As West Bank storm brews, Abbas looks to groom a successor

As West Bank storm brews, Abbas looks to groom a successor

September could be a fateful month — with an escalation of violence, major changes in the Palestinian leadership, or both

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.

Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Saeb Erekat. (Uri Lenz/Flash90)
Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Saeb Erekat. (Uri Lenz/Flash90)

The good news from the West Bank in recent weeks is that the Palestinian public did not take to the streets en masse to protest against the administrative detention of hunger striker Mohammed Allaan.

Notwithstanding the endless flow of Arab MKs for photo-ops at the Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon alongside an Islamic Jihad operative (in case anyone forgot that minor fact), there was not much excitement over his cause in the Palestinian territories.

There have been rallies, yes, but those were rather limited. Even the horrific murder of a Palestinian infant and his father in the West Bank village of Duma, south of Nablus, last month did not lead to a third intifada.

This indifference of the Palestinian street comes as something of a surprise to Israeli and the Palestinian security forces, both of which warned that the murder of the Dawabsha father and his son would lead to a broad wave of popular protest.

Palestinian prisoner Mohammed Allaan (AFP)
Palestinian prisoner Mohammed Allaan (AFP)

It’s too soon to say there won’t be any backlash, though, most likely in the form of a further increase in the motivation of lone thugs, stabbers, people who use their cars as battering rams, and those who make bombs and improvised weapons from materials that can be bought at any market (such as the device hurled Wednesday at an IDF post near Bethlehem, injuring an Israeli soldier).

Understanding the indifference

One can view the increase in the number of attacks as a product of specific events; one can also take a longer view.

The indifference of the Palestinian public may be a product of desperation, but that same desperation is sparking a fire under those who wish to harm Israelis.

Young Palestinians are largely focusing on matters of livelihood and economics, but there are those who are contemplating revenge attacks and armed resistance. The impasse on the political level, the continued construction of settlements, the lack of economic horizon, all of these will probably result in more and more lone wolf-style attacks, independent and not sponsored by any organization.

But to these warnings an important qualification must be added. During a meeting this week with opposition leader Isaac Herzog, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas voiced his concern about a third intifada. Other Palestinian officials are also talking about the possibility of a single incident ultimately turning into a larger conflagration.

It could begin with a minor incident, not necessarily related to the IDF or the settlers, but to the Palestinian Authority, and from there it might transform into a broader conflict. Popular outbreaks are hard to predict.

Police stand next to a car at the scene of a ramming attack in Jerusalem, March 6, 2015. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)
Police stand next to a car at the scene of a ramming attack in Jerusalem, March 6, 2015. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

Perhaps the increase in the number of isolated attacks may also be attributed to the so-called September effect. There is a general feeling in the West Bank that something dramatic is likely to happen next month –something not necessarily related to Israel, but to internal political developments.

A convenient fog

Although it began with Israeli media reports, the possibility that Abbas will resign from his position in September very quickly turned into a heated discussion among Palestinian pundits. While Abbas’s associates deny these reports, they do hint that something significant is about to occur. The PA president’s office has not bothered to confirm or deny the reports of Abbas’s imminent resignation; perhaps the fog is convenient.

For now, it does not seem likely that Abbas will resign. He continues to engage intensively in bolstering his position in the PA and in the PLO, and seems especially concerned with defeating his enemies from within, so to speak — shutting the offices of rival politicians and officials.

After striking down Mohammad Dahlan, Yasser Abed Rabbo and Salam Fayyad, Abbas’s next target may be Jibril Rajoub, who is emerging as one of the most powerful figures in the PLO.

Abbas is also taking time to promote the person he would like to see as his eventual successor, Saeb Erekat, the secretary-general of the PLO Executive Committee and head of the (defunct) negotiating team with Israel. Erekat does not enjoy broad popular support; perhaps that is why Abbas wants him to one day lead the PLO.

At any rate, something in the sense of political stability, even within Fatah, has cracked. In a few months, the so-called seventh conference is set to convene in order to select Fatah’s new leadership and the domestic political ground is burning. Severe problems with the water supply to several cities in the West Bank in recent weeks, for example, led to a wave of demonstrations against local mayors, notably Nablus mayor Ghassan al-Skaa. Al-Skaa is a member of the PLO Executive Committee and a familiar figure in Fatah. In the last municipality elections, he ran independently and won. Suspecting that key figures in Fatah were behind the recent protests, and realizing he had lost his city council majority, he resigned.

Fatah cadres are sharpening their knives, and party tensions are expected to worsen as the seventh conference nears.

Meantime, Abbas is set to convene the Palestinian National Council of the PLO, to select members for the executive committee. No date has yet been fixed for this gathering but, again, a storm is already under way. Wednesday saw reports that half the members of the executive committee, including Abbas and al-Skaa, had submitted their resignations from the body. They will probably wait until Saturday to actually quit, after an official announcement is made on the convention of the Palestinian National Council.

Israeli defense officials are desperately seeking to dissuade Abbas from resigning as PA chief. Even the Prime Minister’s Office clearly understands that it is in Israel’s best interest that he stay.

The extraordinary announcement issued by Netanyahu’s office this week, denying any contacts with Hamas, should also be noted in this context. The denial casts a strange light on the monumental efforts of former Quartet envoy Tony Blair, who recently met with senior Hamas officials in an attempt to reach a long-term truce with Israel.

If the Prime Minister’s Office denied that Blair was acting on Israel’s behalf or with the Jewish state’s consent, then in whose name did Blair met with Khaled Mashaal?

The Palestinian Authority, for its part, insists that Israeli officials did recently meet with affiliates of Hamas in an African country. At the same time, Palestinian sources point out that Israel is conducting direct negotiations with Hamas for the release of two Israeli citizens believed to be held in Gaza, with Gershon Baskin — a negotiator in the 2011 Shalit deal — acting for Israel, and Ghazi Hamad for Hamas. According to the Palestinian sources, Israel has expressed a willingness to release Hamas prisoners who were arrested before and during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge but “who had not broken the law,” in exchange for the two Israelis. Hamas has so far refused, demanding that all prisoners be released, and thus the negotiations have not reached a breakthrough.

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