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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Abu Mazen: The Temporary Victor, The Permanent Loser

Abu Mazen
President Mahmoud Abbas gestures during a meeting of the Palestinian leadership to discuss the United Arab Emirates’ deal with Israel to normalise relations, in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on August 18, 2020. MOHAMAD TOROKMAN / POOL / AFP

Khaled Mahmoud

The Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), was glad enough that he had received simultaneous phone calls from Washington and Moscow in a single week.

American and Russian Phone Calls

For a man with his health condition and age, his phone ringing means that he is still the focus of international attention, especially since the escalation of tension in the occupied Palestinian territories. However, he must search for an heir to succeed him and rearrange the Palestinian leadership from within amid protests from opponents.

The Kremlin’s official statement said that Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed issues related to settlement in the Middle East with Abbas, given the escalating tensions on the West Bank of the Jordan River and East Jerusalem.

The two leaders expressed their hope that this would not turn into a major confrontation between Palestine and Israel. They also emphasised the need to re-launch a direct dialogue between the two states, in part, under the aegis of the quartet of international mediators.

The Kremlin also stated that the two presidents discussed the talks between Russia and Ukraine.

Hours after that call, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called with Abbas. According to a statement by U.S Secretary of State spokesperson, Ned Price, Blinken and Abbas talked about the increased tensions and recent violence in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, including at Jerusalem’s Haram al-Sharif, also known as Temple Mount.

In the same context, Price had announced that senior U.S. officials had communicated with Israelis, Palestinians and Arab representatives in the region, attempting to lessen the tension in Jerusalem.

Also, Washington urgently dispatched a delegation to Jordan, Israel, the West Bank and Egypt. Among the delegation were that included the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Yael Lambert and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr. The delegation discussed with senior officials from the aforementioned states reducing tensions and ending the violence in Israel, West Bank and Gaza.

Indeed, this matter relates explicitly to the unrest in the occupied territories. However, part of it also reveals that Abu Mazen is still a significant player in the Palestinian arena, even though some seek to remove him from the position he maintained since he was elected in 2005 after the late President Yasser Arafat (Abu Aammar) as president of the Palestinian Authority.

Succession

Talking about succeeding Abbas is no longer a Palestinian taboo.

With the 8th conference of Fatah’s date drawing closer, Hussein al-Sheikh and Majed Faraj are taking additional steps to control senior positions in Fatah and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. The conference was previously postponed by Abbas until the second half of May 2022, after it was scheduled to be held last March. In anticipation for Abbas’ succession, it is rumoured that al-Sheikh and Faraj have Israeli and American blessing to replace Abbas.

Abbas is an old man who previously suffered from heart problems. He heads the PLO and the Palestinian National Authority, which has limited powers of self-rule in the occupied West Bank. He also holds other leadership positions as the supreme commander of the Palestinian security services and the leader of Fatah.

Talking about succeeding him is nothing new. It echoed in the past, or rather a long time ago.

In February 2022, the Central Council of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), one of the critical entities in the Palestinian decision-making process, met for the first time in nearly four years to search for candidates to succeed 86-year-old Abbas.

Meanwhile, both Hamas and the Islamic Jihad movements require Abbas to implement reforms related to power-sharing first. The two movements accused him of not doing enough to mend Palestinian divisions.

The attempts to have the Central Council, consisting of 141 members, appoint two of Abbas’ most trusted figures (al-Sheikh and the head of the National Council Rawhi Fattouh) to two prominent positions have failed. However, these attempts practically means putting these figures on the shortlist of candidates to succeed Abbas.

Potential List

Some analysts believe that there is a long list to succeed Abu Mazen amid talks of an internal conflict.

They said that Abbas wants al-Sheikh, to be the PLO Secretary-General of the Executive Committee, to succeed the late Saeb Erekat. Al-Sheikh, a 61-year-old political veteran and currently one of the central figures in communication with Israel and the U.S., is said to have regional and international prestige.

Abbas chose Fattouh, 73-years-old, also one of his aides, to head the Palestinian National Council, the PLO’s highest decision-making entity.

However, this escalation does not necessarily mean resolving the succession battle. Information revealed that several senior Fatah officials and veterans who considered themselves potential successors were “angry” at Abbas’ decision to further enhance Sheikh and Faraj’s stances.

On the other hand, some believe that there is no consensus in the Central Committee of Fatah for this nomination. Also, there are leaks about U.S.-Israeli advice to Abbas last year not to hold any legislative or presidential elections, as he should arrange the Palestinian house to avoid any chaos related to his succession and fix the dilapidated Palestinian regime.

