Bahbah: The 7 Likely Candidates to Replace Abbas
By: Bishara A. Bahbah/Arab America Featured Columnist
It is well known that Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas is in poor health, and according to some sources, is terminally ill. In other words, it is a matter of months, not years, before the Palestinians will have to choose a new leader.
In anticipation of this historic change, Abbas has instituted changes within Fatah, the PA, and the PLO to ensure that his allies are well positioned within those institutions to continue his legacy. At the 7th Fatah Congress in November 2016, a number of senior Fatah members were purged out of the Fatah leadership. The membership of Fatah’s congress was slashed from 2,200 to 1,300. Abbas also packed the newly established Constitutional Court with his loyalists.
More recently, the Fatah Revolutionary Council passed a resolution that stated that if Abbas were to become incapacitated, his vice chairman, Mahmoud al-Aloul, would replace him for 60 days as chairman, until elections could be organized. The election of a new PA president would fall to the PLO Central Committee, and not as dictated by the Basic Law which stated that the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, currently Dr. Aziz Dweik, a Hamas member, would become the interim president. Hamas would, therefore, be sidelined in the future succession process.
Setting aside the legal validity of these maneuvers, they do not in any way, indicate who the new PA president or the new chairman of the PLO will be. No one knows who the chairman of Fatah will be, and there is no guarantee that the chairman of Fatah will be the president of the Palestinian Authority or the chairman of the PLO.
What Do the Palestinians Want in a New Leader?
Before I delve into the qualifications and characteristics of each candidate, I would like to address some of the challenges facing these candidates and what the Palestinian people would like to see in such a leader or which candidates they would want to avoid and why. This will help the reader delineate which among these candidates is the one most likely to have the support of the majority of the Palestinian people.
-A Break from Mahmoud Abbas:
Recent opinion polls conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Research showed that 64% of Palestinians want Abbas to resign. 57% opposed Fatah’s decision in 2016 to keep Abbas as their leader for another 5 years. And, if elections were held then, Abbas would have lost. Palestinians are tired of Abbas, his people, and his legacy.
-New Fatah Leadership:
Recent public opinion polls have shown that only one-third of Palestinians have confidence in the leadership of Fatah. Palestinians no longer view Fatah as the dominant political movement and are looking for alternatives.
-Peace Process is a Failure:
Palestinians view that the peace process emanating from the Oslo Peace Accords has been a failure. Abbas’s successor needs to be a bold visionary willing to take a new approach to the peace process.
-Security Cooperation with Israel:
Palestinians view Abbas’s security cooperation with Israel, at best, as a necessary evil to maintain relative order and internal security and, at worst, as outright collaboration with the enemy.
Abbas has marginalized the various Palestinian political factions, including those who are members of the PLO – the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The new leader has to be able to bring together the various Palestinian political parties, at least, to have a working relationship.
Palestinians do not want any newly established Palestinian state to be an Islamic state. However, Hamas should be recognized as a political party within the limitations of the Palestinian constitution. Reconciliation with Hamas is a must. Hamas should be incorporated within the PLO and its voice cannot be isolated.
Palestinians view that Abbas’s attempts to isolate Gaza by withholding salaries from Palestinian civil servants and cutting off electricity to Gaza is a crime. The people of Gaza are as Palestinian as any Palestinian can be (my own grandparents on my mother’s side come from Gaza). No one should apply collective punishment against them, let alone, another Palestinian because Hamas or any other party controls the Gaza Strip.
Any successor should have strong ties to Palestinian refugees, particularly those in the Arab world. The person should have their interests at heart and should be dedicated to finding a fair and just resolution to the Palestinian refugee problem.
There is a widespread perception, whether imaginary or real, that the PA is riddled with corruption. Clearly, even the perception of corruption should be fought and never be tolerated.
Abbas’s successor should command respect among regional Arab, Muslim, European and international players.
Any successor should be a strong, decisive decisionmaker, a visionary, a pragmatist, a believer in democracy, a servant of the people, courageous, and resourceful.
Seven Possible Candidates
Based on my extensive research and interviews, I have identified seven possible candidates vying to become the new president of the Palestinian Authority, and most likely, in turn, the new chairman of the PLO. They are listed here randomly and in no particular order, just outlined the ideal characteristics of an ideal Palestinian leader.
Below is a preview of the major candidates vying to succeed Mahmoud Abbas.
1. Rami Hamdallah
Rami Hamdallah is the current prime minister under Abbas. In that capacity, he controls the PA’s resources which provides him with an advantage over other candidates especially among security chiefs and their subordinates as well as civil servants who want to ensure that their salaries get paid without any interruptions.
If he succeeds Abbas, he can provide continuity, and from Israel’s perspective, relative stability. Hamdallah reportedly met recently with Israelis in an effort to shore up support for his succession. He is aligned with General Majid Faraj, head of the General Intelligence Services.
