Analysis'We prefer a prisoner who is president than a president who is a prisoner'

After Abbas: It’s battle stations for the men who would be president

An exiled former close aide is openly challenging the leadership; others are moving more subtly; and the most likely candidate is behind bars

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 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)

Officially, leaders in the PA and Fatah don’t talk about it. It’s almost taboo. But Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is also chairman of both the PLO and Fatah, has no clearly mandated successor for any of these positions.

Unofficially, however, there is now a steady and growing buzz from Fatah officials who are trying to position themselves as Abbas’s potential heirs. Not a young man — he will celebrate his 79th birthday next month — he is a heavy smoker, with a history of health problems.

Health aside, for years Abbas used to threaten to step down if and when he came to the conclusion that he could no longer advance the cause of a Palestinian state. Despite this threat not being voiced for some time, it remains relevant — in the absence of any political breakthrough.

Indeed, the perennially faltering peace process, and the Seventh Fatah General Conference (where the movement’s leadership is selected) six months from now, are contributing to the Abbas succession buzz. Everyone wants to be the next president or PLO chairman, but no one has thus far managed to stand out from the pack.

Well, almost no one. The exception is Marwan Barghouti, “Prisoner No. 1,” who enjoys widespread popular support. But his incarceration in Israel, convicted of direct involvement in Second Intifada-era murders and other terrorism, gives his colleagues in the Fatah leadership a reason, or excuse, not to nominate him as their candidate to be the next president.

Increasingly extreme and bellicose statements have come from various heads of Fatah recently, stemming primarily from their desire to brand themselves as zealous combatants and patriots — and thus as credible leadership candidates. Many Palestinian commentators see this rise in rhetoric as preparation for the presidential race, which will start in earnest in the run-up to August’s Fatah conference. Until then, we can expect many extreme statements, the sort that can make the leaders of Hamas seem like a bunch of ardent Zionists.

So who is likely to emerge from the field of would-be Abbas successors?

Dahlan’s return

On Tuesday, there was a mass wedding in Gaza at which several dozen Palestinian youths held their ceremonies and celebrations together. Portraits of Abbas and his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, hung on the walls. The PA chairman recorded a special message for the event, which was funded entirely by the PA.

A week earlier, a similar ceremony was held in Jericho, with 300 grooms, again sponsored by the PA and Abbas. But it’s unlikely that the crowd knew about the machinations behind the scenes at these two events. Both initially enjoyed the patronage of Mohammad Dahlan, formerly the Fatah “prince” in Gaza, who today lives in the UAE, from where he publicly — and uniquely — challenges Abbas’s Fatah leadership.

Dahlan became a persona non grata in the last two years in the Palestinian territories for daring to criticize Abbas and his sons Yasser and Tarik. The president’s men accused him of attempting a coup, and made sure he left the area. Since his exile, it has become an open secret: Dahlan is not only trying to undermine the leadership of Abu Mazen, but is also preparing the ground for his return and, he hopes, succession.

Dahlan, 53, started life in the Khan Younis refugee camp but is considered today a very rich man, maybe even a billionaire. He enjoys close ties with the royal family in the UAE.

It was Dahlan and his staff who provided the funds to finance the mass weddings, and to provide a grant to every one of the hundreds of grooms. But Abbas’s men soon learned of the events, and decided to take over the sponsorship, financing the weddings and providing the $4,000 grant for each young couple.

This is just one small example of the Abbas-Dahlan tussling, which extends to the Abbas camp’s hounding of Dahlan’s allies within Fatah in the past two years. The president’s allies were not satisfied with the removal of “Abu Fadi,” a commander of the Preventive Security Service in Gaza. They also pursued his friends and associates, like Samir Masharawi Rashid Abu Shabak (who was tried in absentia recently on an alleged corruption scandal), who then also left the territories. Past heads of the various security apparatuses, Dahlan associates, were also removed from their positions and kicked out of Fatah.

Sufian Abu Zaida, former Fatah cabinet minister. (Photo credit: Flash90)
Sufian Abu Zaida, former Fatah cabinet minister (photo credit: Flash90)

Another highlight of the never-ending Dahlan persecution campaign took place in November of last year. One of Dahlan’s close friends, Sufian Abu Zaida, a Fatah Revolutionary Council member and former government minister, left his gym in Ramallah one morning. He discovered that his car was riddled with bullets. Abu Zaida declared that the responsibility for the act lay entirely with the Palestinian Authority.

In the past few weeks, there have been several attempts to mediate between Dahlan and Abbas, largely unsuccessful. Just recently, however, Masharawi met with two Abbas associates, Azzam al-Ahmad and the head of PA intelligence, Majid Faraj. The word was that Abbas has agreed to allow the return of Dahlan loyalists to their positions in Fatah and in the Palestinian government, but continues to rule out the possibility of Dahlan himself returning to the territories.

Abbas’s camp claims, with some justification it seems, that Dahlan has become “relentlessly subversive.” From his Abu Dhabi office, they claim, he orchestrates a well-funded campaign to weaken Abbas. And he has significant influence, they add, over the the anti-PA unrest in the refugee camps in the northern West Bank around Jenin and Nablus.

At the same time, he is investing millions of dollars, with the help of his friends in the UAE, in creating a base of support in the old refugee camps in Lebanon, as well as in the new ones created after the outbreak of the civil war in Syria.

Above all, the exiled security chief-turned-businessman is engaged in political activities fit for a head of state, they note. Only two weeks ago, he visited Cairo and met the strongman there, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. He also visited the head of Egyptian intelligence, and even met with Coptic representatives in Egypt. In the past few weeks, he has also sat down with US Secretary of State John Kerry and has addressed the European Parliament.

