UAE-Israel deal casts a shadow on Palestinian leaders

P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas is afraid that former Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan will return from exile with UAE backing, while Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh is looking over his shoulder at his predecessor, Khaled Mashaal.

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a meeting of the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah on May 7, 2020. Photo by Flash90.
Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a meeting of the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah on May 7, 2020. Photo by Flash90.
Oded Granot (Twitter)
Oded Granot

Supposedly, the aversion within the Palestinian camp to the normalization agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates has created a basis for cooperation between Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. In reality, however, it is forcing both of them to seek salvation outside the camp. In both cases, the “national issue” conflates with personal interest, and pertains directly to the succession battles transpiring in the background.

Abbas, after realizing he won’t be saved by the Arab League, is betting on the Turks. While he knows that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is an ardent supporter of Hamas (although their relationship has somewhat cooled as of late), from Abbas’ perspective this is less important right now.

More important to the Palestinian leader is that Turkey is a bitter rival of the UAE. Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, is a fierce critic of Erdoğan’s brand of radical political Islam, and both countries are positioned, among other issues, on opposite sides of the war currently raging over control of Libya.

Even more important to Abbas when it comes to the Turks, who threatened to recall their ambassador from the UAE in response to the normalization agreement with Israel, is their bitter enmity toward former senior P.A. official Mohammad Dahlan, who now serves as senior security adviser to bin Zayed. Erdoğan believes Dahlan was involved in the attempted coup against him four years ago, and has even put a bounty on his head. Abbas is convinced that Dahlan is doing everything in his power to succeed him.

Thus, while it’s true that Abbas is angry at the UAE for “stabbing him in the back” by normalizing relations with Israel, in his worst nightmare he sees how the new alliance between Israel and the UAE will help Dahlan return as the victor to Ramallah, after he was exiled under direct orders from Abbas.

On the Hamas side, too, the fight against the Israel-UAE deal is taking place in the shadow of a succession battle. The head of the terrorist organization’s political bureau, Haniyeh, has shuttled in recent weeks between Ankara and Beirut, where he recently met with leaders of Hezbollah. The purpose of this journey, allegedly, was to garner support for “resistance” against Israel and its normalization efforts with Gulf states, but Haniyeh is also trying to drum up support for a second term as leader of Hamas. Those elections within Hamas were supposed to have been held this summer, but were postponed until a later and still undetermined date.

Abbas is troubled by the possibility of Dahlan’s return. Haniyeh is troubled by the possibility that Khaled Mashaal, who preceded him as head of Hamas’s political bureau and is backed by Qatar, will again put his hat in the ring. On the surface, Mashaal is viewed as more militant than Haniyeh, and a better fit for leading Hamas in a conflict with Israel as the walls of isolation between Jerusalem and the Arab world crumble.

Israel is not involved in either of these internal battles, but is obviously following developments closely. Replacing Haniyeh with Mashaal or another candidate won’t fundamentally change much in terms of the approach to Israel, but replacing Abbas with someone like Dahlan, who has the ear of the crown prince if Abu Dhabi, could absolutely improve Jerusalem-Ramallah relations.

The only problem is that it’s entirely uncertain whether Dahlan is willing to replace the good life he currently enjoys in the Persian Gulf for life in Ramallah—or that if he does, anyone will be waiting for him with open arms.

Oded Granot is a journalist and international commentator on the Middle East.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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