However, Hamdallah has no popular support and he is considered too close to Abbas. Despite his closeness to General Faraj, the latter is hoping to succeed Abbas himself and how the two would work out their conflicting goals has yet to be played out. He is strongly opposed by Jibril Rajoub, another contender for the succession.
2. Naser Al-Qudwa
Naser Al-Qudwa, Yasser Arafat’s nephew, served as the PLO’s Representative to the United Nations and later as a foreign minister in the PA. He is a highly respected diplomat and is known as a level-headed politician. Following Donald Trump’s declaration that he was going to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Al-Qudwa stated that any Palestinian protests should be “in a peaceful and an unarmed, sustainable way …” His moderate stance is one reason why he is favored by a number of countries.
It is of interest to note that, at one point, he was an ally of Muhammad Dahlan, another contender to succeed Abbas. It is possible that the alliance with Dahlan could be revived should Dahlan win the battle of succession.
3. Mahmoud Al-Aloul
In the past few months, Mahmoud Al-Aloul’s status was elevated following his election by the Fatah Revolutionary Council. In the event Abbas becomes incapacitated, Al-Aloul would replace him as chairman of Fatah for 60 days, while elections were being organized. The PLO Central Committee, on the other hand, would select a new PA president!
Unlike Abbas, he is a skeptic of the peace process and is more “connected” to the people even though he is not considered to have a national profile. He has urged Palestinians to take to the streets which resonate with the majority of Palestinians who are increasingly dissatisfied with Abbas’s priority of maintaining security cooperation with Israel over allowing Palestinians to demonstrate in the streets.
He distrusts Hamas and endorses a one-state solution – a position that is a non-starter as far as Israel and the United States are concerned. Nonetheless, Al-Aloul is not expected to rock the boat and will not depart from the status quo, even though he is considered a hawk within Fatah.
It is reported that Abbas expressed to associates that he wants Al-Aloul to become chairman of Fatah which, of course, does not necessarily mean nor does it guarantee that he would be president of the Palestinian Authority.
Al-Aloul is opposed by Jibril Rajoub.
Al-Aloul and Rajoub oppose Hamdallah.
Al-Aloul and Rajoub oppose Dahlan.
4. Marwan Barghouti
According to a 2016 public opinion poll, and in a race between Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, and Marwan Barghouti, the later would secure a massive 59% of Palestinian votes.
The issue is that Barghouti has spent years in Israeli jails and is serving 5 consecutive life sentences for his involvement in armed attacks against Israelis during the second intifada between 2001-2005. Barghouti has called for an end to security cooperation with Israel and is considered a radical choice for a leader.
Realistically, it is highly unlikely that Israel would release Barghouti from prison. His release would not serve their interests in any way. As such, talk of his candidacy is a moot point.
5. Majed Faraj
General Majed Faraj is the head of the Intelligence Services and is reportedly Abbas’s preferred candidate as his successor as president of the Palestinian Authority. He has the advantage of commanding the 70,000 Palestinian security forces in the West Bank. In reality, the loyalty of those forces is said to be divided among supporters of Jibril Rajoub, Rami Hamdallah, and Muhammad Dahlan.
From Israel’s perspective, he has been successful in waging a preemptive war against “Palestinian terrorism” aimed at Israel and those opposed to Abbas. On the other hand, he has been viewed by Palestinians, as Israel’s instrument of oppression.
Faraj is considered by the United States as the one most likely to continue the security cooperation with Israel, and thereby, maintain stability once Abbas is gone. It is reported that Faraj visited the United States a few months ago, at the time when Abbas had boycotted any official Palestinian contacts with the Trump administration over its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Faraj’s visit to Washington, DC, during which he met with the US Secretary of State, was intended to secure US support for his candidacy to replace Abbas as president of the PA. However, a moderate stance toward Israel is unlikely to be viewed as garnering a political advantage within the West Bank and, certainly, Gaza.
He is seen as an extension of Abbas and his failed policies. He is vehemently anti-Hamas. None of the regional Arab powers view him with favor. In addition, he has a phenomenal enemy in Jibril Rajoub. Faraj used to work under Rajoub’s command.
6. Jabril Rajoub
Jibril Rajoub is the Secretary-General of Fatah and the former head of the Preventative Security Services in the West Bank. He is known to be outspoken and brash. He once compared Israeli policies in the West Bank to Nazi Germany.
His power base is in the Hebron area and he has loyal troops within the Palestinian security forces, many of whom he recruited and promoted. His position as the president of the Palestinian Football Association has allowed him to be close to the young generation of Palestinians – endearing himself to them and recruiting them to his side. He is not afraid to take unpopular stands.
