A look at the impending political turmoil after Abbas
PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is almost 86. He is now in the 17th year of his first four-year term as PA Chairman. In addition to being PA Chairman, Abbas is also the head of the PLO and the Fatah faction.
In theory, after Abbas, the PA will need to hold elections to decide who will lead the organization.
Palestinian opinion polls show that the leading candidate to replace Abbas is Marwan Barghouti, a terrorist convicted for his part in the murder of five people, who is currently serving five consecutive life sentences in an Israeli prison.
In general elections, Hamas, an internationally designated terror organization, would most probably win control of the PA.
In the absence of any real democratic culture, it is quite possible that Abbas will be replaced by one of the other Fatah leaders vying to inherit his position.
Palestinian Authority (PA) Chairman Mahmoud Abbas will be 86 years old in November. It’s far from clear who will replace him, but what is almost certain is that his departure will precipitate instability as a number of prominent figures attempt to position themselves as his successor.
This makes both short and long term planning a near impossibility when it comes to the PA, the West Bank, and by extension Gaza. The problem is further compounded by the fact that Abbas holds not one but three key roles: Chairman of the PA; Head of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO); and Head of Fatah.
In this report we will take a look at each of these roles, and how the fight for successorship in each of them is likely to impact Palestinian politics.
Abbas as the Chairman of the PA
The PA was established in 1994 pursuant to the “Oslo Peace Accords”, a generic name given to a sequence of agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) from 1993 through 1995. The preamble to the 1995 “Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip” described the PA as a “Palestinian Interim Self-Government Authority… for the Palestinian people …. for a transitional period not exceeding five years… leading to a permanent settlement based on Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.”
In practice, while the five year anticipated period ended without a permanent settlement, the PA has continued to function as the de facto Palestinian governmental structure.
To examine the question of who could potentially replace Abbas as head of the PA, Palestinian Media Watch analyzed public opinion surveys conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) since 2017. The surveys provide insight into a range of subjects regarding Palestinian society, including, among other subjects, Palestinian attitudes and preferences for the position of PA chairman and membership in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) – i.e. the PA parliament.
The surveys consistently show that the number one Palestinian choice to replace Abbas is Marwan Barghouti. Barghouti is a convicted terrorist serving five consecutive life sentences in an Israeli prison. He was convicted in 2004 by the Tel Aviv District court for heading the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade - an Israeli, US and EU designated terror organization - and for his part in the murder of five people. For Barghouti to replace Abbas, Israel’s President would have to grant a special Presidential pardon or reprieve. While Israel has released hundreds of terrorist murderers in different circumstances, a Presidential reprieve in these circumstances would be highly contentious.
In the polls, Barghouti is closely followed by Ismail Haniyyeh. Haniyyeh is the head of Hamas, which is also designated by Israel, the US and the EU as a terror organization.
Other candidates named by the Palestinians to replace Abbas include:
- Muhammad Dahlan, an ex-leader of the PA security forces in Gaza who fell out with Abbas and was later indicted by the PA, convicted in absentia for fraud and sentenced to a prison sentence);
- Yahia Sinwar, a convicted terrorist-murderer who now heads Hamas is Gaza. He was released from prison by Israel as part of the deal to secure the freedom of kidnapped Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit;
- Khaled Mashaal, another Hamas leader;
- Muhammad Shtayyeh, the current PA Prime Minister;
- Mustafa Barghouti (an independent); and
- Salam Fayyad an ex-PA PM.
While Dahlan enjoys the support of 6% of the survey participants, the others each enjoy only 2% support.
While the position of PA chairman holds executive authority, in theory, the main legislative body of the PA is supposed to be the Palestine Legislative Council (PLC). According to the PCPSR surveys, when Abbas leaves the scene and elections for the PLC are held, the PA will most likely be controlled by Hamas.
While the election of an internationally designated terror organization would appear to present a bleak picture for both the PA and the international community, the “good news” is that the PA lacks any real democratic tradition, to say it lightly.
In theory, PA law provides that the chairman of the authority is elected in general elections once every four years, and that the incumbent can only serve in the position for two terms. In practice, in the last 25 years there have only been two elections for PA chairman.
Yasser Arafat was elected in the first elections in 1996 and remained in his position until he died in 2004. Abbas was elected in 2005 and is now in the 17th year of his first four-year term.
Similarly, in PA law the PLC is also chosen via general elections. The elected members serve four-year terms. Notwithstanding the law, since the PA was created over 26 years ago there have only been two general elections for the PLC. The first elections, held in 1996, were essentially a one horse race with Fatah winning 55 of the 88 seats.
In the second elections held in 2006, Hamas won 74 of the 132 seats, and formed the government.