These are not the meetings of a successful businessman, but of someone with aspirations to become president. “The Egyptians want Dahlan back in the territories,” a Fatah official told The Times of Israel. “They know that he has the ability to affect the Gaza Strip and they need him in order to topple Hamas. Therefore, they are pressuring Abbas to reconcile with Dahlan.”

But Dahlan’s way back to the territories, and maybe someday to the presidency, will not be easy — his wealth notwithstanding. And not only because of Abbas. Dahlan has a base of support in Fatah, but continues to suffer from a poor public image, and the Palestinian street does not forget his corruption scandals in Gaza and his past command of the Preventive Security Force, which worked with Israel. He is hardly mentioned in polls that list the names of possible candidates for the presidency.

Fatah official Jibril Rajoub (Photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
Fatah official Jibril Rajoub (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

Above all, he can expect stiff resistance among the members of the Fatah Central Committee, the body that will choose Abbas’s heir in Fatah and the PLO. One of his chief political rivals is the vice president of the committee, Jibril Rajoub. “Abu Rami,” almost 62, born in the town of Dura south of Hebron, was once Dahlan’s close friend. In his youth, he spent 17 years in an Israeli prison and, like Dahlan, went to Tunis and grew close to Arafat. After his return to the West Bank, he was appointed commander of the Preventive Security Force there, making him the counterpart to Dahlan in Gaza.

They used to socialize together and were considered extremely close, at least until Operation Defensive Shield in April 2002, when the IDF moved into the West Bank to dismantle the infrastructure of Second Intifada terrorism. Immediately after the IDF occupied the headquarters of the Preventive Security Force in Bethany, Dahlan went to the media hinting that Rajoub had turned over Hamas members to Israel. Rajoub still remembers the knife Dahlan placed in his back.

With time, Rajoub also began to suspect that it was Dahlan who gave Israel information that Marwan Barghouti, Israel’s most wanted suspect, was hiding in Rajoub’s headquarters. Only hours before Barghouti was arrested, Dahlan had actually brought him to Rajoub, demanding that Barghouti be allowed to hide in his headquarters. Rajoub instructed his people to get Barghouti away from the building, but the IDF nabbed him before he could leave.

Twelve years have passed since then, and the bad blood remains. Rajoub retired from his security roles, and has gained support and strength through sports. He was appointed chairman of the Palestinian Football Federation and the Olympic Committee. He also handles reconciliation talks with Hamas in Abbas’s name, and was sent by the president to Tehran last week to discuss the sensitive relations between Iran and Hamas.

In recent years, Rajoub has toughened his tone towards Israel, attacking it at every opportunity. His prominent role in Palestinian sports, and his outspoken criticisms of Israel, have made him one of the most prominent figures in Fatah.

And yet it is unlikely Rajoub could be Abbas’s heir. He suffers from problems similar to those of Dahlan: Fatah Central Committee members are expected to torpedo his chances, and the public hasn’t forgotten his former security ties with Israel.

The Palestinian el-Sissi

All of which underlines that the leading candidate, despite his incarceration, remains Barghouti, who was arrested in 2002 and sentenced to six life sentences.

He is not expected to be released anytime soon. But if he decides to run for president, even from prison, he would win at a canter. This week, another survey was released in Ramallah indicating that he leads any other candidate, from Fatah or Hamas, by a substantial margin.

Marwan Barghouti in court in 2002 (photo credit: Flash90)
Marwan Barghouti in court in 2002 (photo credit: Flash90)

Barghouti is 55 and was born in the small village of Kobar north of Ramallah. He is not a favorite of the Fatah Central Committee, but the public loves him, both in Gaza and the West Bank. And Fatah Central Committee Support is anything but a boon.

“If the members of the Central Committee won’t back him,” Nasser Lahham, chief editor of the leading Palestinian Ma’an news site, told The Times of Israel this week, “it would actually be great for Marwan. I’ll give you an example. In the last local elections, the Central Committee decided not to allow Ghassan a-Shikaa to run as the Fatah candidate for mayor of Nablus. So he ran as an independent and won, of course. If the committee supports Marwan, it is not good for him because of Fatah’s [lousy] image.”

Lahham sounded convinced about who the successor would be. “There will be quite a few candidates. And it’s good they try. But forget it. I am telling you, the Palestinian public will not allow anyone except Marwan to be elected. Neither from the old leadership, nor from the new. Marwan is the Palestinian el-Sissi [the leading candidate in the Egyptian elections]. We prefer a prisoner who is president than a president who is a prisoner.”

As preparations gather apace for the General Conference, the Fatah leadership will apparently choose whomever Abbas prefers for the key positions, including for the post of secretary general of the Central Committee, theoretically Abbas’s successor-in-waiting in Fatah.

Evidently pushing his own candidacy, Muhammad Shtayeh, a former member of the PA negotiating team, said this week that the Palestinian Authority should become the “Resistance Authority,” a reference to the ostensible need to renew the struggle against Israel. His colleague on the committee, Tawfiq Tirawi, said that Fatah could go back to the “armed struggle” and the rifle at any time. Another member of the committee, chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, talks about the need to turn away from the talks with Israel toward unilateral moves at the UN. (Erekat, by the way, may be a compromise candidate for members of the Central Committee, since he has barely any enemies in the movement.) Not one of them speaks about peace anymore. They don’t even whisper it.

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