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Analysis

‘Betrayal,’ with a personal touch: Why the PA is so angry at the Israel-UAE deal

Abbas is boiling at the bypassing of the Palestinian cause. But all his would-be successors are also seething over the return to center-stage of UAE-based pretender Mohammad Dahlan

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 flashes the V-sign as Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan looks on after their meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at his office in the West Bank town of Ramallah, December 18, 2006. (AP Photo/Kevin Frayer/File)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas flashes the V-sign as Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan looks on after their meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at his office in the West Bank town of Ramallah, December 18, 2006. (AP Photo/Kevin Frayer/File)

The Palestinian Authority is fuming, incensed at the agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. It is so angry it reminds one of a three-year-old having a tantrum, throwing himself on the floor and screaming for no real reason.

Ostensibly this should have been a wonderful week for the PA. Its number one goal in recent months – thwarting Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank – was achieved, with the help of none other than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself, backed by the Trump administration. Enormous diplomatic effort, demonstrations prepared weeks in advance, trips abroad to persuade the European Union and Arab countries — all seem to have borne fruit.

Moreover, canceling annexation should have led to a resumption of security cooperation between the PA and Israel. Up until July 1, when Netanyahu was set to move ahead with the unilateral annexation of the settlements and the Jordan Valley, the 30% of West Bank territory allocated to Israel under January’s Trump plan, all financial, security, and civil coordination between Israel and the PA had run smoothly. This was halted by the PA, to pressure Israel into calling off the annexation, which lo and behold, it did. Therefore, why not immediately renew coordination between Israel and the PA, while also welcoming the agreement between Israel and the UAE?

There are two main reasons why the Israel-UAE agreement has caused such furious reactions in Ramallah. The first is political and well-known – the loss of prestige for the Israel-Palestinian conflict: Suddenly, the UAE, which is a primary player in the Sunni Arab field, is putting its own interests before those of the Palestinians, and striding, head held high, to normalize relations with Israel. To a large extent, the PA’s reaction is reminiscent of the PLO’s affront at the Israel-Egypt peace agreement. Also, one of the regular carrots dangled before Israel in negotiations with the Palestinians is that if a peace agreement is achieved, then peace with the Sunni Arab states will soon follow. Well, that hasn’t proved to be the case. This means Israel’s already weak motivation to renew negotiations with the Palestinians now all but disappears.

Palestinians wave national flags as they protest against the United Arab Emirates’ decision to normalize ties with Israel, in the village of Turmusaya near the West Bank city of Ramallah on August 19, 2020. (Photo by JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP)

The second reason, which may carry more psychological weight, is related to Mohammad Dahlan, advisor to Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates, also known by his acronym MBZ. Dahlan is viewed by many as the nemesis of PA President Mahmoud Abbas. The Old Man, as Abbas is known among his men, views this agreement as an especially conspiratorial attempt by Dahlan to once again oust him from the presidency and, this time, also to harm the Palestinian Authority itself.

The hatred between Abbas and his former Gaza security chief and key adviser runs deep. It began at the end of 2010, when Dahlan leaked reports to Arab media alleging corruption by Abbas’s two sons, Tarek and Yasser, and rumors began circulating of his intention to stage a coup. In 2011, Dahlan, who was among the prominent contenders to succeed Abbas, was forced out of the West Bank — three years after Hamas had expelled his men from Gaza — from where he relocated to the UAE.

Palestinians in the West Bank city of Ramallah burn pictures of Emirati Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (top) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, during a demonstration against the UAE-Israeli agreement to normalize diplomatic ties, August 15, 2020. (Abbas Momani/AFP)

He has since become a close friend and advisor to MBZ and is involved in a myriad of financial projects, not only in the Gulf but throughout Europe (as a result of which, incidentally, he gained Serbian citizenship). Any Israeli businessman working in the UAE or the Persian Gulf in recent years is aware of the immense influence Dahlan wields. In an area saturated with wealthy businessmen, he is one of the wealthiest. At the same time, he has also made sure to maintain his channels of power in Gaza and the West Bank.

It’s not only Abbas and his direct associates who are attacking the agreement. All other senior Fatah officials seen as candidates to succeed Abbas in due time — the PA chief is 84 — view it as a stab in the back orchestrated by Dahlan. They too have understood that this agreement may mark Dahlan’s return to the center of the Palestinian stage. Largely struck from the list of possible heirs, he is now making a comeback — tacitly supported not only by Arab countries, but also by the Trump administration. The cards have been reshuffled.

