Mahmoud Abbad has survived four Israeli prime ministers and seven Israeli defense ministers during his 17 years as president of the Palestinian Authority, and those numbers could rise even more considering the deep crisis in which Israel’s political system is mired.
This is not to say, however, that Abbas or the authority he heads are strong. For years now he has been little more than a figurehead whose power barely projects beyond the presidential compound in Ramallah.
Abbas has learned how to turn his weakness and irrelevance into a source of strength. After all, as far as the Palestinian street is concerned, it doesn’t matter whether Abbas remains P.A. president or not, which is why the Palestinians are so apathetic and haven’t taken to the streets. Meanwhile, standing between Abbas and those who can topple him, specifically members of Hamas, is Israel, which backs Abbas completely as the “lesser of two evils,” and even a desirable partner in efforts to preserve the status quo in Judea and Samaria.
Beyond all this, the P.A. handles billions of dollars per year, some of which finds its way into the pockets of senior officials and associates.
The P.A.’s security apparatuses employ tens of thousands of people, whose families depend on its survival. Israel, too, knows that economic tranquility translates to security tranquility; hence it not only wants the P.A. to survive but to thrive.
Alongside Hamas and other enemies, however, Abbas is also in a race against time. The man is 86 years old and far from a picture of health. For years, he has avoided tapping a successor for fear of being overshadowed and pushed out, which has also ensured relative quiet in the upper echelons of the Palestinian Authority. But the years are taking their toll.
Abbas’s wavering health has signaled that the race to succeed him has begun. Currently, Hussein al-Sheikh, who was recently appointed secretary-general of the PLO, appears to be the frontrunner. Also in the race are Majed Faraj, the head of the P.A.’s General Intelligence Service; Mahmoud al-Aloul, Fatah’s deputy chairman; Abbas’s arch-nemesis Mohamed Dahlan from Gaza; and Marwan Barghouti, who is serving consecutive life sentences in Israeli prison for terrorist crimes committed during the Second Intifada.
In the meantime, the Palestinian Authority is extremely active on university campuses. While Israel allows Arab students to wave PLO flags and call for the “liberation of Palestine,” the P.A.’s security services are in Palestinian universities in Judea and Samaria, making sure no one dares raise a voice against the leader. At An-Najah University in Nablus, they even shot pro-Hamas students who demonstrated against the P.A.
The students, as befitting people their age, fall for Hamas’s slogans and rhetoric, and the terrorist group usually wins control of the various student unions. But this is exactly why the P.A. security apparatuses exist. They have also targeted demonstrations against rising living costs, which have spread to several cities in the Palestinian territories.
The situation for Palestinians under Abbas is quite bad, but the concern among the Palestinian public is that whoever comes next will be far worse. Progress on the diplomatic front with Israel isn’t on the agenda, nor is the path to building a modern, civilized state. The fear, however, is that the internal battles between Abbas’s potential successors could lead to a loss of control.
This is the scenario that needs to worry Israel. Truth be told, though, Abbas and his cohort are not part of the solution, certainly not a long-term solution to the complex reality in Judea and Samaria, but rather part of the problem. No one in Ramallah holds the key to peace—not Abbas and not any of his possible successors.
The key is in Jerusalem, in Israel’s hands. Regrettably, however, it has refused to think outside the box and seek a permanent solution to this challenge, instead preferring to continue treading water and preserve the status quo.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.