.”

Abbas has repeatedly called off plans to hold presidential polls, as recently as 2021 when he scrapped scheduled elections, blaming Israel’s refusal to allow voting in east Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as their future capital.

Palestinian students supporting the Hamas terror group wave flags as they attend a debate ahead of student council elections at Birzeit University on the outskirts of Ramallah in the West Bank, on May 17, 2022. (Abbas Momani/AFP)

Palestinian experts widely suspected Abbas backed away from the polls over fears Fatah would be trounced by Hamas, the terrorist group that controls the Gaza Strip.

While Abbas has not named a successor, he has elevated PA civil affairs minister Hussein al-Sheikh, whom he tapped for the number two spot in the PLO.

The ICG report named Sheikh and PA intelligence chief Majid Faraj as possible successors.

Though the two men hold significant power within the PA and are seen as able to work with the international community, the report noted “neither has been able to win much support in Palestinian society.”

It identified second-tier “would-be successors,” among them Palestinian Football Association chief Jibril Rajoub, prime minister Mohammed Shtayyeh and Mohammed Dahlan, a former Fatah chief and security minister exiled to the United Arab Emirates after falling out with Abbas.

“Each of these men has his own network,” the report said, but none “could stand on his own.”

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