Gaza war throws Mahmoud Abbas' West Bank succession plans into disarray

Palestinians' longstanding anger at the PA has been deepened by the Israeli assault

President Mahmoud Abbas. centre, is seen as “deeply unpopular” among Palestinians. AFP
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Before the outbreak of the Israel-Gaza war, a member of the Palestinian leadership's old guard was preparing to succeed Mahmoud Abbas as president of the Palestinian Authority.

Hussein Al Sheikh, Secretary General of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, began to make more profile-raising media appearances and travelled on assignments outside the occupied West Bank, which the Palestinian Authority governs under Israeli supervision.

“He was a shoo-in,” said a Middle East official, who met Mr Al Sheikh last year as part of his Palestinian brief.

Prior to the October 7 beginning of the war, Mr Al Sheikh had support from the United States, as well as Jordan and Egypt, said the official. The two countries are concerned about the stability of their respective borders with Gaza and the West Bank.

Mr Al Sheikh, 63, has also developed connections in Israel and Egypt through his role as the Palestinian Authority's point man in the United Nations' programme for rebuilding Gaza after the 2014 war with Israel.

But the latest war has disrupted plans for him to succeed Mr Abbas, who turns 89 this year, and upended the political situation more broadly in the occupied West Bank.

Palestinians' long-standing anger at the PA under Mr Abbas has only been deepened by its ineffectiveness in the continuing Israeli offensive in Gaza, where more than 25,700 people have been killed, according to local health officials.

Many in the West Bank have long accused the Palestinian Authority, led by Mr Abbas's Fatah faction within the PLO, of corruption amid a precarious economic situation and high unemployment. Mr Abbas and his proteges, many of whom are also active in business, have controlled politics and the economy in the territory for almost two decades.

The last Palestinian elections were in 2005-2006, when Mr Abbas was elected president and the rival Hamas faction won control over parliament, leading to an internal conflict that resulted in Hamas taking over Gaza while the Fatah-led PA was left with the West Bank.

Hamas and Fatah agreed to hold presidential and parliamentary elections in 2021 but Mr Abbas cancelled the polls, blaming Israel's refusal to allow voting in Jerusalem, even though more than 2.5 million Palestinians, constituting 93 per cent of eligible voters, had already registered to vote.

The Palestinian Authority has also been shown to have little will or ability to stop Israel from using force in West Bank areas nominally under its control. Israeli security forces had already been ramping up operations there in the months leading up to the war, conducting deadly raids in flashpoints such as the Jenin refugee camp.

Israel has intensified its raids since the outbreak of the war, resulting in soaring violence in the territory, with several hundred Palestinians, including combatants, being killed. Israeli forces have also arrested thousands in regular raids.

West Bank 'imploding'

Mr Abbas is currently “deeply unpopular” among Palestinians, and with the West Bank “imploding”, the PA may not last long, said Tahani Mustafa, senior Palestine analyst at the Crisis Group in London.

She said that Mr Abbas had centralised power within the structure of the Palestinian Authority, making the organisation all but “irrelevant”.

He and Mr Al Sheikh are now being seen as “obstacles” to the postwar arrangements for Palestinian leadership that are being discussed by the US and other stakeholders.

During a trip to the Middle East this month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken signalled that Washington envisioned a reformed Palestinian Authority taking over the management of Gaza once Hamas is supposedly diminished.

Some of the Western players even hope that the Gaza war could be a seismic event that leads to the restart of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

A month before the war, Mr Al Sheikh made a solo trip to Jordan and had a meeting with Foreign Minister Ayman Al Safadi – seen as a sign of Jordanian support for his political ascendancy.

Mr Al Sheikh is known to be at sharp odds with Hamas, a militant group supported by Iran and linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Jordan expelled Hamas's leadership to Syria in 1999, citing unspecified security reasons, but maintains channels with the group.

