Who Will Succeed Mahmoud Abbas?

The succession fight is bound to be heated - and violent.

Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, is now 85-years old; he is frail and largely dysfunctional, as is his Ramallah based Palestinian Authority (PA), which he has presided over since 2005. Abbas has also been chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) since 2004. A third leadership position held by Abbas is that of the chairman of the Fatah (party and terror group at times). A majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza want Abbas to resign.

According to the Palestinian Center for Policy Survey Research, 64% of Palestinians are concerned that Abbas’ departure from politics would spark turmoil and insecurity because he has no clear successor. There is also the issue of corruption. Both top functionaries of the PLO and the PA are skimming money to their personal accounts while average Palestinians are hard hit economically. Abbas himself (according to Efraim Karsh in his book Arafat’s War) transferred some $70 million to his personal accounts in Europe. 

Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian chief negotiator with Israel might have been a likely successor to Abbas. But he succumbed to the coronavirus last November, and after a month-long struggle (Israeli doctors tried hard to save his life) with the virus, he died at the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. He was 65 years old. Erekat’s visible position as Chief Negotiator with Israel and Secretary General of the Executive Committee of the PLO was a natural springboard for Palestinian top leadership.  

Those awaiting Abbas’ demise seek to fill at least one of his leadership positions; since the likelihood is that the three positions held by Abbas would be split and given to three different people.  

Jibril Rajoub is one of the contenders to succeed Abbas. He was hoping to fill Erekat’s job as the Palestinian national negotiator, but the renewal of security coordination with Israel ended his quest. Still, he served as the secretary general of Fatah’s Central Committee, and was the former chief of the Palestinian Preventive Security in the West Bank. His power base is in his native Hebron area.  

In 1970, Rajoub was sentenced to 17 years in prison by an Israeli court for attacking Israeli soldiers. He was released in 1988, and moved to Tunis where he served as adviser to Khalil al-Wazir, Fatah’s deputy leader. The Oslo Accords brought him back to the West Bank, and to the job of Preventive Security head. Arafat dismissed him in 2002. As part of his job, he was responsible for security coordination with Israel. Subsequently, Rajoub has become a hardliner on relations with Israel. Since 2006, Rajoub has chaired the Palestine Football Association, and in 2017, he campaigned to exclude Israel from FIFA. He is currently President of the Palestine Olympic Committee. 

Hanan Ashrawi, a woman and a Christian, could never reach the pinnacle of power and leadership in PLO-led Palestine. She was positioned by the PLO as the Palestinian face to the western world. Christian, educated, and fluent in English, she was used to advance the PLO’s propaganda in the West and as an instrument to diminish Israel. She has recently resigned from the PLO’s Executive Committee, and waged a sharp attack on Abbas. She accused him of shoving the PLO Executive Committee to the sidelines and stripping it of authority. She complained that the Executive Committee was pushed out of the decision-making circle. Ashrawi also resigned from her PA post as Minister of Education and Research.   

Ziad Abu Amer serves currently as the Deputy Prime Minister of the PA, and Ahmed Majdalani, as a senior member of the PLO Executive Committee, and former PA Minister of Labor. Both Majadalani and Abu Amer have a close relationship with Mahmoud Abbas. For Majdalani, being a member of the Executive Committee gives him a good shot to succeed Erekat in the pivotal job of the PLO’s Secretary General and ultimately, to become the Chairman of the PLO once Abbas is gone. For Abu Amer, a good word from Abbas may land him the coveted job of PLO Secretary General.

The chief of the PA General Intelligence in the West Bank, Majid Faraj, is another contender to get one of the three leadership positions held by Abbas. He too is in Abbas’ inner circle.  

Another figure with close ties to Abbas is Hussein al-Sheikh, Fatah’s Central Committee member, as well as the PA Minister for Coordination with Israel. The latter two have gained a great deal of power in recent years and are in the very close and limited circle nearest to Abu Mazen.

Al-Sheikh in particular, has gained a great deal of credit and prestige in the Palestinian bureaucracy. His recent announcement of the resumption of coordination with Israel has resulted in Israel transferring $3.7 billion NIS (New Israeli Shekels) or about $1.12billion to the PA. It enabled thousands of PA employees to receive their full salaries after six months of a dire PA economic crisis that forced them to live on half salary.

Mahmoud al-Alloul, deputy head of Fatah, is the only person with the title of “deputy” to Abbas. He belongs to the older generation members of the organization, and in the past, he headed the Fatah’s Tanzim militia, which played a prominent role in fighting Israel during the 2nd intifada. Al-Alloul belongs to the hawkish stream within Fatah; however, in seeking to land Erekat’s position, he has recently expressed support for an International Peace Conference that Abbas is seeking to advance next year. The same al-Alloul was a leading voice in a campaign to boycott Israeli products in Palestinian supermarkets.

The vacuum created by the departure of Erekat, and the expected end of the Abbas era has prompted an increasing number of Palestinian figures to up the ante and increased their posturing for a leadership position.  

Muhammad Shtayyeh (63) is one such figure. Serving as the current Prime Minister of the PA, he is getting a great deal of attention in the PA media in dealing with the coronavirus crisis. He would like to replace Abbas as the PA President. 

There are two aspirants who have no presence on the ground. Marwan Barghouti, the former chief of the Tanzim, is currently in an Israeli prison for the murder of Israelis. Although popular with the younger generation, his life sentence would keep him in prison for the foreseeable future. Muhammad Dahlan (60), is the former chief of Palestinian Preventive Security in Gaza. He was expelled in 2014, by Abbas, from Fatah, following his trial on corruption charges. He subsequently fled to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). His falling out with Abbas keeps him away from a position of power. He has accumulated millions in business, and he is still popular in his native Gaza. Dahlan seeks to head Fatah and more…once Abbas is gone. Dahlan is supported by the UAE.

Nasser al-Qidwa, Arafat’s nephew, serving as the Palestinian “ambassador” to the UN, was expelled by Abbas from the Fatah party. Al-Qidwa vowed to form his own breakaway slate for the upcoming Palestinian Legislative elections, scheduled for May 22. Another round of elections for the PA Presidency is scheduled to be held on July 3. The latter is in doubt, judging by Abbas’ track record of promising elections that have never happened in 15 years. Al-Qidwa called for “radical change” in the PA.

The race to succeed Abbas has just begun, and it is bound to be heated, and most likely violent.

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Photo credit: World Economic Forum


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