Replacing Mahmoud Abbas: Issues and Likely Candidates

Speculation has been rampant in the Palestinian, Arab, and international press about succession to Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, who is getting older and in poor health. The passing of the mandate of leading the Palestinian people at this critical juncture is complicated by the myriad issues facing Palestinian society and its relations with Israel, in addition to the regional and international environments. Many able Palestinians are in consideration as successors to Abbas, who took over the PA and the Palestine Liberation Organization after the death of former President Yasser Arafat in 2004.

Cognizant of the importance of the succession as a seminal historic event for the Palestinians, Abbas has instituted some changes within Fatah, the PA, and the PLO to ensure that his allies are well positioned within those institutions to continue his legacy. The seventh Fatah Congress in November 2016 was a seminal event that consolidated Abbas’s leadership and possibly completely eliminated the influence of his former ally Mohammad Dahlan. The previous April, Abbas ordered the establishment of a Constitutional Court and appointed all of its nine judges.

More recently, the Fatah Revolutionary Council passed a resolution that stated that if Abbas were to become incapacitated, his vice chairman, Mahmoud al-Aloul, would replace him for 60 days as chairman, until elections could be organized. The election of a new PA president would fall to the PLO Central Committee and not as dictated by the Basic Law, which states that the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council—currently Dr. Aziz Dweik, a Hamas member—would become the interim president. Therefore, Hamas would be sidelined in the future succession process.

What Do the Palestinians Want in a New Leader?

Developments in Palestinian life and politics, specifically over the last two decades, have made clear some important characteristics and qualifications for a new leader:

  • A Break from Mahmoud Abbas and What He Represents

    A recent opinion poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Research showed that more than 60 percent of Palestinians want Abbas to resign and a majority opposes his domestic policies. Palestinians are tired of Abbas, his people, and his legacy. To Palestinians, the Oslo Peace Accords failed to bring peace and Abbas’s successor needs to be a bold visionary and propose a new approach. By the same token, security cooperation with Israel is, at best, a necessary evil to maintain relative order and internal security and, at worst, an outright collaboration with the enemy.

  • Emphasis on Intra-Palestinian Politics and Reconciliation

    Abbas has marginalized the various Palestinian political factions, including those who are members of the PLO—the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The new leader has to be able to bring together the various Palestinian political parties, or at least, to have a working relationship with them. This inclusiveness should include Hamas as a recognized political party within the confines of the Palestinian constitution. Reconciliation with the organization is a must, and Hamas should be incorporated within the PLO and cannot be isolated. Furthermore, Palestinians reject Abbas’s attempts to isolate Gaza by withholding salaries from civil servants there and cutting off electricity.

  • Fairness and Justice for Palestinian Refugees

    Any successor should have strong ties to Palestinian refugees, particularly those in the Arab countries. The person should have their interests at heart and should be dedicated to finding a fair and just resolution to the Palestinian refugee problem.

Finally, the new leader should be strong and decisive, concentrate on fighting corruption, and command respect in dealing with regional states and international actors.

Seven Possible Candidates to Succeed Abbas

Based on extensive research and interviews, there are seven possible candidates vying to become the new president of the Palestinian Authority, and most likely, in turn, the new chairman of the PLO. They are previewed here, in no particular order, with a brief description of their qualifications and political history.

1. Rami Hamdallah

Rami Hamdallah is the current prime minister under Abbas. In this capacity, he controls the PA’s resources, which provides him with an advantage over other candidates, especially among security chiefs and their subordinates as well as civil servants who want to ensure that their salaries get paid without interruption. If he succeeds Abbas, he could provide continuity, and from Israel’s perspective, relative stability. He is aligned with General Majid Faraj, head of the General Intelligence Services.

However, Hamdallah has no popular support and he is considered too close to Abbas. Despite his closeness to General Faraj, the latter is hoping to succeed Abbas himself; how the two would work out their conflicting goals has yet to play out. He is strongly opposed by Jibril Rajoub, another contender for the succession.

2. Nasser al-Qudwa

Nasser al-Qudwa, Yasser Arafat’s nephew, served as the PLO’s Representative to the United Nations and later as a foreign minister in the PA. He is a highly respected diplomat and is known as a level-headed politician. Following Donald Trump’s declaration to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, al-Qudwa stated that any Palestinian protests should be “in a peaceful and an unarmed, sustainable way …” His moderate stance is one reason why he is favored by a number of countries.