Unlike other figures in Fatah who improved their ties with Hamas in the last decade, Mr Al Sheikh is widely seen as a man the group particularly distrusts, partly because of his connections in Israel.

Ms Mustafa said Jordanian backing for Mr Al Sheikh has been waning as the kingdom attempts to tie the issue of succession with the Palestinian Authority's “reform and revitalisation … in line with an American plan”.

More importantly, she said, Washington wants to ensure that it “has the backing of all factions” for any peace plan it puts forward, so it is not “obstructed by any of them”, including Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the second most powerful faction in Gaza.

“If Abbas makes a phone call to Jenin and tells them to stop fighting the Israelis, no one is going to listen to him. He does not have that kind of traction with people on the ground,” Ms Mustafa said.

Despite the Palestinian Authority's attempts to prevent Hamas from infiltrating the West Bank, the group has armed supporters in the territory's refugee camps, and its popularity has grown since the outbreak of the war.

“Young men from Fatah are being swayed by more radical groups because they speak the kind of reality [the Israeli occupation] that many of the Palestinians live under,” Ms Mustafa said.

She described Hamas as having no interest in being part of a new Palestinian Authority administration, even in a postwar Gaza, as long as the group is admitted to the PLO, from where it can exercise its influence without being at the forefront.

“The only obstacle now in the face of reconciliation and national unity is Abbas,” she said.

Rotating presidency?

Whoever replaces Mr Abbas as leader will therefore need to unite the main Palestinian factions and resolve the schism between Hamas and Fatah.

Many believe that imprisoned Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti, who enjoys both the moral authority among Palestinians and support from Hamas and Fatah, is the main person capable of achieving the task.

But he has been serving a life sentence in an Israeli prison since 2002. Although Palestinian detainees have been released as part of hostage swaps during the continuing war, it is far from certain whether he will ever be released.

Ms Mustafa and other specialists who spoke to The National suggested a rotating presidency could be an alternative path to installing a leadership more capable of uniting Palestinians.

This arrangement could include allies of Mr Abbas and more independent figures, with each being able to serve as Palestinian Authority President for a fixed term while maintaining their power bases.

Besides Mr Al Sheikh, other candidates they mentioned for this role include former senior Fatah figure Mohammed Dahlan, who has been in exile in the Gulf for a decade; the Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohamad Shtayyeh, a technocrat who is close to Mr Abbas; and former diplomat Nasser Al Kidwa.

Two years ago, Mr Al Kidwa, a nephew of the late leader Yasser Arafat, formed the National Democratic Assembly. It is a grouping of reformists who have been trying to break Fatah's monopoly of West Bank politics, and the focus on security espoused by figures such as Mr Al Sheikh.

Jordanian political researcher Hazem Ayyad said Mr Al Sheikh had been planning to consolidate his position as heir apparent to Mr Abbas by purging rivals within Fatah before the end of last year, but failed because of the war.

This enhances the strategic position of Mr Barghouti as the best placed to revive the Palestinian national movement, he said.

Mr Ayyad said that if Israeli leaders had “political sense”, they would free Mr Barghouti because although he would drive a “hard bargain”, he is a figure who could prevent the disintegration of Palestinian structures.

“There are no longer any spare parts to keep the Palestinian Authority going,” Mr Ayyad said.

Egyptian officials with direct knowledge of Cairo's contacts with Palestinian factions told The National that Mr Abbas is unlikely to be replaced through new elections, but instead as part of a potential transitional Palestinian administration that could take over after the cessation of hostilities in Gaza.

Despite his unpopularity, Mr Abbas has not spoken publicly about his succession and continues to “cling to power”, one of the Egyptian officials said.

He has insisted that the Palestinian Authority should be solely in charge of Gaza and the West Bank after the war and should receive any reconstruction funds, the official said.

But with the upending of power equations by the Gaza war, Mr Abbas may well have little say on what shape Palestinian leadership will take in the postwar future.

Updated: January 25, 2024, 6:59 AM