Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas has been at the centre of the movement’s politics since rising up the ranks of Fatah – the nationalist party founded by Yasser Arafat as the political backbone of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) – for nearly 60 years, but with three hospitalisations in just over a week, many are beginning to wonder what the post-Abbas era will look like for the Palestinian leadership at a time when tensions are, once again, rising in the Middle East.
Abbas was admitted to hospital on May 20 with symptoms indicating that he was suffering from a non-life threatening virus that appears to have been pneumonia. The 82-year-old, chain-smoker underwent minor ear surgery on May 18 and was hospitalised again briefly on May 19-20 for “necessary medical checks,” according to official Palestinian news sources.
He has appeared frail during his most recent public appearances, with questions about his ability to continue serving as an effective leader for the Palestinians after the recent controversial move by US President Donald J. Trump to relocate the American Embassy from the internationally recognised Israeli capital Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – a move that was vehemently opposed by the Palestinians and greeted with scepticism by most secular Israelis, who fear that such a demonstrative gesture plays into the hands of the country’s far-right religious parties and blatantly caters to the Protestant Evangelical Christian electorate in the United States, while doing little to further peace in the region.
Abbas’ place in both the mythology and hierarchy of the Palestinian leadership – second only to that of Arafat’s – creates a major problem for the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the event he cannot fully recover his latest bout of poor health. If Abbas – who best known to his people by the honorific “Abu Mazen” – is forced to step down, a power vacuum in the Palestinian Authority would undoubtedly emerge.
The radical Islamist party in charge of the Gaza Strip, Hamas, could attempt to extend its influence beyond its narrow coastal fiefdom on the Mediterranean and try to seize power in the Palestinian heartland of the West Bank. By doing so, Hamas’ self-exiled leader Khaled Mashal would be in a position to return from his current home in Qatar and consolidate the Palestinian leadership around Hamas’ fundamentalist ideology, which also rejects the long-elusive two-state solution with Tel Aviv in favour of establishing an Islamic state that would forcibly nullify Israel’s existence.
The prospect of a potential Hamas power grab for the leadership of the Palestinian Authority is further compounded by the fact that Abbas has done little to groom a successor since he took over the leadership of both Fatah and the PA shortly after Arafat’s death in November 2004.
Israel, Europe, and the United States have yet to signal who their preferred candidate might be, given their fraught relationship with Abbas and the stalled Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process – which has essentially been frozen since Hamas became the democratically elected dominant party in Gaza over a decade ago.
The Israeli administration of right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has done little to bolster Abbas’ standing in his bitter dispute with Hamas over the leadership of the Palestinian Authority. Netanyahu’s hawkish Soviet-born Defence Minister Avigdor Liberman and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz have repeatedly accused him of enriching himself through vast corruption schemes and of secretly harbouring terrorists over the years as Fatah continues to provide economic support to Palestinian militants who currently serving prison sentences in Israeli jails.
The Israelis have regularly accused Abbas of doing little to crack down on violent protests and lone-wolf attacks by Palestinians against Israeli settlers in the West Bank. Much like their distrust of his predecessor, Arafat, conservative elements in Israel remains wary of Abbas’ bona fides as a peacemaker and his commitment to fully recognising and guaranteeing Israel’s right to exist as Abbas’ PhD dissertation from the time he was a graduate student at Moscow’s People’s Friendship University, where he earned the Soviet equivalent of a Doctorate of Philosophy, was a rumination on “The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism”, a Holocaust denial conspiracy theory that was popular amongst Arab nationalists and their Soviet backers at the time.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates are, thus far, the only countries to discuss a possible succession in the wake of Abbas’ death or his ability to continue to lead the PA. After winning re-election to head Fatah in 2016, the four Arab powers threatened to withdraw their political and financial support of Abbas if he did not begin to discuss concrete plans about who would take his place in the coming years.
At the time, Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia all said they had grown frustrated with Abbas and his inability to negotiate a peace settlement with Israel and for his loss of control over Gaza to Hamas – a rare Sunni militant ally of Iran, the erstwhile arch-enemy of Cairo, Amman, Riyadh, and the UAE.
The few candidates who could emerge as Abbas’ likely successor include the leader of the Palestinian Security Services, Majid Faraj, the head of the Palestinian Authority’s security forces; PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah; former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad; ex-Fatah official Mohammed Dahlan, Arafat chief advisor Mohammed Rashid, and senior Fatah member Marwan Barghouti.
A fierce opponent of Abbas, Barghouti enjoys the most popularity amongst Palestinians. He served as the leader of Tanzim, a paramilitary offshoot of Fatah, that rose to prominence during the 2000-2005 Second Intifada – a conflict that saw more than 3,000 Palestinians and over 1,000 Israelis killed in the fighting. Once a staunch supporter of the peace process with Israel, the fluent Hebrew-speaking Barghouti is currently serving a 40-year sentence in an Israeli prison after being captured during the Second Intifada in the Palestinian capital of Ramallah in 2002. His popularity as a resistance leader gives Barghouti a certain degree of legitimacy with average Palestinians on the streets of West Bank cities, but few analysts believe Israel will agree to his release after previously refusing to exchange him for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was taken as a hostage by Hamas in 2006 and spent more than a 1,000 days in captivity before being released in 2011.
None of the remaining potential candidates would mark a significant break with the old guard of the Palestinian leadership, which dates back to its founding in the early 1960s as an underground terrorist organisation. That simple fact has left the US, Europe, Israel, and the Palestinians’ Arab backers in a state of limbo as the tense situation in the Middle East is likely to deteriorate and the prospect of a lasting peace, as well as a much-needed transfer of power to a new generation of Palestinian leaders, becomes ever more unlikely.