Palestinian Authority leader 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 P.A., the West Bank, and by extension, the Gaza Strip.
The problem is further compounded by the fact that Abbas holds not one but three key roles: chairman of the P.A., 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 is likely to impact Palestinian politics.
Abbas as chairman of the P.A.
The Palestinian Authority was established in 1994 pursuant to the “Oslo Peace Accords,” a generic name given to a sequence of agreements signed between Israel and the PLO from 1993 through 1995. The preamble to the 1995 “Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip” described the P.A. 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, though the five-year period ended without a permanent settlement, the P.A. 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 P.A., 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 regarding the P.A. chairmanship and membership in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC)—i.e., the P.A. 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-, U.S.- and E.U.-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 him a special presidential pardon or reprieve. While Israel has released hundreds of terrorist murderers in various circumstances, a presidential reprieve for Barghouti would be highly contentious.
In the polls, Barghouti is closely followed by Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas—also designated by Israel, the United States and the European Union as a terrorist organization.
Other candidates named by the Palestinians to replace Abbas include:
• Muhammad Dahlan, an ex-leader of the P.A. security forces in Gaza who fell out with Abbas and was later indicted by the P.A., convicted in absentia for fraud and sentenced to prison;
• Yahya Sinwar, a convicted terrorist and murderer who now heads Hamas in Gaza. He was released from prison by Israel as part of the 2011 deal to secure the freedom of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit;
• Khaled Mashaal, another Hamas leader;
• Mohammed Shtayyeh, the current P.A. prime minister;
• Mustafa Barghouti (an independent);
• Salam Fayyad, an ex-P.A. prime minister.
While Dahlan enjoys the support of six percent of the survey participants, the others each received only two percent.
While the P.A. chairman holds executive authority in theory, the P.A.’s main legislative body 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 P.A. will thus 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 P.A. and the international community, the “good news” is that, to put it lightly, the P.A. lacks any real democratic tradition.
In theory, P.A. 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 P.A. chairman.
Arafat was elected in the first elections in 1996 and remained chairman until his death in 2004. Abbas was elected in 2005 and is now in the 17th year of his first four-year term.
Similarly, in P.A. law the PLC is also chosen via general elections. The elected members serve four-year terms. Notwithstanding the law, since the P.A. was created over 26 years ago there have only been two general elections for the PLC. The first, held in 1996, was 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 numbered. 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’s Fatah faction.
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 P.A. in the Gaza Strip and Fatah controlling the P.A. apparatus everywhere else, is unlikely to change. According to the PCPSR surveys, the vast majority of 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 P.A., and that if Fatah were to win, Hamas will not surrender its control in the Gaza Strip.
In December 2018, Abbas decided to dissolve the PLC that had been elected in 2006. The move was designed to ensure that Hamas would not take over the P.A. as an automatic function of the P.A. constitution.
Following their win in the 2006 elections, Hamas had appointed their representative, Aziz al-Dweik, as speaker of the PLC. According to the P.A. constitution, in the event that the P.A. chairman dies or becomes incapacitated, the PLC speaker assumes his position. To avoid Dweik (and Hamas) replacing him, Abbas dissolved the PLC, which at the time had not functioned for over 12 years in any case.
At the end of 2020, the United States and the European Union pressured Abbas into calling new PLC elections, followed by elections for the P.A. chairmanship, to renew the popular legitimacy of the P.A. leadership. As the PLC polling day loomed and Abbas recognized the inevitable rout 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 that Hamas would win 36 percent of the vote, Fatah 19 percent, Arafat nephew Nasser al-Qidwah’s list 9 percent and Dahlan’s only 3 percent of the vote.
While not mentioned in any of the PCPSR surveys, Majid Faraj, the head of the P.A. General Intelligence Service, has also been mentioned as a potential Abbas successor. Even though Faraj is not the classic democratic candidate, his position imbues him with 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 P.A. would prefer a non-democratic transfer of leadership rather than risk a Hamas takeover.
Abbas as the head of the PLO
The second position Abbas holds is the leadership of the 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) are internationally designated terrorist organizations. Since Fatah is by far the largest faction in the organization, the head of Fatah has also been appointed the head of the PLO. Abbas succeeded Yasser Arafat as the head of Fatah.