It is being reported that he is currently accumulating weapons and building political alliances. He is believed to have allied himself with Qatar, even though he is ardently anti-Hamas. In February 2018, he attacked Egypt publicly for supporting Dahlan’s candidacy to replace Abbas, and as a result, when he landed in Egypt to attend a conference, he was immediately deported.
He is willing to bury the hatchet with the former intelligence chief Tawfik Tirawi to oppose the candidacies of Hamdallah, Faraj, and Al-Aloul. According to Grant Rumley who wrote a biography on Mahmoud Abbas, Rumley said in January 2017 that “if Abbas didn’t wake up tomorrow, the person in the strongest position to succeed him right now is Jibril Rajoub.”
In terms of the peace process, Rajoub has no new vision to offer other than what Abbas and his cohorts have been working on. The ascendance of Rajoub would mean the same old policies with a different style.
7. Muhammad Dahlan
Muhammad Dahlan is the only candidate who is no longer a member of Fatah. He is the only candidate who is no longer residing in the West Bank after his fallout with Abbas in 2011. Dahlan was head of the Preventative Security Forces in Gaza until his forces were ousted by Hamas in 2007. Dahlan had accused Abbas of being a weak leader and corrupt. Abbas, in turn, engineered charges against Dahlan and his followers that led to their ouster from Fatah and forced many of them into exile. Dahlan ended up residing in Abu Dhabi.
Dahlan is the anti-establishment candidate. He is considered the most formidable enemy of the existing Fatah power structure in the Palestinian territories. He is bitterly opposed by Al-Aloul, Rajoub, Hamdallah, and Faraj.
Dahlan is young and charismatic. He has the credentials of a political leader. Born in the Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza, he spent time in Israeli jails, and between 1981 and 1986, he was arrested no less than 11 times. While head of the security forces in Gaza, he ruled with an iron fist.
While in exile, Dahlan reconciled with Hamas and has been able to establish a strong working relationship with Hamas. In February 2018, Khalil Al-Hayya, a member of the Hamas political bureau stated that “Dahlan is a major Palestinian figure. His stance is clear regarding reconciliation, and we thank him for his steadfastness for the Gaza Strip.” As such, he seems to be the only candidate who is acceptable to Hamas should he run for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority.
Dahlan is probably the most inclined candidate to enter peace negotiations under a regional umbrella due to the political and financial support he garners from the Arab Quartet. On one hand, the UAE and Saudi Arabia would be willing to provide the Palestinians under Dahlan with funds necessary to support the establishment of a Palestinian state.
On the other hand, with Dahlan in power, Egypt would provide him with political cover and cooperate closely to rebuild Gaza and become its gateway to the world. Jordan has conditioned its support of Dahlan to his acceptance of their continued role as the custodians of the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem. In return, Jordan would become the West Bank’s gateway to the world in lieu of Israel and its chocking restrictions imposed on the Palestinians.
Among Palestinians, Dahlan enjoys considerable support among those living in Gaza, Lebanon, and Jordan. And, with his alliance with Hamas, Dahlan would be expected to garner significant support in the West Bank.
Both Israel and the United States have had dealings with Dahlan in his past roles in the Palestinian Authority. He is known to be a pragmatist and will not shun from making difficult decisions for the benefit of the Palestinian people.
Having presented the possible candidates who might replace Abbas, no one must assume that the transition will be easy. In fact, it is feared that the transition will be fraught with unpredictability, political paralysis, fierce competition, significant outside influence, and possible violence among the contenders.
Even if interested parties agree to hold free elections in the West Bank and Gaza, it is possible that Hamas might be blocked from participating in the West Bank, which in turn, might force Hamas to place restrictions on Fatah candidates running in Gaza. However, a Hamas-Dahlan alliance under the banner of a new party might be the way around Fatah and international objections to Hamas’s involvement in those elections.
Even then, polls have indicated that should Hamas participate in elections in the West Bank (even under Dahlan’s umbrella), they could make significant gains which could propel Dahlan into the presidency of the Palestinian Authority. To further complicate things, Israel could throw another stumbling block by refusing to allow Palestinians in East Jerusalem from voting.
The Long-Term Impact of Replacing Abbas
It is not a question that is easily answered by selecting one of seven prospective candidates. It could signify a complete transformation of the existing Palestinian political landscape from a Fatah- and a PLO-dominated structure to a new unchartered political landscape that could witness the emergence of new alliances, with new ideologies, and new approaches to the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.
Prof. Bishara Bahbah was editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem based “Al-Fajr” newspaper between 1983-84. He was a member of the Palestinian delegation to the Peace Talks on Arms Control and Regional Security. He taught at Harvard and was the associate director of its Kennedy School’s Institute for Social and Economic Policy in the Middle East.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab America.