It is of interest to note that, at one point, he was an ally of Muhammad Dahlan, another contender to succeed Abbas. It is possible that the alliance with Dahlan could be revived should the latter win the battle of succession.

3. Mahmoud al-Aloul

In the last few months, Mahmoud al-Aloul’s status was elevated following his election by the Fatah Revolutionary Council. In the event Abbas becomes incapacitated, al-Aloul would replace him as chairman of Fatah for 60 days, while elections were being organized. The PLO Central Committee, on the other hand, would select a new PA president.

Unlike Abbas, he is a skeptic of the peace process and is more “connected” to the people, even though he is not considered to have a national profile. He has urged Palestinians to take to the streets, and this resonates with the majority of Palestinians who are increasingly dissatisfied with Abbas’s priority of maintaining security cooperation with Israel over allowing Palestinians to demonstrate in the streets.

He distrusts Hamas and endorses a one-state solution, a position that is a nonstarter as far as Israel and the United States are concerned. Nonetheless, al-Aloul is not expected to rock the boat and will not depart from the status quo, even though he is considered a hawk within Fatah.

It is reported that Abbas expressed to associates that he wants al-Aloul to become chairman of Fatah which, of course, does not necessarily mean—nor does it guarantee—that he would be president of the Palestinian Authority.

4. Marwan Barghouti

According to a 2018 public opinion poll, and in a race between Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas and Marwan Barghouti, the latter would secure 55 percent of Palestinian votes.

The issue is that Barghouti has spent years in Israeli jails and is serving five consecutive life sentences for his involvement in armed attacks against Israelis during the second intifada, between 2001 and 2005. Barghouti has called for an end to security cooperation with Israel and is considered a radical choice for a leader. Realistically, it is highly unlikely that Israel would release Barghouti from prison. His release would not serve its interests in any way. As such, talk of his candidacy may be a moot point.

5. Majed Faraj

General Majid Faraj is the head of the Intelligence Services and is reportedly Abbas’s preferred candidate as his successor as president of the Palestinian Authority. He has the advantage of commanding the 70,000 Palestinian security forces in the West Bank. In reality, the loyalty of those forces is said to be divided among supporters of Jibril Rajoub, Rami Hamdallah, and Muhammad Dahlan, all potential presidential contenders.

From Israel’s perspective, he has been successful in waging a preemptive war against “Palestinian terrorism” aimed at Israel and those opposed to Abbas. On the other hand, he has been viewed by Palestinians as Israel’s instrument of oppression.

The United States considers Faraj as the one most likely to continue the security cooperation with Israel, and thereby, to maintain stability once Abbas is gone. It is reported that Faraj visited the United States a few months ago, at the time when Abbas had boycotted any official Palestinian contacts with the Trump Administration over its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Faraj’s visit to Washington, DC, during which he met with the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, may have been intended to secure American support for his candidacy to replace Abbas as president of the PA. However, a moderate stance toward Israel is unlikely to be viewed as garnering a political advantage within the West Bank and, certainly, Gaza.

Faraj is seen as an extension of Abbas and is vehemently anti-Hamas. None of the regional Arab powers view him with favor. In addition, he has a phenomenal enemy in Jibril Rajoub—Faraj used to work under Rajoub’s command.

6. Jibril Rajoub

Jibril Rajoub is the secretary-general of Fatah and the former head of the Preventive Security Services in the West Bank. He is known to be outspoken and brash and once compared Israeli policies in the West Bank to Nazi Germany.

His power base is in the Hebron area and he has loyal troops within the Palestinian security forces, many of whom he recruited and promoted. His position as the president of the Palestinian Football Association has allowed him to be close to the young generation of Palestinians, endearing himself to them and recruiting them to his side. He is not afraid to take unpopular stands.

There is speculation that he may allied himself with Qatar, even though he is ardently anti-Hamas. In February 2018, he attacked Egypt publicly for supporting Dahlan’s candidacy to replace Abbas, and as a result, when he landed in Egypt to attend a conference, he was immediately turned back.

