Octogenarian Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was hospitalised several times in May and his ailing health has prompted debates once again about succession and the next steps for Palestinian politics.
Who is Mahmoud Abbas?
Eighty two year-old Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is the current chair of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the President of Palestine (head of the Palestinian Authority, PA), chair of the Fatah Party.
Following the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004, he was first named the head of the PLO, and became president of the PA the following year.
Last month, he was admitted to the hospital three times, prompting questions about Palestinian leadership after his death, especially since he didn’t name a successor. Early in May, the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the Palestinian parliament, had convened for the first time in over 20 years, where Abbas was re-elected as the chairman of the PLO.
Why hasn’t Abbas named a successor?
Experts point to various reasons, ranging from internal political debates to Abbas’ desire to remain the sole person in charge.
“He did not name a successor in my opinion, for two reasons. Number one, he wants to have a complete monopoly on power and he feels that if he creates a successor, he will create competition within the party,” Ramzy Baroud, a journalist and expert on Palestinian affairs, told TRT World.
“He also is aware of the existing internal divide within the Fatah movement ... This division has been going on for many years. However, the former leader of the PLO and Fatah, Yasser Arafat was clever enough and strategic enough to keep it contained. Mahmoud Abbas does not have the wisdom of his predecessor, so if he is to name a successor, he is to create a situation in which one camp within the party will be unhappy about the outcome,” he continued.
“So likely he wanted to stay away … [from] deepening that existing internal division and to keep all the cards in his hands.”
Who are his potential successors?
Some people that could potentially succeed Abbas include Mohammed Dahlan, Jibril Rajoub, Mahmoud al Aloul, Nasser Qidweh and Majed Faraj.
“If suddenly something happens to Abbas, either the speaker of the Palestinian National Council could temporarily take his place, but he's actually very old,” expert on Palestinian and Arab affairs, Lamis Andoni, told TRT World, referring to Article 37 of the Palestinian Basic Law that states in case of death, resignation, legal incapacity, or two-thirds vote, the speaker of the parliament assumes the duty of the president for a maximum period of 60 days.
“Or [it could be] his deputy in Fatah [who] is Mohammed Aloul. So he could be a choice, at least a transitional choice. The other choice would be transitional again because there should be elections of course, but I don't know if there will be elections. [Other transition choices] could include Azzam al Ahmed ... or Saeb Erakat.”
Baroud argues that even if elections take place, they have been set from the start due to steps taken by Abbas designed to maintain the status quo of the party and the PLO.
“It's rather tough to make [a] call simply because he [Abbas] made sure that there is no strong man in Fatah, that any strong man in Fatah has been marginalised, removed, altogether, kicked out of the poverty or subdued,” said Baroud.
“So ... when that transition is ready to take place, it will be basically internal politicking that is governed by Mahmoud Abbas and his inner circle. And most likely at the end of the day, they are going to try to have this kind of supposed attempt at transparency to get the rank and file involved, not even in the selection process, but rather in the validation of the decision that is going to be made in advance by Mahmoud Abbas and his men.”
What effect may the new leader have on Palestinian politics?
Aside from some changes in policies or influence of personality, the new leader is unlikely to have any large-scale impact on Palestinian politics due internal politicking and the current structure of the PA, which lends itself to cooperating with Israel and its partners and succumbing to their policies.
The failure of the PA to bring about change for the Palestinian people has led to a loss of its credibility in the eyes of many Palestinians.
“The whole concept of the Palestinian Authority turned out to be a farce for Palestinians. It is an 'authority' without authority under occupation and all what left of it is the pleasure it gave to the current leadership to ‘practice power’ over part of their people,” Palestinian commentator and writer Abir Kopty wrote to TRT World.
“The PA became a field for power struggles and a fight over leadership, instead of a fight for liberation,” she continued.
Polls conducted in Palestine show that the majority of Palestinians want Abbas to quit.
“We know according to various polls that if Mahmoud Abbas himself has very little credibility and popularity amongst Palestinians ... [and] he is the most popular within his party at this point,” said Baroud.
“You can imagine that the rest are in fact lacking that popularity.”
“Without radical change in the structure of the leadership and inclusion of young people and the new generation, it's like a recipe for continued stagnation and further split or further and the further widening of the gap between the Palestinians all over the world and the leadership, regardless of who will lead,” explained Andoni.
If the PA has lost its credibility, what recourse do Palestinians have?
”A new political line will only emerge from a real grassroots movement in Palestine,” said Andoni.
“It will not emerge from any of these leaders who are leading or contending to lead.”
Although Palestinians are dissatisfied with the current leadership, they are likely to accept the leadership for fear of violence born out of infighting, she continued. Baroud added that Palestinians are forced to be content with the current leadership, because it is also the only one that is offered to them, and the only one that Israel allows to operate.
But Baroud argues that the seeds of the grassroots organisation have already been sown.
“The Palestinian people are clearly rising. They're rising in two different ways. In Gaza, they are rising through the popular mobilisation that is really unprecedented since the first intifada of 1987, but they are also rising in the West Bank.”
“The way that they are rising in the West Bank ... [is by] circumventing Abbas and his politicking within the Fatah Party altogether. I see very little interest among Palestinians in the politicking of the Fatah. PNC meeting was held in Ramallah ... in May [and] there was very little interest even among Palestinian intelligentsia. Nobody was making demands. There was no popular mobilisation calling Mahmoud Abbas to do this and that.”
“Palestinians are looking past Abbas."