Editor’s Note: It's always hard to be optimistic about anything involving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute today, and if anything, things are likely to get worse. Palestinian leadership is one particular problem. Nathan Stock of the Middle East Institute argues that succession after the death of 83-year-old Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is likely to be messy, with always-fractious Palestinian politics getting even more hostile and a two-state solution even further away.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was hospitalized three times in May. The political system he presides over is deeply divided, with his Fatah faction dominant in the West Bank cities, while Hamas controls the interior of the Gaza Strip. Elections are long overdue, and the lack of a functioning democratic system could lead to a succession crisis, including significant civil strife, should Abbas die in office. This, in turn, could be exploited by Israel to permanently divide the West Bank or to move ahead with the annexation of portions of occupied territory. While it would not be easy, coordinated pressure from Western and Arab governments on Israel and the Palestinians could help rehabilitate Palestinian democracy. Action now could do much to ensure a smooth succession process that mitigates violence—whenever Abbas leaves the scene.
It’s difficult to say when that might be. Abbas is 83-years-old and a heavy smoker. That said, while there are periodic rumors that he has serious health problems, there is no definitive evidence to this effect. He could continue to rule for years to come, and thus far Abbas has made no move to resign or designate a serious successor. His Hamas rivals recently agreed to yet another Egyptian-backed reconciliation agreement, and there is talk of former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad being brought back as prime minister as part of a package agreement with Hamas. While well short of designating a successor, installing Fayyad as prime minister could take some of the pressure off Abbas to deal with the succession question. Though he is loved by neither Hamas nor Fatah, he could be a consensus figure who has significant U.S. support.
That said, even appointing Fayyad is unlikely to seriously address the underlying vacuum within the political system. He lacks a sufficient base of support to steer a succession process, and Abbas was content to stand by when Fatah officials undermined Fayyad during his previous premiership, which ended in 2013. (Abbas’s security forces even targeted Fayyad’s nonprofit, after he left office.) It is unlikely that Abbas would work to meaningfully empower him. More broadly, Abbas has spent years using his control of Palestinian political institutions to systematically undermine potential rivals. As such, the most likely scenario is that Abbas will die in office without a clear successor, though no one knows whether this will be days or years from now.
In that event, the Palestinian Basic Law includes a mechanism for succession. According to Article 37, paragraph 2, the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) assumes the presidency for 60 days, allowing presidential elections to be organized. This process was implemented when President Arafat died in 2004.
Fatah is likely to break this law on Day 1 of a transition. Hamas legislator Aziz Dweik is the current speaker of the Legislative Council. While Hamas has insisted that he should assume the transitional presidency, Fatah has made clear that they will not allow this. Rather, there are reports that the PLO’s Central Council will make Salim Zanoun, currently speaker/chairman of the PLO’s legislative body, the transitional president. This is in keeping with years of conversations with senior Fatah officials, who have asserted to me that the PLO (which Fatah controls) would manage any transition post-Abbas. They argue that Dweik’s term, and those of the rest of the Legislative Council members, have expired. Thus, they are under no obligation to acknowledge Dweik as the transitional president (ignoring the logical extension of this reasoning, which undermines Abbas’s legitimacy).
This breezy vision of a Fatah-backed transition has three flaws. First, it assumes that future Fatah leaders can share power and consolidate political and security control, as President Abbas has. In the 13 years since he was elected to a four-year term, Abbas has secured unprecedented control of the Palestinian political and security apparatus in the “Area A” cities of the West Bank, where the PA has autonomous jurisdiction. The PA legislature has not met in a full session since 2006, so there is no parliamentary check against Abbas’s authority. Abbas’s security forces have driven Hamas underground, and the president has undermined rival centers of power within his own Fatah faction (see, for example, his sidelining of jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti). He also has not hesitated to use his security forces to arrest Palestinians for critical Facebook posts or to beat people demonstrating for the repeal of the PA’s economic sanctions targeting Palestinians in Gaza.
