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When will Mahmoud Abbas step down?

Maurice Hirsch, Adv.  |

The sun has set on the dictatorship of Mahmoud Abbas over the Palestinian Authority and it is now just a matter of time until he leaves the scene.

While initially elected in 2005, Abbas is now in his sixteenth year of what, according to PA law, was meant to be a four-year term as PA Chairman. Since his election, Abbas has rejected or quashed any attempt to hold new elections. In January this year, under pressure from the United States and the European Union, Abbas announced that the PA would hold its first general elections since 2006. The general elections were to be followed by elections for the position of PA Chairman.

Abbas did not want to hold these elections, because he knew that his Fatah party would lose to rival Hamas – an internationally designated terror organization. After four months of maintaining the pretense that the elections would actually happen, much to the despair of the Palestinian voters, Abbas expectedly cancelled the elections. A recent poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) found that “two thirds of the [Palestinian] public believe that Abbas postponed the elections because he was worried about the results.” Only 25% of those surveyed believed Abbas’ excuse that he cancelled the elections due to the alleged Israeli refusal to allow the elections to take place in Jerusalem. [PCPSR poll published on June 15, 2021]

Responding to Abbas’ decision, and in an attempt to bolster its popularity, Hamas instigated a huge attack on Israel, firing over 4,300 missiles indiscriminately targeting Israel’s civilian population. Hamas’ violent response led to a sharp decline in popular support for the already beleaguered Abbas.

Following the Hamas aggression, the PCPSR poll found that if elections for the position of PA Chairman were held now, between Abbas and Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, Abbas would receive 27% and Haniyeh 59% of the votes, this compared to 46% for Haniyeh and 47% for Abbas three months ago.

For Abbas, the PA elections exposed not only the external danger from Hamas, but also the internal fragmentation of his own Fatah party.

Until the recent elections, the prevailing conception among those unfamiliar with internal Palestinian affairs had been to view Palestinian politics as a two horse race – Fatah versus Hamas. The preparations for the PA elections, however, showed this conception to be fundamentally flawed.

While Hamas maintained the uniformity of its ranks, Fatah, as one single political unit, fell apart, predominantly, into separate units, each claiming to represent the “real Fatah”. Aside from Abbas, the leading claimants to the title included the nephew of Yasser Arafat, Nasser Al-Qidwa, who formed an independent list and was therefore kicked out of Fatah by Abbas. The once popular leader Muhammad Dahlan, who fell out of grace with Abbas years ago, and was subsequently indicted, convicted of corruption (in absentia) and has been living abroad since. And the convicted terrorist Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five consecutive life sentences in an Israeli prison for the five people he was responsible for murdering.

Each of these contenders enjoy substantial followings that would have resulted in a split of the “Fatah” vote had the elections been held.

While Abbas technically still holds the title of the leader of Fatah, it is clear that his support, even from within his own party, is very limited.

Abbas responded to the mounting criticism and dissatisfaction with his performance in the manner any other true despot would respond - with violence.

In the last few weeks, the Abbas loyal PA Security Forces have been carrying out a concerted campaign against Abbas’ rivals and critics. The violent crackdown reached its peak (at least for now) with the arrest, beating, and death, on June 24 of an outspoken Abbas critic, Nizar Banat.

While the PA has announced it will conduct a thorough investigation of the circumstances of Banat’s death, the Palestinian street is not waiting for the predictable results of the investigation. Instead Palestinians are demonstrating, demanding that Abbas resign.

Alongside his political woes, one final point must be mentioned. At 85 (born November 1935), Abbas is the fourth oldest serving state leader (after the Queen of England, and the Presidents of Cameroon and Lebanon).

In normal circumstances, Abbas’ age, and his reported ill health, would most likely have been the most dominant factor when discussing the subject of his departure from the Palestinian political scene. However, having enjoyed the luxuries of being the PA leader for so long, and having amassed a huge fortune, both personally and for his children, for Abbas, age will never be a function or an impediment.  

Abbas holds three central roles in Palestinian politics - Head of Fatah, Head of the PLO, and Chairman of the PA. The questions now are how and when will Abbas leave? Who will replace him? And will any replacement continue to hold all three of the central positions?