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Palestine after Abbas: potential scenarios and coping strategies (Part I)

Nov. 24, 2016 4:00 P.M. (Updated: Dec. 11, 2016 10:24 P.M.)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (AFP/Ivan Sekretarev, File)
By: Al-Shabaka

Al-Shabaka is an independent non-profit organization whose mission is to educate and foster public debate on Palestinian human rights and self-determination within the framework of international law.

In the months leading up to the American elections, the jockeying among Palestinian factions had been heating up in anticipation of a post-Abbas period. It was hoped that the long-delayed Fatah seventh conference, scheduled for Nov. 29, would provide some insights into what a transition of power might look like, answering the question of how and when might Mahmoud Abbas step down from one or all of the three positions he holds: Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), head of the Palestinian Authority (PA), and head of Fatah, the largest Palestinian political faction.

With the election of Donald Trump Israel believes it now has a free hand to do what it likes in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) and beyond, making a Palestinian leadership transition all the more difficult. In this roundtable, Al-Shabaka policy analysts examine the different scenarios for a post-Abbas Palestine. While some such as Hani Masri believe that Palestinians have much to fear from a power vacuum in terms of further fragmentation and outside interference, others such as Noura Erakat argue that Palestinians have more to gain given the opportunities for change. Jamil Hilal warns of the dangers of a violent power struggle and urges a shift to a struggle for the collective rights of the Palestinian people as a whole, rather than the fate of an individual or his elite cohort. The second part of this roundtable will be published on Thursday.

Hani Al-Masri

It is not a foregone conclusion that Abbas will soon leave office. Evidence suggests that he will likely seek to extend his term by pushing to convene Fatah's seventh general conference. This would also thwart Muhammad Dahlan's return to Fatah’s Central Committee as Abbas' successor or as a player who would decide on and control the successor. The fact that no national alternative exists, because most of those named as possible successors are of the same school of thought, supports this scenario.

Post-Abbas scenarios depend on his exit’s timing, namely whether it follows Fatah’s general conference, the meeting of the Palestinian National Council, the end of the Fatah-Hamas division, or the return of Dahlan to Fatah. If Abbas were to depart before the conference is held and unity is reclaimed, the struggle to succeed him will be fierce and likely lead to chaos and infighting. This could cause the PA to collapse, splinter into several authorities, or become a servant of Israel along the lines of the South Lebanon Army. If Abbas leaves office after agreeing on a Fatah vice president, a PLO vice chairman, and a PA vice president -- instead of assigning the three positions to one person as has been the case since the PA was established -- then this is likely to minimize chaos.

Post-Abbas scenarios also depend on the nature of his departure, be it by resignation, illness, or assassination. An assassination would trigger the worst scenario, in light of Dahlan's threat that he will not allow Abbas to hijack Fatah by commandeering its seventh conference. Another scenario entails a Dahlan alliance with Hamas, though this may not materialize, as Hamas could realize that its enmity against Dahlan and the Arab alliance that supports him (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain) is greater than its enmity against Abbas.

Palestinians have much to fear from a power vacuum, which could provide Israel, the Arab Quartet, takfiri and extremist groups, or Hamas and other Palestinian leftist or Islamist factions with the opportunity to seize power. The two most likely of these scenarios would be Israeli control or the return of Arab trusteeship over the Palestinians. Both are undesirable, especially since the Arab countries that would attempt to impose a trusteeship, such as Saudi Arabia, maintain close relations with Israel and have increased cooperation with it to fight terrorism, takfiri movements, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

To prevent these unfavorable scenarios, leftist and other Palestinian political forces, as well as civil society and national private sector groups, must restore the liberation and rights discourse, redefine the national project, and rebuild the national movement so that it is based on true democratic political participation, with the goal of holding elections at all levels. Such elections should not be considered a means of winning the internal conflict, but rather a competition within the framework of unity.

The debate around these issues should transcend that of elite circles so that it becomes more accessible to the general public. This can be done through traditional as well as social media, popular and national conferences on the regional and national levels, and possibly petitions, sit-ins, and demonstrations.