It is not clear that any future leader could amass this authority. Abbas has the advantage of being the last prominent leader from the founding generation of Fatah, the last of the old guard who ran the PLO in the days of Yassir Arafat. While two-thirds of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza want Abbas to resign, he still retains a degree of legitimacy because of this history. Abbas also has had years to amass control. And, he has benefited from relative consistency in Israeli policy, vis-à-vis the West Bank. Israel has not made it easy for Abbas: Israeli security forces routinely kill West Bank Palestinians, settlement expansion and Palestinian displacement continue apace, and Israel is hardly about to grant Palestinian independence. But, as long as Abbas has been in power, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not otherwise rocked the boat. Israel has neither annexed Palestinian territory outright, nor fundamentally changed its relationship with the PA, making it easier for Abbas to dominate his system. Not only that, Israel has cooperated with President Abbas in his campaign against Hamas in the West Bank.
Second, a Fatah-managed transition takes no account of Hamas. The terms in office of the PLC members and the president are long expired. But the expired mandates alone do not provide a way around the Palestinian Basic Law, which would still require that PLC Speaker Dweik become interim president. Dweik recently insisted that he should serve as president in the event of Abbas’s death. If Fatah attempted to organize PLO-backed elections, Hamas would be likely to boycott them, arguing that they are illegal. This could result in presidential elections happening in the West Bank but not Gaza, further cementing the Fatah-Hamas divide between the two territories. More broadly, if Fatah moves to marginalize the Islamist group, Hamas could spoil the process. Hamas supporters in the West Bank could be expected to protest, and Hamas may be able to engage in acts of violence against Israeli targets in Israel or the West Bank, further destabilizing the situation.
Finally, a political transition concocted in a smoke-filled room by Fatah leaders fails to consider the reaction of the Palestinian public. As long as Abbas remains in charge, any widespread mobilization of Palestinians in the West Bank appears unlikely. A combination of Israeli and Palestinian security control keeps a third Intifada, and any significant protest against Abbas’s rule, in check. But, given deep discontent with the status quo, a popular backlash against a stage-managed transition cannot be ruled out. Abbas has public apathy and inertia on his side, something his successors may lack.
If President Abbas were to die tomorrow, a realistic picture of the ensuing process would see Palestinian security forces deploying en masse in the West Bank cities, maintaining order. This would, at least initially, prevent significant unrest. It also would buy time for senior Fatah officials to attempt to divide the crowns Abbas wears: leadership of Fatah, the PLO, the Palestinian Authority, and the security forces. In this transitional phase, Arab and Western states also would make their preferences known, backing various figures.
On the one hand, the remaining Fatah leaders would have compelling reasons to agree on sharing power. Palestine today has little regional or international support, while facing a powerful and expansionist Israel. The Palestinians can ill afford further infighting. On the other hand, this bleak context has existed for years, yet it has not prevented deep divisions, including violence, between Fatah and Hamas and amongst Fatah supporters. There also are a number of senior figures in the West Bank who envision themselves as the next leader and have no love lost for one another. These include Palestinian intelligence chief Majed al-Farej, Fatah strongman Jibril Rajoub, and current Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah. Further, it will be very difficult for any of these leaders to articulate a compelling national vision for the Palestinian people. Only massive international pressure on Israel—which is not forthcoming—holds a chance of forcing the creation of a Palestinian state. Absent a struggle for national liberation, the post-Abbas leadership may be left only with a naked struggle for power.
If current trends continue, the best-case scenario after Abbas departs would be an election in the West Bank only, backed by Fatah. It would likely produce low voter turnout, but could lead to a new president, albeit one with a shaky political mandate that, among other things, would leave Gaza out of the picture. Another possibility is a managed transition process without elections. The result would be some constellation of political and security strongmen attempting to continue Abbas’s policies of security coordination with Israel, but without his monolithic control.
It is difficult to imagine either of these West Bank regimes (elected or unelected) being stable in the long term. And a transition process could falter quickly. While internal violence is not a foregone conclusion, it is a possibility. The last few years have seen violence between supporters of exiled Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan and Palestinian security forces in West Bank refugee camps. Additional fault lines exist between key Fatah figures, including Jibril Rajoub, Majed al-Farej, and Tawfiq al-Tirawi, each of whom command the loyalty of security agencies or other armed supporters, and there are reports of Fatah leaders stockpiling weapons. If the Fatah chiefs cannot agree on sharing power, it may be difficult to resist mobilizing their men at arms.
