Mahmoud Abbas and the PA's succession dilemma

Workers post an election poster of PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas with a picture of late leader Yasser Arafat in the northern West Bank city of Nablus, 25 December 2004. [Getty]
6 min read
12 August, 2021
Analysis: The Palestinian Authority's survival after Mahmoud Abbas is not guaranteed.

Uncertainty is a keyword characterising the state of affairs in Palestine, especially since the signing of the Oslo Accords and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the early 1990s. 

One of the hot questions that remains unresolved for a decade now is the uncertainty surrounding the succession of Mahmoud Abbas, the octogenarian president of the Ramallah-based PA.

Recent years have seen waves of analysis and policy papers envisioning potential scenarios for the post-Abbas scene. Such concerns stem from the uncertain consequences of PA instability on both Palestinian domestic affairs and PA relations with Israel and its Western partners. 

Obviously, those whose interests are at stake are the ones exhibiting the deepest concerns: the Israelis, Western governments, and the leaders of PA and Fatah. For most Palestinians, indifference seems to prevail, perhaps because the past three decades of PA rule has been a source of deep disappointment.

"Despite the uncertainty, one thing remains clear: a chaotic power transition is coming"

The election of Mahmoud Abbas in 2005 inaugurated a new chapter in Palestinian politics. His mandate focused on reshaping the post-Yasser Arafat scene and on rebuilding PA institutions along new lines more favourable to Israeli and donor conditions.

While he successfully delivered his promise of ensuring stability, disbanding resistance, and upgrading security coordination, Abbas failed miserably on his promises to his own people: creating an independent state,  healing Palestinian divisions, and stamping out authoritarianism and corruption.

Although Abbas's presidential term officially expired in 2009, he secured an indefinite monopoly over the main centres of power. He is the president of the PA, the chairman of the PLO, and the head of the Fatah party.

By holding these key positions, Abbas has not only ensured unchallenged control of internationally recognised Palestinian institutions but also effectively weakened competitors, thus leaving all potential contenders on an unequal footing.

Speculation about Abbas's succession has generally been driven by his old age and poor health. However, recent events call into question his popular mandate, as, following the killing of the activist and outspoken critic Nizar Banat at the hands of PA security forces, more and more Palestinians are calling for him to leave and for the state to hold presidential and legislative elections.

According to a recent poll, only 14% say Fatah under Abbas deserves to represent and lead the Palestinian people.

Demonstrators hold up images of late Palestinian activist Nizar Banat, who died in late June 2021 during a violent arrest by Palestinian Authority security forces. [Getty]
The killing of activist and outspoken critic Nizar Banat at the hands of PA security forces caused widespread outrage. [Getty]

Fatah and the PA 

Those who were named in recent years as likely contenders after Abbas are mainly Fatah affiliates. As the dominant party within the PLO that has initiated and led the PA since its inception, Fatah constitutes the source of most of the PA elite and civil and security functionaries. Indeed, the PA is a Fatah-dominated project, and systemically uses Fatah's legacy to provide a "nationalist" justification for its very existence. 

Fatah's nationalist ideology is loose. Historically, the party encompassed diverse groups ranging from left to right, from conservative to liberal. Such diversity has often fueled intra-Fatah rivalry. In the pre-Oslo era, rivalries centred on conflicting political strategies which resulted in major splits in 1974 and 1983.

After Oslo, rivalries were dominated by competition over the distribution of power and privileges. Yasser Arafat manipulated these power struggles, by keeping a tight leash to suppress any contenders to power. Arafat's successor, Abbas, was initially rejected and disdained by Fatah constituents and was even named "Palestine's Karzai" because of his opposition to Arafat's politics and suspicious relations with Israel and the US.

In-depth
Live Story

But Fatah's attitude has entirely changed since the passing of Arafat. Mahmoud Abbas was chosen by Fatah bodies to lead the party and the PA. 