He is willing to bury the hatchet with the former intelligence chief Tawfik Tirawi to oppose the candidacies of Hamdallah, Faraj, and al-Aloul. Grant Rumley, author of a biography on Mahmoud Abbas, said in January 2017 that “if Abbas didn’t wake up tomorrow, the person in the strongest position to succeed him right now is Jibril Rajoub.”

In terms of the peace process, Rajoub has no new vision to offer other than what Abbas and his cohorts have been working on. The ascendance of Rajoub would mean the same old policies but with a different style.

7. Muhammad Dahlan

Muhammad Dahlan is the only candidate who is no longer a member of Fatah. He is also the only candidate who is no longer residing in the West Bank after his fallout with Abbas in 2011. Dahlan was head of the Preventive Security Forces in Gaza until his forces were ousted by Hamas in 2007. He had accused Abbas of being a weak and corrupt leader. Abbas, in turn, engineered charges against Dahlan and his followers, which led to their ouster from Fatah and forced many of them into exile. Dahlan ended up residing in Abu Dhabi.

Dahlan is the anti-establishment candidate. He is considered the most formidable enemy of the existing Fatah power structure in the Palestinian territories. He is bitterly opposed by al-Aloul, Rajoub, Hamdallah, and Faraj.

Dahlan is younger than the other candidates (he was born in 1961). He is charismatic and has the credentials of a political leader. Born in the Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza, he spent time in Israeli jails, and between 1981 and 1986, he was arrested no less than 11 times. As head of the security forces in Gaza, he ruled with an iron fist.

While in exile, Dahlan reconciled with Hamas and has been able to establish a strong working relationship with the movement. In February 2018, Khalil al-Hayya, a member of the Hamas political bureau stated that “Dahlan is a major Palestinian figure. His stance is clear regarding reconciliation, and we thank him for his steadfastness for the Gaza Strip.” As such, he seems to be the only candidate who is acceptable to Hamas should he run for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority.

Dahlan is probably the candidate most inclined to enter peace negotiations under a regional umbrella due to the political and financial support he garners from the Arab Quartet (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt). On the one hand, the UAE and Saudi Arabia would be willing to provide the Palestinians under Dahlan with funds necessary to support the establishment of a Palestinian state. On the other hand, with Dahlan in power, Egypt would provide him with political cover and cooperate closely to rebuild Gaza. Jordan has conditioned its support of Dahlan to his acceptance of Amman’s continued role as the custodian of the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem. In return, Jordan would become the West Bank’s gateway to the world in lieu of Israel and the choking restrictions it imposes on the Palestinians.

Among Palestinians, Dahlan enjoys considerable support among those living in Gaza, Lebanon, and Jordan. And, through his alliance with Hamas, Dahlan would be expected to garner significant support in the West Bank.

Both Israel and the United States have had dealings with Dahlan in his past roles in the Palestinian Authority. He is known to be a pragmatist and will not shy away from making difficult decisions for the benefit of the Palestinian people.

Obstacles Ahead

Despite this slate of candidates who might replace Abbas, no one should assume that the transition will be easy. In fact, it is feared that the transition will be fraught with unpredictability, political paralysis, fierce competition, significant outside influence, and possible violence among the contenders.

Even if interested parties agree to hold free elections in the West Bank and Gaza, it is possible that Hamas might be blocked from participating in the West Bank, which, in turn, might force Hamas to place restrictions on Fatah candidates running in Gaza. However, a Hamas-Dahlan alliance under the banner of a new party might be the way around Fatah and international objections to Hamas’s involvement in those elections.

Even then, polls have indicated that should Hamas participate in elections in the West Bank (even under Dahlan’s umbrella), they could make significant gains, which could propel Dahlan into the presidency of the Palestinian Authority. To further complicate things, Israel could also throw another stumbling block by preventing Palestinians in East Jerusalem from voting.

Bishara Bahbah was a member of the Palestinian delegation to the Peace Talks on Arms Control and Regional Security. He taught at Harvard University and was the associate director of its Kennedy School’s Institute for Social and Economic Policy in the Middle East.

This article was first published on June 27, 2018 by Arab America. It is republished here with the author’s permission.