Should fighting within Fatah or between PA security branches begin, widespread violence with Israel also is likely to ensue. Israel, in turn, could seize on this to do away with the pretense of engaging with any national-level Palestinian leadership. If the PA can no longer play a role in ensuring Israeli security, its utility to Israel diminishes significantly. As it has done when faced with Palestinian unrest since the Second Intifada, Israel is likely to internally separate major West Bank urban centers.
If these Israeli-imposed divisions came in parallel to an internal Palestinian power struggle, the result could be Palestinian strongmen in the major cities rising to the top as Israel’s preferred, local security contractors. This arrangement would satisfy Israel’s desire to keep the Palestinians politically atomized, while still ensuring the existence of a Palestinian interlocutor to handle security coordination. It is in keeping with current Israeli efforts to bypass the Palestinian Authority and a longstanding Israeli interest in working with local Palestinian clients, from the “Village Leagues” of the 1970s to Dr. Mordechai Kedar’s recent Eight State Solution for Palestine. The result, as veteran Palestinian analyst Dr. Mahdi Abdul Hadi memorably described it to me, would be “a thug in Nablus, a thug in Hebron, a [Palestinian] collaborator next to the [Israeli] military governor.” Add to this the zeitgeist on the Israeli right for annexing Palestinian territory and a perfect storm is possible. A convergence between Palestinian political dysfunction after Abbas leaves the scene with Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank could render a two-state formula for resolving the conflict moot.
U.S. and Israeli support for the Quartet Principles, the policy put forward after Hamas won the 2006 PA legislative elections—that the Hamas-backed PA government had to recognize Israel, renounce violence, and accept prior agreements between Israel and the PLO—exacerbated deep fissures in the Palestinian political system that persist to the present. The conditions were articulated in a manner that made them impossible for Hamas to implement, while foreclosing possibilities for constructive compromise that could have cemented Hamas into tacit support for the peace process. After the elections, the United States and European Union cut or re-routed aid to the post-election government. Israel stopped transferring Palestinian customs revenues, collected at the border crossings it controls, to the PA, in contravention of the Oslo Accords. These external pressures on Palestinian society and the political system added to tensions between Hamas and Fatah, contributing to the outbreak of the short 2007 Palestinian civil war and the current Fatah-Hamas divide. No one forced the Palestinian factions to take up arms against one another. Fatah and Hamas had been in conflict since the advent of the PA in the 1990’s, and the roots of their tensions go back further. The point is simply that Israel and the United States bear at least some responsibility for the 2007 split. And, ever since, the possibility of a U.S.-Israeli political and economic boycott of any new, unified Palestinian government has constituted an additional obstacle to ending the split.
There are no easy ways to fix Palestine’s political malaise. However, the United States and its Western and regional allies should resist the temptation to play favorites, picking one strongman or the other, or endorsing Israeli efforts to capitalize on a succession crisis. Rather, the United States should coordinate with Europe and key Arab states—particularly Saudi Arabia and Egypt—to push the Palestinians back to elections before Abbas dies in office. This would have to include supporting the Egyptian-led Fatah-Hamas reconciliation process, begun in the fall of 2017; backing agreements to demobilize Hamas’s armed wing and regulate its future use; pressing Israel to significantly revise the Gaza closure regime; and securing Israeli, Western, and Arab support for broadly participatory elections and some form of PA unity government—including a direct or indirect role for Hamas.
While these steps would be challenging, there is precedent for this form of engagement. The George W. Bush administration put concerted pressure on Israel and the Palestinians, forcing ahead the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections. As recently as 2014, the Obama administration found a way to live with a consensus PA government backed by Hamas and formed as part of a reconciliation agreement with Fatah.
To be clear, none of this is a substitute for ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. At best, a reunified and democratic Palestinian political system would operate under a blanket of Israeli military control. As long as the occupation continues, Israeli-Palestinian violence is assured. But, investing in Palestinian democracy could provide Palestinians, particularly deeply disillusioned youth, with some modicum of hope, buying time and a degree of stability. And, it is far preferable to the chaos that could ensue if Abbas dies in the current political vacuum.