Despite the creation of the P.A., which gives the external 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 P.A.—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 P.A. chairman, to implement the decisions made.
Hamas is not a member of the PLO, and will not bow to its supposed authority.
In practice, the P.A. and Fatah use the PLO as their long arm around the world. For this reason, the P.A. controlled by Fatah has, from 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 U.S.- and E.U.-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 of the Palestinians who live in Gaza and Judea and Samaria but also those living elsewhere around the world.
The 1987 U.S. Anti-Terrorism Act designated the PLO as a terrorist organization. While that designation remains in force, following the Oslo Accords all U.S. administrations allowed the PLO to maintain official offices in Washington, D.C. These offices functioned, de facto, as the Palestinian embassy in the United States.
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 U.S. State Department, “Statutory Restrictions on the PLO’s Washington Office,” Sept. 11, 2018.)
Whereas the administration of U.S. 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 percent of respondents still viewed the PLO as the “sole legitimate representative” of the Palestinians, down from 58 percent in June 2018 and 69 percent in 2006.
As Abbas is part of the “old school” of PLO leaders, simultaneously holding the position of P.A. chairman and head of the PLO, under him, many of the borders between the two positions have been blurred. However, as the P.A. 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, 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: Since Hamas controls the Gaza Strip and would probably have won control of the P.A., too, had the May elections not been canceled, it is questionable whether the Biden administration can legitimately argue, as previous administrations did, 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.”
If the PLO no longer represents the Palestinians, there would, in essence, be no justification whatsoever for Biden to invoke his executive authority to override specific U.S. 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 leadership of the Fatah faction. Established in 1959, Fatah (an Arabic acronym for “Palestinian National Liberation Movement”) 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 Arafat. Despite internal rivalries, until recently, Fatah, as a faction, presented a united front that gave unqualified support to its single leader.
However, the façade of Fatah unity was shattered after Abbas announced that the P.A. 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, Barghouti, Dahlan and al-Qidwah, 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 percent support, as opposed to the 22 percent who would have voted for Abbas’s “official Fatah list” in a head-to-head race.
Dahlan’s list enjoyed only 10 percent support, with support for the “official Fatah list” rising in this scenario to 29 percent, while al-Qidwah’s list would only have enjoyed seven percent support as opposed to 30 percent for the “official” 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 Fatah elections may also provide some insight as to Abbas’s replacement as the head of the faction. Held in 2016, the election results were as follows: 1. Marwan Barghouti, 2. Jibril Rajoub, the former head of the Palestinian Preventive Security Force, 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 pardon for Barghouti, Rajoub would see himself as entitled to be the next leader of Fatah.
Having now filled the position of P.A. prime minister for over two years, Shtayyeh would also, no doubt, see himself as a potential replacement for Abbas as head of Fatah.
Al-Aloul would also probably stake his claim to replace Abbas. While he placed only fifth in the internal elections, in early 2017 Abbas appointed him as the deputy chairman of Fatah, a position he has held since then.
Most recently, Al-Sheikh, the P.A. head of civil affairs, has also been reported to have considerable influence over Abbas and to also be in the running as a potential successor.
However, The main question regarding Fatah has less to do with the identity of the leader, and more to do with whether he will be able to reunite the ranks of the splintered faction. A splintered Fatah will almost certainly guarantee that Hamas will win any P.A. general election.
Since the creation of the Palestinian Authority, the head of Fatah, who is also the head of the PLO, has functioned, de jure and de facto, as the P.A. 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 to maintain the semblance and charade of Palestinian unity, in practice the P.A. 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 P.A. elections are held, Hamas, an internationally designated terrorist organization, will win, according to PCPSR surveys. If P.A. elections are not held and one of the Fatah contenders is allowed to vanquish his opponents and seize control, that leader will lack legitimacy.
Either way, following Abbas’s departure, which will in all likelihood come soon, the P.A. is sure to face considerable political turmoil.
IDF Lt. Col. (res) Maurice Hirsch is director of Legal Strategies at Palestinian Media Watch.
This article was first published by Palestinian Media Watch.