Race to succeed Abbas stalled by politics, Fatah infighting
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Race to succeed Abbas stalled by politics, Fatah infighting

Palestinian Authority likely to bypass protocol in effort to exclude its rival Hamas from the selection process

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 chairs a meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee in the West Bank city of Ramallah on April 4, 2016. (Flash90)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas chairs a meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee in the West Bank city of Ramallah on April 4, 2016. (Flash90)

As Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas held diplomatic visits abroad this week, high-ranking officials in his Fatah party continued to jostle over his succession. Everyone is hoping for the job of president, as evidenced by the Ma’an news agency’s hit reality show, in which young people compete to see who can be the next Palestinian leader.

The mechanism for selecting a successor to Abbas — who is 81 years old and has indicated many times he could step down — is complicated to the point of impenetrability. He currently holds three titles: Fatah chairman, PLO chairman, and PA president. Under Palestinian law, if the PA president is unable to continue in the position, the parliament speaker must appoint an acting president to serve for 60 days. But the Palestinian parliament has not convened since 2007, and its speaker, Sheikh Aziz Duwaik, is a member of Fatah’s rival in the Gaza Strip, Hamas.

There is no possibility the upper echelons of the PA, PLO, and Fatah will allow Dweik to assume the powers of PA chairman (or the president) even for a short time. Fatah officials have claimed the parliament must ratify the position of parliament speaker every several months, and because it has not met since 2007, Dweik is no longer considered the speaker.

It seems the constitutional court that Abbas himself recently established will, when necessary, issue a ruling to this effect, paving the way to Fatah’s preferred option: that a new PLO chairman, chosen by the PLO Executive Committee, will replace Abbas as PA president. But who can be appointed to this position once Abbas retires? Since Fatah has a clear majority on the PLO Executive Committee (consisting of representatives of various Palestinian groups excluding Hamas and Islamic Jihad), whoever is appointed Fatah chairman will also be appointed acting PLO chairman and serve as the interim president. That person will also likely be the Fatah/PLO candidate in the presidential elections to be held within two months. At least, that is how it seems.

A Palestinian child stands in front of a mural of jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti at the Kalandia checkpoint between the West Bank city of Ramallah and Jerusalem. (photo credit Kobi Gideon / Flash 90)
A Palestinian child stands in front of a mural of jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti at the Qalandiya checkpoint between the West Bank city of Ramallah and Jerusalem. (Kobi Gideon/Flash 90)

And how is Fatah’s chairman chosen? Twenty-two members of Fatah’s Central Committee are tasked with selecting him from among themselves (it used to be 23, but one resigned). Only one of those 22 members is to be Fatah’s chairman.

(In other words, any high-ranking Fatah officials who are not members of the Central Committee cannot be elected to the position, except in one scenario. Once the Central Committee has chosen its candidate, it must have him approved by Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, the level beneath the Central Committee. The Revolutionary Council, which has 128 members, can disqualify the candidate and propose a candidate of its own if he receives the support of most of the council members. Although this scenario is unlikely, it is theoretically possible.)

The Central Committee has two options. It can choose a candidate from among its members according to seniority, and in that case Abbas’s successor will be Abu Maher Ghanem, who has avoided politics entirely and may not even want the position. The second and more likely option is that the candidate will be chosen by a simple majority vote. Quite a few figures see themselves as worthy contenders.

President of the Palestinian Football Federation, Major General Jibril Rajoub speaks during a press conference in Ramallah on February 12, 2014. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
President of the Palestinian Football Federation Jibril Rajoub at a press conference in Ramallah on February 12, 2014. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

These include the jailed Marwan Barghouti, who was convicted by Israeli court in 2004 for the murder of five Israelis. He is still the most popular candidate, according to polls. The question is whether anyone on Fatah’s Central Committee will support him.

Others are Jibril Rajoub, who has announced that he does not want the position; Tawfik Tirawi, who also claims not to want it; Nasser al-Kidwa, Yasser Arafat’s nephew, who recently recovered from a long illness; and Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the PLO Executive Committee. West Bank intelligence chief Majed Faraj, whose name has been mentioned more than once as a candidate, is not among the 22 elected members, but is an observer on the committee by virtue of his position. Mohammad Dahlan, who has lived in the United Arab Emirates since he was removed from his position in Fatah, is not a member of the committee either. In other words, neither Dahlan nor Faraj can be appointed successors — theoretically, at least is. In reality, it seems that if there is an agreed-upon candidate such as Faraj, the rules can be bent in his favor.

At the moment, there is no dominant, strong candidate. Rajoub is considered powerful among the public and in Fatah, and the security services’ top officials accept his leadership. Last year, Rajoub was the most popular political figure invited to high-school graduation ceremonies in the West Bank — indicating a support among younger Palestinians. But he has many rivals on the Central Committee, and it remains unclear whether he will manage to create a loyal camp among the 22 committee members.

In this January 3, 2011 photo, Fatah leader Mohammad Dahlan in his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)
In this January 3, 2011 photo, Fatah leader Mohammad Dahlan in his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

Kidwa is considered a candidate without “minions,” and with fewer connections in Palestinian political factions. But this apparent relative weakness could cause figures to rally round him and pick him as a candidate. Known mainly as a former diplomat, Kidwa has royalty status because he is the nephew of former PA president Yasser Arafat.

It seems, then, that the competition will continue even after Abbas leaves office — until the moment that the new chairman of Fatah is actually chosen.

At the end of the day, Fatah’s candidate will need to win the support of quite a few circles: Fatah, the PLO, Hamas to a certain extent (since Hamas can prevent the elections from being held in Gaza, and it is not clear whether it will field its own candidate in that case), and of course countries in the region such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. He will have to work with Israel on countless issues. And this is where another unanswered question arises: whether presidential elections are even possible. Israel will probably not allow elections to take place in East Jerusalem, certainly if Hamas or Barghouti participate in them. It is not at all certain that Hamas will allow them to be held in Gaza. And then there’s the question of whether the Palestinians will hold elections only in the West Bank, or whether they will be content with appointing a temporary president who will serve in the position until further notice, instead of for two months.

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