Dahlan is still widely connected among Fatah activists in the Gaza Strip. The problem is that Fatah is almost irrelevant in Gaza, due to the dominance of Hamas and its bloody regime. No group, no matter how loyal they are to Dahlan, dares challenge Hamas there. In the West Bank, meanwhile, his situation is if anything more complex. He enjoys a certain level of support among Tanzim activists in the refugee camps, but he faces fierce competition from other senior members of Fatah, all hoping to use the Tanzim (an armed Fatah offshoot that was deeply involved in Second Intifada terrorism) to gain control of Fatah institutions for the day after Abbas.

Senior Fatah official Jibril Rajoub, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, hosts by video conference a meeting with deputy Hamas chief Saleh Arouri (on screen from Beirut) discussing Israel’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank, on July 2, 2020. (ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)

One of the first to assert and attack Dahlan’s involvement in the agreement was Jibril Rajoub, who is undoubtedly a prime candidate to succeed Abbas. The rivalry between Rajoub and Dahlan is even greater than that between Abbas and Dahlan. The two, who used to be good friends, fell out in 2002, during Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield, tackling West Bank terrorism at the height of the Second Intifada. In a move that could have been taken straight from the show House of Cards, Dahlan “deposited” Marwan Barghouti, the Tanzim chief who was trying to flee Israeli forces in those crucial hours, at the Palestinian Preventative Security Force headquarters in Bitunia.

Marwan Barghouti, file photo (Flash90)

Rajoub was then commander of the PSF, and Dahlan’s gambit was intended to lure Israel into attacking the headquarters. The IDF did indeed attack the command center, and while Barghouti himself had escaped a few hours earlier, his loyalists were forced to surrender and hand over their weapons. Dahlan immediately accused Rajoub publicly of shamefully surrendering and handing the men over to Israel. Rajoub realized exactly what had happened, and the extent of Dahlan’s duplicity; they are now mortal enemies. (Barghouti was ultimately captured, is jailed for life in Israel for involvement in multiple murders and acts of terrorism, and routinely polls as the Palestinians’ preferred choice to replace Abbas.)

Unlike Dahlan, Rajoub enjoys a very wide base of popular support, especially in the south and center of the West Bank. Hebron and Bethlehem are considered bastions of the man who grew up in Dura, in the southern Hebron Hills. He has widespread backing among the young men of Fatah, the Shabiba, and he is also gaining significant political standing, especially in light of his actions against annexation, where he has been at the forefront of Fatah’s warming relations with Hamas.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, speaks to senior Fatah official Mahmoud Al-Aloul at the tomb of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat inside the Mukataa compound, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Nov. 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Nasser Shiyoukhi)

One more competitor for Abbas’s mantle is Mahmoud al-Aloul, from Nablus, vice chairman of the Central Committee of Fatah. He has strong support in Nablus, of course, yet although his office places him in charge of the Tanzim militias, they do not all answer to him. Currently counted among his followers is Hussein al-Sheikh, head of the General Authority of Civil Affairs, whose brother was killed by Palestinian gunmen two weeks ago; and Majed Faraj, chief of General Intelligence Services.

Tawfik Tirawi, another senior member of Fatah, also insists on considering himself a candidate despite his remote prospects. Another long-time rival of Rajoub, Tirawi is focusing on generating support among the armed Tanzim activists in refugee camps such as Balata and Askar.

Each one of these senior players is now working to consolidate a support base, recruit armed activists, and of course, stockpile weapons, in preparation for the day after. And now Dahlan has re-entered the picture.

When the moment comes, will these rivals be able to work together and choose one worthy candidate to lead the Palestinians, or will we witness a disintegration of the PA amid bloody battles for leadership? How might the leadership battle and its outcome affect interactions with Hamas? Until recently, Dahlan enjoyed a good relationship with Yahya Sinwar, one of the most powerful players within Hamas, based on their childhood together in the Khan Yunis refugee camp. Then again, Jibril Rajoub’s brother, Nayef, is considered a top man in Hamas.

It’s too early to answer such questions. But they are being asked in the context of the bombshell UAE deal with Israel. And along with the outrage over the Emiratees’ purported political “betrayal,” the internal Palestinian leadership rivalries go a long way toward explaining the hysterical reaction in Ramallah to Abu Dhabi’s normalization with Jerusalem.

Mahmoud Abbas, then secretary general of the PLO’s executive committee (center) and former Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan, among other Palestinian officials praying next to the grave of Yasser Arafat, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Nov. 13, 2004. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
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