As Abbas blows out 83 candles, Palestinians left grasping for heir

Two bureaucrats seem to be PA president’s most likely successors as he marks birthday with health apparently on decline, but the leader-board can easily be shaken up

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 heads the Central Committee meeting on November 25, 2017. (Osama Falah/WAFA)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas heads the Central Committee meeting on November 25, 2017. (Osama Falah/WAFA)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas turned 83 on Monday, and with his health rumored to be on the decline, speculation mounted over the leadership struggle that will ensue when he is no longer in power.

Only a few days ago, the Associated Press reported that Abbas is constantly accompanied by a cardiologist due to concerns for his health.

Amid feverish buzz about what will happen on “the day after,” the Palestinian leader is continuing to work, albeit while appearing more tired and worn out than in the past.

Over the weekend, he carried out official visits in Amman, meeting, among others, with Salim Zanoun, chairman of the Palestinian National Council.

On Monday, Abbas hosted visiting French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, and meetings with other visiting dignitaries were also on his schedule.

No clear successor

Abbas has suffered for many years from heart-related medical issues, and his entourage almost always includes an ambulance. Nevertheless, perhaps due to his advanced age and perhaps as a result of the many reports about his health concerns, the question of who will replace him is rising again and creating disquiet within the Palestinian political system.

Even now, it is difficult to predict who will take over from Abbas.

Mahmoud al- Aloul, member of the Central Committee of Fatah. January 6, 2010. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

There appear to be two leading candidates from the list of possible future PA leaders — Vice Chairman of Fatah Mahmoud Aloul, and the secretary-general of the Fatah movement’s Central Committee Jibril Rajoub.

This could change overnight, however, and certainly would shift if the movement held real elections. Then, the winner would probably be Marwan Barghouti, who is jailed in Israeli prison on multiple murder convictions. But even that could change if Hamas decided to support an independent candidate like Salam Fayyad.

And then there is Fatah’s Tawfik Tirawi, who still views himself as Palestinian leader, or Abbas rival Mohammed Dahlan, who is currently in the United Arab Emirates and has support from Egypt and the UAE, but is currently considered persona non grata in the West Bank.

How the changing of the guard could unfold

According to Palestinian law, if the president of the PA is unable to continue in his role, the temporary replacement is the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, a position currently held by Aziz Duwaik.

Palestinian Football Association head Jibril Rajoub delivers a speech during the 67th FIFA Congress in the Bahraini capital Manama on May 11, 2017. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

Sixty days later, elections for a new president should be held.

However, Duwaik is a senior Hamas official, and Fatah simply will not permit him to lead. It will instead claim that since the most recent parliamentary elections were held in January 2006, and Abbas’s term officially expired in 2009, the law manifestly does not apply.

This means that if Abbas is unable to continue in his role, there is currently not even a consensus on a temporary replacement. As a result, the constitutional court set up by Abbas more than a year ago would likely decide both on the temporary and permanent apparatus. It would decide who should replace the PA president for the first 60 days — and that appointment could well stick, since there is little likelihood of holding elections in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem.

The current Israeli government would likely not allow elections to be held in East Jerusalem if Hamas candidates were taking part. And in the absence of direct elections, the same constitutional court would likely decide who would replace Abbas as president of the Palestinian Authority.

But one thing at a time.

Let’s begin with the 60-day transition period. The most likely scenario is that the court will appoint the head of the Palestinian National Council, which is the legislative body of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Zanoun, an 84-year-old Palestinian politician, currently serves in that role, but he does not reside permanently in the West Bank.

This might explain why Abbas plans to assemble the National Council at the end of the month to appoint new permanent members to the Executive Committee of the PLO — to replace those who are unable to serve due to health reasons, or those who don’t want to serve. One member, Ghassan Shakaa, died in January.

Yasser Abed Rabbo speaks to journalists in the West Bank city of Ramallah on October 16, 2014. (AFP/Abbas Momani)

There are also several people whom Abbas hopes to distance from the seats of power, such as Yasser Abed Rabbo.

The executive body has 18 members, and Abbas wants to replace at least eight of them. It is possible that he will also replace Zanoun.

This would at least give the constitutional court the ability to decide that the head of the Executive Committee would temporarily replace the PA president if necessary.

Another possibility is that the new Executive Committee will decide that Abbas himself should choose a deputy for his role as PA president (as opposed to the deputy chairman of the Palestinian Authority, which requires parliamentary approval). This would give Abbas an opening to appoint someone to his liking to succeed him. Those close to Abbas say that he recently asked members of the Executive Committee to agree on several candidates for the post of vice president, but the committee members were unwilling or unable to do so.

What about a permanent replacement? The constitutional court could decide that in the absence of elections, the head of the PLO will also be the head of the Palestinian Authority until presidential elections are held. In such a situation, the biggest party in the PLO Executive Committee is the one that would decide who will replace the president. Which means that the Fatah leadership, the central committee of the movement, would decide the next long-term temporary president.

There are also other scenarios: The head of Fatah or its candidate to become the president could be chosen by the movement’s Central Committee. However, convening the committee would take several weeks at least.

Ultimately, the most likely scenario is that the Central Committee will choose someone and the various factions of the PLO will rally around him, at least until elections are held.

Marwan Barghouti, file photo (Flash90)

Here we reach the real battle. Who will the Central Committee choose? Probably Aloul or Rajoub. They respectively won second and third place in the committee’s elections.

However, first place was won by Bargouti, who is still considered the leading candidate if open elections were to be held for PA president. But the prospects for real elections are dim.

Aloul vs. Rajoub

Both Aloul and Rajoub are in a good position. Both enjoy relative popularity among Fatah. Rajoub is favored among the younger members, primarily in the southern West Bank (he belongs to a clan from Dura, south of Hebron). Aloul’s support comes mainly from the Tanzim activists, the armed wing of Fatah in the northern West Bank (he is a resident of Nablus).

It is unclear which of the two is better placed. If the Central Committee has to choose between them it seems likely that Rajoub would win — he has the support of Hussain Sheikh, Mohammad Shtayyeh and others. Most of the district governors are close to him and in the past were his officers when he served as head of the Preventive Security Force in the West Bank. Rajoub also gained popularity as chairman of the Palestinian Football (soccer) Association and chairman of the Palestinian Olympic Committee.

On the other hand, Aloul is considered a person with strong connections to armed forces in Nablus, and in the biggest Palestinian refugee camps including Balata and Askar. In an almost suspicious manner, those who maintain close ties with him receive weapons and funding.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Saeb Erekat in Jerusalem, April 2012. Netanyahu aide Yitzhak Molcho is at left, and PA security chief Majed Faraj is at second left. (Amos Ben Gershom /GPO/Flash90)

Aloul has another major advantage: According to Fatah officials, the head of general intelligence in the West Bank, General Majed Faraj, who is considered the “Palestinian security minister,” supports him among the Fatah rivals.

While Faraj himself has been described by various media outlets as a candidate to succeed Abbas, it is not clear that this is really the case. For one thing, Faraj is not a member of the Central Committee, so cannot be chosen to become the head of Fatah. For another, like Abbas, he also suffers from heart trouble.

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