A firm grip on the reins of power does not equate with riding high in public popularity – at least not in Palestinian politics. Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), emerged from Fatah’s carefully stage-managed 63rd Congress, held in November 2016, overwhelmingly confirmed in post and greatly strengthened within his party. But just a few months later a poll of public opinion among Palestinians revealed that 77 percent of Palestinians believed that the PA was corrupt , and 65 percent wanted Abbas to resign.
Abbas’s triumph at the 63rd Congress had been complete. Having out-manoeuvered his rivals and blocked opponents supporting challengers to his position, he was unanimously re-elected leader by the 1,400 delegates.
Just a month before the Congress, Abbas’s age (then 81) and his state of health, always an issue simmering in the background, suddenly came to the boil. In 2005 and again in 2008 he had undergone cardiac catheterization, a procedure in which a thin plastic tube is inserted into an artery or vein, and then advanced into the heart chambers to diagnose and clear any blockages. On 6 October 2016 Abbas was suddenly admitted to Esteshari hospital in Ramallah for a third cardiac catheterization.
Speculation immediately flared as to whether Fatah might soon name a deputy to serve as successor or interim president if Abbas were to become incapacitated or die – and if so, who?
The first name to surface was Mohammed Dahlan, the charismatic Palestinian politician regarded by Abbas as his greatest enemy. Dahlan, 53, a protégé of Yasser Arafat and former security chief in Gaza, lives in exile in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) after Abbas expelled him from Fatah in 2011 accused of corruption and defamation. With backing from friends and supporters, Dahlan has been plotting his comeback ever since.
The Middle East Eye website asserts that Egypt, Jordan and the UAE had liaised in a plan to shunt Dahlan in as next PA president, and that Hamas was prepared to put aside its long history of hostility to Dahlan (when head of security in Gaza in 1995-2000, he’d had hundreds of Hamas members arrested for undertaking armed operations against Israel). It was also reported that the UAE had held talks with Israel about the plan to install Dahlan.
Influential backing he may have, but Dahlan does not command much support among Palestinians. The latest opinion poll reveals that only 7 percent would opt for Dahlan in a new presidential election with other candidates to choose from.
The outstandingly popular alternative to Abbas among Palestinians is Marwan Barghouti. If Abbas were out of the picture, and there were a two-horse race, Barghouti would gain 59 percent of the popular vote. As a credible candidate, however, Barghouti faces a few problems. For a start, he is currently serving multiple life terms in an Israeli jail for orchestrating, as head of the Tanzim terrorist faction, shooting attacks in which five civilians, one of them a Greek monk, were killed.
Rumors persist that he would conduct a presidential campaign from his prison cell, but it is far from certain that this would be feasible in the absence of Israel’s agreement, although since his imprisonment he has managed to be elected to Fatah’s central committee and re-elected to the PA parliament. There is no sign that Israel intends to release him, or would do so if he announced his intention to stand in a presidential election campaign. Palestinian reaction to the idea of voting for a lame duck president, confined indefinitely to a prison cell, is uncertain.
Barghouti’s nearest rival is Hamas’s new leader Ismail Haniyeh, who comes a poor second to him in the Palestinian popularity stakes, but who might be more credible as a presidential candidate since he is at least a free man. Haniyeh, as a leading figure in Hamas, has been a fierce political opponent of Abbas ever since 2007 and the fratricidal coup that led to Hamas grabbing the Gaza strip from Fatah. This in itself has raised his profile among Palestinians disillusioned with Fatah in general and Abbas in particular.
At least five other leading Palestinian figures are credible candidates to succeed Abbas, although none figure very prominently in the recent Palestinian opinion poll. The best known is perhaps Saeb Erekat, the chief PA peace negotiator for some twenty years. During that time he has become well versed in resigning in high dudgeon whenever events seem to move towards compromise and a possible accord. On his own admission he has resigned from the post of chief negotiator no less than nine times – and reversed his decision on each occasion. He is now secretary general of the PLO, thanks to the uncovering of a particular piece of treachery. When Abbas heard that Abed Rabbo, Erekat’s predecessor in office, had been plotting with Fayyad and Dahlan to oust him, the president promptly fired him. Four days later Abbas appointed Erekat in his place.
Salam Fayyad is another hopeful. An economist by training, he served as Abbas’s prime minister from 2007 to 2013, and won considerable praise from the international community for cleaning up the PA’s finances, tackling corrupt practices rife in the organization, and concentrating on developing transparent institutions of government. His economic policies were perhaps a little too transparent for Abbas, however, and in 2013 he was replaced.
Other names in the frame include Nasser al-Qudwa, a nephew of Yasser Arafat; Mohammed Ghoneim, a founder of the PLO and a powerful figure in Fatah, but himself 80; and Jibril Rajoub, a bitter rival of Dahlan, which will probably keep them both out of the top post.
And so it goes within Palestinian political circles – a perpetual battle for power. Appointments, treacherous plots against the leader, inter-contender rivalry, appointments, resignations, dismissals. Meanwhile Abbas sails serenely on, still president in the twelfth year of his four-year term, refusing to institute new presidential or parliamentary elections, and signally failing to favour, let alone appoint, a potential successor.
French King Louis XV is said to have coined the phrase: Après moi, le déluge (After me, the Flood). Abbas may be contemplating something similar.