Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was briefly hospitalized on July 29th, for what various sources said was fatigue and a routine check-up. Every time Abbas gets sick, commentators rush to wonder what will come next when the 82-year old leader leaves office.
The question of succession has both a sense of urgency and also dread, with one official describing it in 2014 as a like “Samson in the temple,” ready to bring it all down. Abbas was re-elected President of Fatah in 2016, but analysts also see his reign as stifling democracy, and becoming more authoritarian. They worry he has not named a successor, that elections have been postponed too long and freedom of the press has been eroded in the PA. All of that, combined with lack of realization of a Palestinian state, leads to a combustible situation should the leader leave office. Here are a few scenarios of what might come next.
The next generation?
Palestinians in their 50s, born after the 1948 war whose formative years were post-1967 contain some options for post-Abbas leadership. Fatah insiders such as Majid Faraj, head of PA intelligence has had his name tossed around. Grant Rumley, Research Fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies and co-author of a biography on Abbas, told Reuters in 2014 that “the Americans love him and the Israelis love him.” Marwan Barghouti, serving five life sentences in prison, is another name that always comes up. Others have pointed to Jibril Rajoub, currently sports czar and a former security chief; Mohammed Shtayyah, a politician and economic expert and the Mahmoud al Aloul, a new Fatah vice-president.
Chaos or Hamas
In 2015 Nathan Thrall, a senior analyst with the International Crises Group, wrote at the London Review of Books that a new round of Israeli-Palestinian violence as the “end of the Abbas era.” He claimed that Palestinians were taking “matters into their own hands. They did so gradually at first, in areas outside PA control: Jerusalem, Gaza, Israeli prisons, and villages and refugee camps.” The street protesters were “crushed and divided” but even in weakness they pursued national goals.
This depiction of bubbling leaderless chaos, is one that many fear will come after Abbas. Without an authoritarian center and absent democratic elections, Palestinian politics might devolve onto the village and city level. This would feed the interests of new Salafist or religious extremist groups that might like to inch into the vacuum, or of existing opposition like Hamas.
Hamas, for instance, is not well liked in Gaza after a decade of failed rule, but in the West Bank it presents itself as the younger and active anti-corruption “change” party. Case in point is their new leader Yahya Sinwar, born in 1962. Journalist Khaled Abu Toameh told the Israel Public Diplomacy Forum in November 2016 that a weak Fatah “provides Hamas with a golden opportunity to boost standing in this area.”
The Old Guard
When the British Israel Communications and Research Center (BICOM) presented the question of what happened after Abbas in 2016, Paul Scham, an academic, responded that “of the half dozen likely candidates and a similar number of dark horses, there is none currently more likely to be chosen than the others.”
Names like Saeb Erekat are sometimes raised. Born in 1955, he isn’t the oldest of the older players in the PA. Ahmed Qurei, who is 80, would be more representative. So would Yasser Abed Rabbo, a PLO insider who was born in 1945. But there is a chance that a post-Abbas era could include a triumvirate of elderly Fatah members, jealous of one another and seeking to cling on to power and perpetuate the stagnation of the Abbas era. “I do think the likeliest result of a chaotic transfer of power is a situation where multiple parties have multiple levels of legitimate claims to the leadership,” says Rumley. This involves organs such as the Central Committee of Fatah, the Constituent Court, the 120 members of the PLO Central Council and 22 members of the PLO Executive Committee and the Palestinian Legislative Council. This might be in the interests of the international community, but it doesn’t bring good tidings in terms of building civil society, elections or giving young people a voice.
What about Dahlan?
In the last years Mohammed Dahlan, the one-time Gaza strongman, has made an interesting comeback among commentators and Palestinians, to be considered for a leadership role. He was the former head of the Palestinian security services in Gaza, but was unceremoniously expelled by Hamas in 2011 (conveniently, while he was abroad). In what seemed like a terrible defeat one cannot return from, his forces were crushed by the Islamists. However, years make memory grow different, and in 2017 there is talk of the return of Dahlan. He is supported abroad by governments in the region such as the UAE and Israelis know him from the 1990s and 2000s.
In May, Israel Minister for Jerusalem Affairs and Environment Protection Zeev Elkin said that Israel must prepare for the post-Abbas era. “The Palestinian Authority will not survive Abbas’s departure, because he oppressed any political culture in the PA,” he was quoted as saying.
What does Israel do in such a scenario? Voices on the right have been arguing for annexation of Area C for years and if Abbas leaves, a power vacuum might provide an excuse to act. A new “victory caucus” in the Knesset and other voices that believe Palestinians need to accept Israeli “victory” over them, could push the government towards a new paradigm in the West Bank. This inevitably also leads other voices to conclude that the chances for a Palestinian state have faded and a one-state solution is all that is on the menu. In such a scenario the international community may ramp up pressure on Israel as US Secretary of State John Kerry prophesied it would in his December 2016 speech before leaving office.
If history teaches us anything it is that there is always another leader, no one is irreplaceable. However the recent era in the Middle East also teaches us that chaos can be unleashed by unseating long-serving leaders and that when nationalist paradigms break down they are often not replaced by more democratic and secular forms, but rather by religious extremism and sometimes localized factions or ethnic violence. Those watching the Palestinian Authority and Palestinians themselves all wonder what comes next.