On 15th Anniversary of Palestinian Divide, Politicians in Ramallah Mull Elections, Succession Struggle
Whoever comes after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will have to ‘build a tougher image on Israel,’ expert says
Last week, the Arab press claimed that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was dead, and on Wednesday he failed to show up for a news conference in Ramallah. His absence from an event convened to dispel health-related rumors started a new buzz on the Palestinian street.
Abbas eventually addressed the conference by phone while his aides claimed the 86-year-old leader remains in good health, but it hardly made a difference, as many Palestinians believe that a change of power in Ramallah is imminent. Some hope the situation will get better after Abbas leaves the scene, others fear a further split of Palestinian society, but all of them confirm that there is a strong feeling of political struggle in the air.
“I’m not a representative for Israel in the Palestinian territories. We undertake the [security] coordination with Israel because this is the prelude to a political solution for ending the occupation,” Hussein al-Sheikh, a senior Palestinian official who is often seen as a possible successor to Abbas, said in an interview with the Associated Press on Monday.
These words were mostly meant for Palestinian ears, rather than for Israeli or international audiences. Experts believe it is due to his close relations with the Israeli security apparatus that Sheikh, who was recently delegated more powers by Abbas, is trying to change his “pro-Israel” image.
“Hussein al-Sheikh, just like (Palestinian General Intelligence Service head) Majed Faraj, does not enjoy any popularity on the Palestinian street, just the opposite,” Alon Eviatar, a former Israeli intelligence officer with long experience in Palestinian affairs, told The Media Line.
“Their power derives from their connections with Israel. Hussein is a classic PA type – he is perceived as corrupt and well-connected to Israel. Israel, as well as the United States, certainly knows how to work with him,” he said.
There is of course also the question of legitimacy for anyone who will come after Abbas. The others will say, ‘Who are you and what is the source of your legitimacy?’
During an interview with The Media Line last summer, Sheikh said he was not planning to run for PA president. “Abu Mazen is the best candidate now,” he said at the time, referring to Abbas by his nom de guerre.
Sheikh was not the only senior Palestinian figure to speak out over the last few days.
Mohammad Dahlan, ex-chief of the Preventive Security Service in Gaza and one of the top PA political leaders, wrote a post on his Facebook page that was dedicated to the 15th anniversary of the Hamas coup in the Gaza Strip.
“The current stage carries many internal and external threats to the Palestinian cause and people and requires national unity to confront these challenges, starting with the unity of the Fatah movement and rebuilding it on democratic foundations as a pillar of the national project,” he wrote.
The Gaza-born Dahlan was expelled from Fatah’s ruling body in 2011 on allegations of plotting against Abbas and, since 2012, he has lived in exile in the United Arab Emirates. In recent years he has kept a low media profile and statements of any kind by him are rare. His recent statement could possibly be seen as something more than an assessment of the challenges and difficulties that the Palestinian people are experiencing today.
Samer Sinjilawi, an east Jerusalem Fatah activist and chairman of the Jerusalem Development Fund, is believed to be close with Dahlan. He says there is an ongoing competition to succeed the Palestinian leader, because the vast majority of the Palestinians are keen on holding elections and there is no way to avoid it.
“Hussein al-Sheikh and Majed Faraj believe that elections are dangerous, but that’s because they know that their only source of power is Mahmoud Abbas and once he is gone they will be leaving as well,” Sinjilawi told The Media Line.
“So, they will definitely fight till the end against elections while trying to sell the Israelis and the Americans the ‘West Bank as a pillar of stability’ card. But I’m sure that when Abbas leaves the political scene, there will simply be no choice but to hold elections,” he said.
Sixteen years ago, in January 2006, Hamas surprised its rivals in Fatah as well as Israel and the George W. Bush administration by winning the PA parliamentary elections. Fifteen months later, in June 2007, Hamas carried out a coup in the Gaza Strip and took over the crossings to Israel and government offices, taking them away from PA officials and their security forces.
Some wonder whether this nightmarish scenario that frightens Israel will repeat itself in the case of future presidential or parliamentary elections.
Sinjilawi believes that while Hamas needs to be integrated into the Palestinian political system since this is the only chance to unify the Palestinians, the Islamist movement might not be interested in winning at the ballot box and governing the PA.
“They saw how hard it is in Gaza, and I believe that they’ve learned their lesson. Israel is so sure that Hamas wants to lead, but this is not the case,” he said.
Apart from Sheikh and Dahlan, who singled themselves out from the rest by issuing statements during the PA president’s time of uncertainty when many Palestinians believe that a change of leadership is inevitable, there are many others who believe they are just as entitled to succeed Abbas in his presidential palace.
Eviatar explains that Abbas’ successor might inherit all three of his positions – president of the PA, leader of Fatah and chairman of the PLO. Another option is that the three jobs could be delegated to three different people in an interim period that should lead to elections.
Palestinian Football Association and Palestine Olympic Committee head Jibril Rajoub, ex-chief of the Preventive Security Force in the West Bank, “announced in the past that he is going to run and he is getting ready, and so is [Fatah Deputy Chairman] Mahmoud Aloul, a veteran hawkish Fatah leader,” Eviatar said.
Marwan Barghouti, a former leader of Fatah’s Tanzim militia, who is serving a life sentence in an Israeli prison, is another potential candidate, according to Eviatar. “Barghouti is still very popular, but Rajoub also enjoys some popularity due to his involvement in Palestinian soccer and has support in the West Bank,” he said.
“Mohammad Dahlan is a very smart and seasoned politician. Also, he enjoys the backing of the UAE and Egypt and this is very significant, as well as the fact that he has deep pockets – money will definitely play a big role,” Eviatar added.
“And there is of course also the question of legitimacy for anyone who will come after Abbas. The others will say, ‘Who are you and what is the source of your legitimacy?’” he said.
“As a matter of fact, I believe that Israel would truly prefer that Abbas lives till he’s 200, since it’s clear that any successor will have to build a tougher image on Israel and the current stability at the West Bank might come to an end,” Eviatar said.