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Abbas’s unscheduled hospital visit highlights succession race

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On 29 July, as the latest crisis over the Temple Mount crisis continued to unfold, reports emerged that Palestinian Authority (PA) Chairman Mahmoud Abbas had been taken to hospital after suffering from “exhaustion”.

News of Abbas’s deteriorating health is not surprising – he’s an 82-year-old chain smoker (although he has recently switched to e-cigarettes) who underwent cardiac catheterisation last year. Yet the unscheduled hospital visit has raised serious concerns in Jerusalem and Ramallah over who will succeed Abbas, and whether succession will happen in an orderly manner.

Last year BICOM released two strategic assessments on Palestinian politics after Abbas: institutional and constitutional challenges and the next Palestinian strategic direction. The papers argued that: there is no consensus regarding a replacement or a mechanism for succession; a leadership vacuum and prolonged succession battle could undermine stability in the West Bank and cripple the already weak PA, if not result in its collapse; and the next leader will have to confront the growing resentment on the Palestinian street about Israeli-PA security coordination and a lack of faith in the two-state paradigm.

The strategic assessments also mapped out Abbas’ likely potential successors, including PLO Secretary General Saeb Erekat, Chief of Palestinian Preventive Security Majed Faraj, former Chief of Palestinian Preventive Security Jibril Rajoub, prison-based Marwan Barghouti, and Mohammed Dahlan, former Fatah security chief in Gaza before Hamas took over the territory in a violent coup in 2007.

In the past year, there have been key moves by some of these players that merit attention.

In February Abbas appointed longtime apparatchik Mahmoud al-Aloul as Fatah’s first-ever vice president, a move Grant Rumley said “likely raises the spectre of a protracted power struggle when Abbas departs.” Although al-Aloul does not have enough popularity and influence among the Fatah party to replace Abbas, his appointment has alienated other candidates, especially Barghouti and Rajoub, whose chances of succeeding Abbas were theoretically weakened by their failure to be appointed the position.

In May Marwan Barghouti initiated and led a Palestinian prisoner hunger strike. Despite serving multiple life sentences for his involvement in the killing of five people Barghouti routinely polls as the individual most Palestinians prefer to succeed Abbas, and the hunger-strike was viewed by Western analysts as a litmus test for whether Barghouti could unite prisoners from different political factions under his leadership.

The 40-day strike failed to achieve the vast majority of its demands, but it wasn’t a total failure for Barghouti. He managed to persuade approximately 1,600 (1/4 of Palestinians incarcerated) mainly Fatah prisoners to start the strike, although that number quickly dwindled to around half within two weeks, whilst the response from the wider Palestinian public was more muted than initially expected. And despite the Hamas refusal to join the strike, a poll by PCPSR shows that 69 per cent of Palestinians believe that the hunger strike enhanced Barghouti’s leadership status (although his overall popularity vis-à-vis Abbas remains unchanged).

In late June Mohammed Dahlan re-emerged in Palestinian politics. As the energy crisis in Gaza grew worse, Dahlan brokered a deal that sees Egypt supply Gaza with fuel thus boosting his own standing amongst Palestinians, and according to Jonathan Schanzer, helping Dahlan to re-enter the “succession matrix”.

It is highly likely that Abbas’s successor will be selected by and within the PLO, so the question for Dahlan is whether this deal will provide an opening for him to re-enter the Fatah-controlled PLO? If, (and it’s a big if) Dahlan succeeds in gaining trust of both Hamas and Fatah, he will be well placed to succeed Abbas – who reportedly despises him – on the ‘day after’.

And finally, reports have emerged this week that Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who also serves as secretary-general of the PLO, is suffering from a serious respiratory disease and is on the waiting list for a lung transplant in Israel or the US. How this might impact his chances to succeed Abbas is still unclear, but whilst he undergoes treatment he is reportedly being replaced by Faraj, who has recently taken on an increasingly important role in Palestinian diplomacy, joining Erekat in meetings with US Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman. Gaining diplomatic experience and becoming acquainted with key US officials may suggest that Abbas is moulding Faraj to be his preferred successor.

Last month I spoke to Grant Rumley and Amir Tibon, authors of The Last Palestinian who told me that Abbas has taken more risks than any other Arab leader in the past 20 years to uphold the two-state paradigm and non-violent approach to gaining Palestinian statehood. The next leader will have to control a younger, more-activist and restless Fatah base (and Hamas) without possessing the respect, legitimacy and political capital that comes from being one of the founding fathers of the Palestinian nationalism movement.

One issue where this could prove particularly challenging is that of Israeli-Palestinian security coordination. Despite being termed ‘sacred’ by Abbas and playing a key role in maintaining PA rule in the West Bank vis-à-vis Hamas, it is deeply unpopular among Palestinians and in an unprecedented move, Abbas decided to freeze it during the Temple Mount crisis, in light of the high level of resentment towards this issue among Palestinians in the West Bank. The next leader may decide not to be as beholden to this arrangement as Abbas is, and may lack the political capital to hold off this resentment in the long-term if another crisis erupts.

While the full significance of these changes remain unknown, the ‘Day After Abbas’ will inevitably generate an array of challenges to Israel, the Palestinian National Movement and the international community, challenges that as of yet none of the parties is fully prepared for.

Samuel Nurding is a research analyst at BICOM and assistant editor of Fathom Journal.