Despite the win, the days of the Hamas appointed government were limited. In early 2007, Abbas deposed the elected government and replaced it with a non-affiliated, so-called technocrat government. In time, that technocrat government was replaced by members of Abbas’ Fatah party.
Unhappy about being deposed, in the summer of 2007 Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip, and has ruled it ever since.
The current situation, with Hamas controlling the PA in the Gaza Strip and Fatah controlling the PA apparatus everywhere else, is unlikely to change. According to the PCPSR surveys, the vast majority Palestinians believe that even if Hamas wins the next general elections, Fatah will not relinquish its control over the areas in Judea and Samaria that are under the control of the PA, and if Fatah were to win, Hamas will not surrender its control in Gaza strip.
In December 2018, Abbas decided to dissolve the PLC which had been elected in 2006. The move was designed to ensure that Hamas would not take over the PA as an automatic function of the PA constitution.
Following their win in the 2006 elections, Hamas had appointed their representative, Aziz Al-Dweik, as speaker of the PLC. According to the PA constitution, in the event that the PA chairman dies or becomes incapacitated, the speaker of the PLC assumes his position. To avoid Dweik (and Hamas) replacing him, Abbas dissolved the PLC which at the time had not functioned for over twelve years.
At the end of 2020 the US and the European Union pressured Abbas into calling new elections for the PLC, followed by elections for the PA chairman to renew the popular legitimacy of the PA leadership. As the PLC polling day loomed and Abbas recognized the inevitable routing of his Fatah party, he preferred to indefinitely postpone the elections rather than accept the democratic choice.
According to the PCPSR poll held in June 2021, of the 36 parties which registered, only nine would have passed the electoral threshold. The polls predicted Hamas winning 36% of the vote, Abbas’ Fatah winning 19% of the vote, the list of Al- Qidwah winning 9% of the vote and the list of Dahlan winning only 3% of the vote.
While not mentioned in any of the PCPSR surveys, Majid Faraj the head of the PA General Intelligence Service, has also been mentioned as a potential successor for Abbas as PA chairman. Even though Faraj is not the classic democratic candidate, his position imbues considerable power, which could be used under the pretext of securing stability in the potentially divided ranks.
While circumventing new elections would completely contradict the goal of renewing the legitimacy of the Palestinian leadership, it is not beyond the scope of imagination that international supporters of the PA would prefer a non-democratic transfer of leadership to replace Abbas rather than risk a Hamas takeover.
Abbas as the head of the PLO
The second position Abbas holds is the Head of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Established in 1964, the PLO is a conglomerate of Palestinian factions, some of which (such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)) are internationally designated terror organizations. Since Fatah is by far the largest faction in the organization, the head of Fatah has also subsequently been appointed the head of the PLO. Abbas succeeded Yasser Arafat as the head of Fatah.
Despite the creation of the PA, which externally gives the impression of being a fully functioning governmental structure imbued with all the necessary jurisdiction, the PLO still claims to be the “sole legitimate representative” of the Palestinians.
According to the PLO, the Oslo Accords merely created an interim governing body - the PA - that functions within, and subject to, the authority of the PLO. To this day, the PLO governing body appears to make all the major decisions on behalf of the Palestinians, expecting the head of the organization, who has also functioned as the chairman of the PA, to implement the decisions made.
Hamas is not a member of the PLO, and will not bow to its supposed authority.
In practice, the PA and Fatah use the PLO as its long arm around the world. For this reason, the PA controlled by Fatah has, since 2011 through the end of 2020, transferred over 7.6 billion shekels ($2.5 billion) to the PLO. While it is unclear what has been done with most of the transferred money, some of it was used to finance US and EU designated terror organizations, such as the PFLP.
The person who heads the PLO is, to a certain extent, considered to be the representative not only for the Palestinians who live in Gaza and Judea and Samaria, but also those who live around the world.
The 1987 US Anti-Terrorism Act designated the PLO as a terror organization. While that designation remains in force, following the Oslo Accords all the US administrations allowed the PLO to maintain official offices in Washington D.C. These offices functioned, de facto, as the Palestinian embassy in the US.
The offices were closed in 2018 after the State Department concluded that the “PLO had failed to use its Washington office to engage in direct and meaningful negotiations on achieving a comprehensive peace settlement and, therefore, closing the PLO’s Washington office would serve the foreign policy interests of the United States.” [Legal opinion of the US State Department, “Statutory Restrictions on the PLO’s Washington Office”, Sept. 11, 2018]
Whereas the administration of US President Biden appears to have committed itself to reopening the PLO offices in Washington, ostensibly as the body that represents the Palestinians, the surveys of the PCPSR show declining Palestinian support for the PLO as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”. The March 2019 survey showed that only 54% of those surveyed still viewed the PLO as the “sole legitimate representative” of the Palestinians, down from 58% in June 2018 and 69% in 2006.
