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

Nov. 25, 2016 7:52 P.M. (Updated: Dec. 11, 2016 10:24 P.M.)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on Sept. 1, 2015 (AFP/Abbas Momani, File)

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.

In this roundtable, Al-Shabaka policy analysts examine the different scenarios for a post-Abbas Palestine. Sam Bahour examines the different precedents and actors, and notes that the other PLO factions have lost any leverage they might once have had because their political existence is underwritten by the authority they might seek to challenge. Jaber Suleiman, writing from his Lebanon base, warns that a PA collapse could cause a wave of migration or displacement toward the East Bank and a revival of Israeli projects envisaging rule of the West Bank and Gaza Strip with Jordan or Egypt, with implications for Palestinian communities in Lebanon and elsewhere. Diana Buttu hopes that new leaders would undo the disastrous effects of the Oslo Accords, hold Israel accountable, and build grassroots strategies for steadfastness rather than simply “ruling” the PA. In reviewing the various possible outcomes, Wajjeh Abu Zarifa urges Palestinians to consolidate the UN-recognized State of Palestine by creating a Constituent Assembly. Al-Shabaka Program Director Alaa Tartir served as the roundtable’s facilitator. The first part of this roundtable was published on Thursday.

Sam Bahour

When Yasser Arafat died in 2004, Palestine’s Amended Basic Law -- the equivalent to a constitution -- was respected: The Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and its speaker took over for 60 days until elections took place. Today, given the fact that there is no operational PLC and the supposed speaker is from Hamas, it is likely that this law will not be respected. Rather, “extraordinary measures” will be invoked to maintain control. This could mean that the Fatah Central Committee will deliberate and come to the Fatah-dominated PLO Executive Committee to implement the decision. The other PLO factions, having lost any secondary leverage they once had, may challenge this decision, but this would create a clash with officialdom, which today underwrites their political existence. Given that Fatah is seriously fragmented, it is not clear if it would be able to agree on a single person or a mechanism to undertake the leadership role. A division of labor between the heads of the Palestinian Authority and the PLO may occur to satisfy competing personal agendas.

The fears going forward are many. At the forefront is the fear of regional or international interference in national decisions. Palestinians have already experienced this over the last several years, and such interference could have devastating effects if allowed to fester or increase.

Another fear is that the PA leadership may attempt a power grab, given its resources, international recognition, and security forces. Still another concern is that one of the security force heads could attempt to take political control; this, however, is not likely since none of the security forces is self-sufficient. Lastly is the threat that Israel will implant one of its operatives in the leadership role.

Yet a more likely Israeli action would be to proclaim statehood in Gaza for Palestinians and further entrench Israel’s presence in the West Bank, perhaps through full annexation. If Israel took this approach and Hamas in Gaza was open to such a move, the current disunity could be irreparable.

To safeguard the little representative integrity that remains in the Palestinian political system and counter the threats noted above, Palestinians must demand two immediate actions: 1) that Abbas call for elections to reinstate the PLC, with the understanding that though it would only represent Palestinians in the West Bank, it could rapidly be acted upon and have some popular legitimacy; and 2) that the temporary PLO Leadership Committee, which encompasses all PLO as well as national factions, be convened with a mandate to allow the formation and recognition of new political parties. This would set a course for resetting the Palestinian political system through proportional representation via the PLO’s highest body, the Palestinian National Council (PNC).

Jaber Suleiman

We will likely face one of two major scenarios post-Abbas. The first is chaos. The departure of a president who has monopolized decision-making, as well as the inability of the Palestinian political system to renew its expired legitimacy, threaten to make this struggle for power not one of political disagreement, but of infighting and further division. Such a situation will likely result in the complete separation of the two authorities in Gaza and Ramallah, and even more division within the West Bank, with Hamas controlling its southern parts. Arab and regional interference, particularly from the Arab Quartet, would add to the chaos. Israel, which has an interest in confirming its claim that the Palestinians are unable to manage themselves and unworthy of an autonomous authority, let alone a state, could also play a role.

This scenario would culminate in the PA's collapse, and would cause a wave of migration or displacement toward the East Bank. Such movement would in all likelihood revive projects like Shimon Peres’ scheme of sharing rule of the West Bank and Gaza Strip with Jordan or Egypt, but in a new form in which the PA/PLO would replace Jordan or Egypt. Such a scenario would have a disastrous impact on the unity of the Palestinian community in Lebanon, particularly given that Palestinians in Lebanon have hardly been able to avoid the implications of the Palestinian divide and advocate for a unified national agenda that addresses Palestinian inalienable rights, in addition to their struggle for basic human rights in Lebanon.