Noura Erakat

Mahmoud Abbas oversees an institution -- the PA -- that reproduces itself in each of its many parts irrespective of the head of state. Its function is contingent on external financiers and gatekeepers, including the United States and Israel, which have an interest in keeping it intact, mainly due to its administrative function that mitigates the daily burdens of occupation while helping to contain the conflict. In addition, 40 percent of the Palestinian population works in the public sector and therefore also has an interest in continuing a status quo that, though harmful to its core interests, is simultaneously necessary for its livelihood and survival.

The most likely post-Abbas scenario will see an interim leader appointed until elections can be planned. Most projections for a successive head of state include well-known players, such as Muhammad Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub. Based on external and internal support as well as the scope of the threat he has posed to Abbas and Fatah’s old guard, Dahlan’s candidacy is as realistic as it is horrifying. Past attempts to exclude the Gaza Strip from polls and to marginalize Hamas’s electoral prospects indicate that such elections would prove extremely contentious.

Worst-case scenarios involve a collapse of the PA and a takeover by Israel or by rival Hamas forces. However, Hamas is unlikely to risk directly confronting Israel in the West Bank unless it is also prepared for another escalation in the Gaza Strip and a simultaneous Israeli offensive in the West Bank. This is improbable unless the outcome would recalibrate the status quo in its favor, which is unlikely given Hamas’s diminishing grassroots support in the West Bank and the costs of staging two fronts. Hamas leaders will likely stage protests during elections and use them to further legitimize their rule in the Gaza Strip, rather than use force.

The Palestinian people have more to gain than lose from a leadership vacuum, as it creates an opportunity for change -- and structural change is necessary to achieve Palestinian liberation. New leadership would have to disavow the PA’s harmful structures, declare the Oslo framework null and void, cease economic and security cooperation with Israel, and insist on continuing a liberation struggle.

Such radical restructuring is contingent on popular mobilization by a critical mass. Israel’s meticulous legal, political, and social fragmentation of the Palestinian population has thwarted the formation of such a mass. An unknown and unforeseen confluence of factors is necessary to overcome this fragmentation; Abbas’s departure may be one factor in this constellation, but is not a sufficient one.

Change will most likely ultimately come from a grassroots youth cadre that is not beholden to the current institutional frameworks and is more imaginative and less fearful about future prospects. Such a cadre does not exist at present, though several seeds for it exist across the Palestinian landscape in Iqrit, Haifa, Ramallah, Jerusalem, Gaza City, and Nablus.

Jamil Hilal

Inclusive, legitimate national institutions will not bring about the election of a leader after Abbas because these institutions are not functioning. The Palestinian National Council (PNC) has not been active since the Oslo Accords, and the PA’s legislative, judicial, and executive institutions have been split politically, territorially, and institutionally since June 2007, when Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip. Fatah as a ruling political party is experiencing its own internal schisms, with a Muhammad Dahlan faction opposed to the Abbas leadership.

As a result, a small political elite within the Fatah leadership, rather than the Palestinian people as a whole, will decide who will lead after Abbas. With no national institutions present to represent the various Palestinian communities inside historic Palestine and in the diaspora, the question of leadership cannot be satisfactorily resolved. It will continue to be contentious until national representational institutions are established, but given the split between Fatah and Hamas, the likelihood of such establishment is remote.

Any violent power struggle for leadership within Fatah would mean more political and geographical fragmentation and more Israeli, regional, and international interference in Palestinian political, economic, and social affairs.

The guessing game as to who is likely to succeed Abbas is not motivated by a concern for Palestinian national interests, but by Israeli interests as well as those of regional and international powers that are concerned about their standing.

Palestinians’ attention should focus on rebuilding their national representation on a democratic and inclusive basis, to include all Palestinian communities inside and outside of historic Palestine. Their concern should be the struggle for the collective rights of the Palestinian people as a whole, rather than the fate of an individual or his elite cohort. Palestinians need to reconstruct Palestinian influence and standing in the form of institutions, associations, visions, and strategies that not only elect political leaders but also community leaders. These leaders should seek to unify all Palestinians in the struggle for freedom, dignity, the right of return, and self-determination. Any other endeavor is simply a distraction or a mirage.

Originally published in full on Al-Shabaka's website on Nov. 22, 2016.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect Ma'an News Agency's editorial policy.
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