As Abbas is part of the “old school” of PLO leaders, simultaneously holding the position as PA chairman and Head of the PLO, under him, many of the borders between the two positions were been blurred. However, as the PA was perceived to have taken a more dominant role in representing the Palestinians on the one hand, and the popularity of Hamas grew, on the other hand, the role played by the PLO has naturally diminished, bringing into question whether this arrangement will continue.
This has implications for Washington’s policy going forward, namely: Since Hamas controls the Gaza Strip and would probably have won control of the PA too had the May elections not been cancelled, it is questionable whether the Biden administration can legitimately argue, as previous administrations claimed, that the existence of PLO offices in Washington D.C. “would advance U.S. efforts to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and that barring the PLO from engaging in these activities would interfere with U.S. diplomacy.” [Legal opinion of the US State Department, “Statutory Restrictions on the PLO’s Washington Office”, Sept. 11, 2018]
If the PLO no longer represents the Palestinians, there would, in essence, be no justification whatsoever for President Biden to invoke his executive authority to override specific US legislation in order to maintain the PLO offices in Washington D.C.
Abbas as the head of Fatah
The third position Abbas holds is the head of the Fatah faction. Established in 1959, Fatah has traditionally been the largest and most dominant Palestinian group. The head of Fatah is elected in internal party elections.
Abbas was elected head of Fatah in 2004 after the death of Yasser Arafat. Despite internal rivalries, until recently Fatah, as a faction, presented a united front that gave unqualified support for its single leader.
The façade of Fatah unity was shattered after Abbas announced that the PA would hold general elections in May 2021. While Abbas tried to unite Fatah under his leadership, division was inevitable.
With each one pulling in their own direction, three dominant Fatah leaders: Marwan Barghouti, Muhammad Dahlan and Naser Al-Qidwah (the nephew of Yasser Arafat), each considered submitting electoral lists of their own.
While Barghouti did not actually submit his own list, he refused to endorse Abbas. According to the PCPSR survey conducted shortly before the cutoff date for submitting the lists, had Barghouti submitted a list it would have enjoyed 28% support, as opposed to the 22% who would have voted for the Abbas “official Fatah list” in a head-to-head race.
Dahlan’s list enjoyed only 10% support, with support for the “official Fatah list” rising in this scenario to 29%, and Al-Qidwah’s list would only have enjoyed 7% support as opposed to 30% support for the “official Fatah list.”
Since it is possible that the split in Fatah was more reflective of diminished support for Abbas rather than a real desire to disband Fatah, the last elections held within Fatah may also provide some insight as to Abbas’ replacement as the head of Fatah. Held in 2016, the election results were as follows: 1) Marwan Barghouti 2) Jibril Rajoub 3) Muhammad Shtayyeh 4) Hussein Al-Sheikh 5) Mahmoud Al-Aloul 6) Tawfiq Tirawi. Al-Qidwah placed 11th.
Theoretically, were Abbas to leave the scene, and in the absence of a special Israeli Presidential pardon for Barghouti, Rajoub would clearly see himself as entitled to be the next leader of Fatah.
Having now filled the position of PA Prime Minister for over two years, Muhammad Shtayyeh would also, no doubt, see himself as a potential replacement for Abbas as head of Fatah.
Mahmoud Al-Aloul, would also probably stake his claim to replace Abbas. While he placed only 5th in the internal elections, in early 2017 Abbas appointed him as the deputy chairman of Fatah, a position he has filled since then.
Most recently, Hussein Al-Sheikh, the PA Head of Civil Affairs has also been reported to have considerable influence over Abbas and could be a potential successor.
The main question regarding Fatah is less concerned with the identity of the leader, but rather whether the new leader will be able to reunite the ranks of the splintered faction. A splintered Fatah will almost certainly guarantee that Hamas would win any PA general election and take over the PA.
Since the creation of the PA, the head of Fatah, who also the head of the PLO, has functioned, de jure and de facto, as the PA chairman. The rising popularity of Hamas, which resulted in its 2006 election success, was the first major sign that the Fatah and PLO hegemony was on the decline. While the international community and, to an extent, some of the Palestinians were willing to allow Abbas, personally, to maintain the semblance and charade of Palestinian unity, in practice the PA has not represented all Palestinians for over 15 years. When Abbas goes, Fatah will be divided, and the continued role of the PLO will be unclear.
When that day comes there will be two options: hold elections, or allow one of the Fatah contenders to seize control. If PA elections were held, Hamas, an internationally designated terror organization, would win, according PCPSR surveys. If PA elections are not held and one of the Fatah contenders is allowed to vanquish his opponents and seize control of the PA, that leader will objectively lack any legitimacy.
Either way, following Abbas’ departure, which will in all likelihood come soon, the PA is sure to face considerable political turmoil.