This pragmatic choice served two purposes. Externally, Abbas was the favoured man by both Washington and Tel Aviv, and as such would make donors more likely to continue funding the PA. Internally, Abbas is seen as the last remaining founding member of Fatah, a symbolic choice to prevent a violent power struggle within the party.

Abbas, who lacked Arafat's charisma and popularity, moved to restructure the PA and Fatah, replacing Arafat loyalists with his own. With the outpouring of international aid to the PA, Abbas's power depended on patronage to establish a broad network of loyalist beneficiaries across the PA and Fatah, with US-trained security forces playing a central role.   

Who could come out on top of the succession struggle?

There is no doubt that the struggle for succession will be perilous. The absence of succession mechanisms, the dissolution of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), and the unwillingness of Fatah leaders to call general elections all further complicate the uncertainty. Power-hungry candidates will likely resort to mobilising their internal bases while ensuring substantial external support.

While, for many years, dozens of names have been cited as possible successors for the presidency, there are specific figures whose power status and relations make them more likely candidates than others:

  • Majed Faraj, the head of the General Intelligence Service (GIS) and a member of Fatah's Revolutionary Council, seems to be favoured by Israel and the US because of his security background and central role in enforcing stability and security coordination with Israel. While his power lies in his control of the GIS, he is widely disliked by the public at large.
  • The former PA strongman in Gaza, Mohammed Dahlan, is the main rival of Abbas and is supported by the UAE, a strong regional ally of Israel. Through his "reformist" trend within Fatah, Dahlan has been building bases of loyalists among Fatah constituents in the West Bank and Gaza, particularly among those who have felt marginalised under Abbas. Dahlan is seen as a threatening figure to the current PA elite, and most Palestinians regard him as a "regional mercenary" operating in service of the UAE's foreign policy agenda.
  • Marwan Barghouti, a prominent leader who led Fatah militants during the First and Second Intifadas, is currently serving five life sentences in Israeli prison. Barghouti is distinguished from other candidates by his popularity among many Palestinians. While certainly not supported by the US and Israel, several European politicians and parliamentarians have campaigned for his release. While his chances for succession remain minuscule if he is not released from Israeli prison, a presidential election may increase his chance to win the presidency.
marwan barghouti wall mural
Marwan Barghouti, a prominent leader who led Fatah militants during the First and Second Intifadas, is a popular figure among Palestinians. [Getty]

The transition of power

Despite the uncertainty, one thing remains clear: a chaotic power transition is coming. Given the animosity among many possible successors,  and if a satisfactory compromise is not reached, violence could be inevitable. In this case, Israel would exploit this dynamic and support whoever might be willing to offer further concessions, while preventing violence from spilling over to areas under its control.

While general elections are a popular demand and could be the safest approach to transition, Fatah has shown reluctance for this option. Elections threaten to tear Fatah apart due to the lack of consensus on a united list, which may multiply Fatah's electoral lists and weaken their chance to win. Furthermore, the increasing unpopularity of Fatah could favour Hamas and other independent candidates, possibly reiterating the post-2006 general elections scenario.

"The Palestinian Authority's survival after Abbas is not guaranteed"

Overall, the PA's survival after Abbas is not guaranteed. A growing Israeli far-right represented in the government and the Knesset advocate for decentralising PA power across the West Bank cantons. In this case, Israel would promote the power of specific figures, mainly tribal and business leaders, to oversee civil and security affairs through local municipal councils under its direct rule.  

Most post-Abbas succession scenarios are not dictated by the choices of the Palestinian people. However, if the growing opposition to Abbas and the PA develop into nationwide action, this will pave the way for Palestinians to break with Oslo's humiliating terms and its untold damage to Palestinian politics.

Tariq Dana is an assistant professor of conflict and humanitarian studies at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies and an adjunct lecturer at Northwestern University, Qatar. He is also a policy advisor for Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network.

Follow him on Twitter: @TariqNDana