The second scenario would be a peaceful transition of power through an interim national leadership, agreed upon via a reconciliation agreement such as the Cairo Agreement. This leadership would need to rectify the relationship between the PLO and the PA, given that the PA is a PLO tool and not vice versa. And it would need to execute genuine democratic reform of PLO structures, especially the Palestinian National Council, as well as in regard to the PA’s relationship with the state and the PA’s decision-making mechanism.

Israel and some Arab parties would challenge this scenario because they would rather control the Palestinian “card.” It therefore not only requires political will on the part of all national factions, especially Fatah and Hamas, but also the mobilization of the Palestinian “silent majority,” that is, all national popular frameworks in Palestine and the diaspora. The goal would be to amass a bloc of this majority capable of exerting pressure on the factions so that they choose peaceful transition and rebuild the political system and its national institutions on democratic foundations.

Diana Buttu

After Abbas, several scenarios are possible: A peaceful transition to power by the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC); a power struggle between individuals within Fatah or the PLO, culminating in multiple “leaders;” or a power vacuum until elections are organized and held. Given the chaos that Abbas has created, and the concomitant disarray in Palestinian political parties, it is unlikely that elections will be organized soon.

Palestinian leaders should move to reconcile with Hamas and make arrangements for a post-Abbas PA/PLO that would put forward a strategy for liberating Palestine and for beginning to represent Palestinians living in Israel. This strategy would see new leaders undoing the disastrous effects of the Oslo Accords, holding Israel accountable, and building grassroots strategies for steadfastness, rather than simply “ruling” the PA.

The Palestinian political spectrum and civil society could also use the leadership change to rebuild the PLO so that it is both representative of Palestinian society as well as the age shift in Palestinian society. Such a strategy would also mean capitalizing on the strength of the Palestinian people as a whole and their movements, and doing away with futile bilateral negotiations. As a first step, Palestine needs to break the yoke of financial blackmail that currently binds the PA/PLO to these bilateral negotiations. In addition, by bringing in Palestinians in Israel, the PLO can finally begin to become representative of all Palestinians, rather than paying lip service to such inclusiveness while marginalizing Palestinians not living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

A leadership vacuum would be a major distraction from focusing on this strategy, and is indeed Israel’s dream, allowing it to divide and conquer and use the time of chaos to build more settlements.

Wajjeh Abu Zarifa

If Abbas stays in power in the short term, the first possible scenario is to hold presidential and legislative elections in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Jerusalem as stipulated in the Cairo Agreement. However, this option is unlikely in light of the deep division and mistrust between Fatah and Hamas. The second scenario is to hold presidential and legislative elections wherever possible, such that if Gaza were to boycott, the elections would be organized in the West Bank. Yet this is also an unlikely option, as it would entrench the division and increase the likelihood of secession. Moreover, Israel may not agree to hold the elections in Jerusalem, which would further the separation of Jerusalem.

When Abbas leaves office, there are a number of possible scenarios, including the chief justice of the Constitutional Court becoming the PA president until elections are held, or the PA presidency being assigned to the PLO's Executive Committee, with the PLO secretary becoming a temporary president. Yet there is one scenario that is more practical and logical, even though it is not constitutional or legal: The prime minister, in his capacity as chief of the executive authority, takes on the powers of the PA president. Presidential and legislative elections are held within 60 days and require national consensus. However, such an option, though the most logical one, is close to impossible given current divisions.

Thus, all political forces must be invited to a serious dialogue to develop the mechanisms needed to overcome current divisions, implement the Cairo Agreement, and hold presidential and legislative elections before Abbas leaves office. Palestinians also need to convene the PLO’s provisional leadership framework and the committee entrusted with reforming the PLO to restore the Palestinian National Council and hold a session bringing together all parties, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The PLO’s Central Council and the Executive Committee must be formed, and a new chairman must be named. In the longer term, Palestinians need to consolidate the UN-recognized State of Palestine by creating a Constituent Assembly comprised of members of the Central Council, the Legislative Council, the government, and the Executive Committee to draft a Palestinian constitution and elect a president.

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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