Meanwhile, Abbas marginalised Mahmoud Aloul, the vice president of Fatah, and Jibril Rajoub, secretary-general of Fatah’s Central Committee. He kept them out of the decision-making process of the Ramallah leadership and have not held presidential elections since 2005. However, he still bears responsibility for the current division over Hamas.

Doubts and Preconditions

Researcher Mohamed Gomaa, from Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, believes that there is uncertainty about the dilemma of Abbas’ succession. This is because there is no deputy who everyone recognises for his merit and eligibility to lead the Palestinian political system in the post-Abu Mazen era.

This case proposes several potential scenarios, but they are different.

The scenarios are tied to the failure or the success of the succession process. In the first scenario it is possible to witness a Palestinian and Arab failure to secure a safe transition of power after Abu Mazen. There might also be an outbreak of a conflict that may end in chaos in the West Bank. Moreover, Israel might resort to Plan B, enabling the rule of local clans and tribes in the West Bank, with the increasing influence of Hamas in the Palestinian arena.

The other scenario proposes success in securing a safe transition of power after Abu Mazen, cutting off any conflicts within Fatah and the PLO, provided that the reconciliation file exhibits considerable progress.

What makes the situation worse is Abu Mazen’s reluctance to appoint a deputy over the years that followed his rise to power.

In this context, Mohammed Dahlan, former head of the Preventive Security Force of the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip, presents himself as one of the candidates favourable to succeed Abu Mazen, who has long been called upon by voices inside Fatah, demanding him to appoint a deputy who could succeed him.

The Israeli Position

Abu Mazen
Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas (L) stands with Mohammad Dahlan, as they watch former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice leave the Palestinian Authority headquarters or Muqataa in the West Bank city of Ramallah, 25 March 2007. JAMAL ARURI/ AFP

The Israeli media wonders whether Dahlan will be the possible successor to Abu Mazen as a staunch opponent of Hamas. Nowadays, Dahlan resides in the Emirates and he previously played a key role in concluding its normalisation agreement with Israel. His name always appears when the issue of Abbas’ succession is raised.

Marwan Barghouti has sufficient popularity to face the challenge posed by Dahlan. Barghouti is the most popular figure in Palestinian public opinion and has broad support within Fatah. However, he is serving a life sentence for his involvement in attacks on Israeli targets during the second intifada. Therefore, his stay in prison and Israel’s rejection of his release put him off the candidates’ list.

This stance comes in line with a another view believing that Israel will unlikely release Barghouti if he wins in any upcoming elections, knowing that he earnestly sought to compete in the 2005 elections. His supporters believe that he is the most capable of succeeding and following in Yasser Arafat’s footsteps in managing Fatah’s various contradictions.

Although Mahmoud Abbas is almost 87-years-old, and his constitutional and widespread popularity is eroding with two successive elections postponement, he is alert that his presence in the succession arrangements represents a great guarantee of its success and his sudden absence before completing them could turn the tables.

An Old Interview

As a journalist, I still remember an interview I had many years ago with Abu Mazen in a Cairo hotel. At the time, he was the second in command of the Palestinian Authority. He was Abu Aammar’s deputy and previously carried out his duties from Tunisia.

Due to the timing of the conversation that coincided with a series of assassinations likely carried out by the Israeli intelligence services against the leaders of the Palestinian organisation, it was natural for me to ask the man sitting in front of me with his guards, “Well, when was the last Israeli attempt to assassinate you?”

The immediate answer was astonishing. Abu Mazen said there was no Israeli attempt to assassinate him. I had to ask with excessive spontaneity and astonishment: “Do you think that your head is not worth the price of an Israeli bullet?”

This phrase was the headline I chose for that interview published by the London-based Al-Arab newspaper, for which I worked for years before the departure of its late Libyan founder Ahmed al-Salihin al-Huni.

Perhaps the question provoked one of Abu Mazen’s guards enough at the time to grab his weapon while the latter drew a bewildered smile on his face.

I still do not understand that smile. The same applies to his next or potential successor, regardless of his name and orientation.

The Palestinian president himself may not have resolved the controversy over his successor. Still, in all cases, in my estimation, he remains the temporary victor and the permanent loser in the labyrinth of searching for an heir to a problematic legacy, in light of the eternal Palestinian division between Fatah and Hamas.

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