Palestinians face new uncertainty over President Mahmoud Abbas succession

President Mahmoud Abbas is 80 and has indicated he is ready to scale back his workload. But with no designated successor, Ben Lynfield reports from Ramallah that a power vacuum could develop, which Israel would willingly exploit

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The Independent Online

With more than two decades of trying to secure an independent Palestinian state through negotiations at a hopeless dead end, the aging Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas now hopes to begin scaling down his responsibilities, with a view towards an orderly succession of power.

But after a decade in which Mr Abbas failed to groom a deputy or successor, in keeping with a tradition of one-man rule in the Arab world and in order to cast himself as indispensable, analysts in the West Bank and Gaza do not expect the transition to be smooth. Indeed, the sense in the Palestinian Authority’s de facto capital, Ramallah, is that the lack of any one outstanding candidate to succeed Mr Abbas, and infighting within his Fatah movement, promise to make the process tortuous, chaotic, dangerous and perhaps unworkable.

Nabil Shaath, a long-time adviser to Mr Abbas and a former foreign minister who now serves as Fatah’s foreign relations commissioner, told The Independent: “He thinks it’s about time he reduces his load but he is responsible enough not to leave things behind in a way that disturbs matters.

“He’s saying: ‘I’m doing my best to prepare for an era when I will not be able to continue.’ It’s not a secret. He’s told this to [Egyptian President Abdul-Fatah] al Sisi, [Jordan’s] King Abdullah and [US Secretary of State John] Kerry and he might say it at the UN General Assembly.”


Mr Shaath stressed that Mr Abbas, 80, was not contemplating, for now, relinquishing his most powerful post, the presidency of the Palestinian Authority, but does want to give up his positions as head of the PLO executive committee and of Fatah, the ruling party, provided this can be done in a smooth way.

Analysts believe, however, that Mr Abbas is moving towards giving up the PA presidency too, especially if concern about his possible resignation does not galvanise the US into facilitating tangible advances for the Palestinians in ending Israeli occupation and gaining independence. 

“The system is not ripe for such changes and the time for it is not yet arrived,” said Qais Abdul Karim, a member of the PLO executive committee and a veteran left-wing politician who says he has tried to dissuade Mr Abbas from stepping down.

Mr Shaath said Mr Abbas was looking to gatherings of Fatah in late November and the Palestine National Council, the PLO’s long dormant parliament, in December to pave the way for his withdrawal from leadership of Fatah and the PLO executive committee. But the Fatah meeting may not take place, due in part to reluctance of some leaders to risk losing their seats in elections to the group’s central committee, and nor is the PNC meeting assured.

Mr Abbas had sought to call a snap meeting of the PNC for last week but this was delayed for three months, against his wishes, amid Fatah infighting and objections that there had not been enough time to prepare. According to Palestinian law, the Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council takes over for a period of 60 days while elections are organised in the event of the resignation or incapacitation of the president. But the speaker, Aziz Dweik, is a leader of the rival Hamas movement, which runs Gaza, so Mr Abbas would have to find a way of circumventing the law to pass power to a Fatah loyalist, meaning there could be a fresh legitimacy crisis.

Talal Awkal, a columnist for Al-Ayyam, said the main reason impelling Mr Abbas towards resignation was that his strategy of achieving viable statehood through negotiations with Israel had failed, with the US withdrawing from efforts to mediate. “For 10 years he’s been seeking an active role by the US and the international community to pressure Israel to have a political horizon, but this has failed and he finds himself with nothing to do except to continue towards more failure,” Mr Awkal said. Violent clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces spread beyond the walls of Jerusalem’s old city at the weekend, with at least eight Palestinians shot.

Hani Masri, director of the Masarat think-tank in Ramallah, believes Mr Abbas hopes during diplomacy in the coming weeks to use the threat of resignation to elicit something tangible from the US, such as a pledge to become actively involved in a restart of negotiations with Israel. “He wants to see what comes out of his meetings and after that he’ll decide whether to stay or not,” Mr Masri said.

He said the long list of possible successors included Saeb Erekat, the veteran negotiator with Israel who recently became secretary of the PLO executive committee; Nasser al-Qudwa, a cousin of the late President Yasser Arafat and a former foreign minister; and Mohammad Shtayyeh, an economist and cabinet minister.

Mr Awkal believes Mr Erekat and intelligence chief Majed Farraj, who has also served as a negotiator with Israel, are the leading candidates. None of these figures is especially popular with the public or comes close to having the stature of Mr Abbas or that enjoyed by Khalil al-Wazir, a Fatah founder who was assassinated by Israeli commandos in 1988.

“Many people in Fatah see themselves as successors and no one is in a different league from the others,” Mr Khatib said. “I expect chaos, confusion and paralysis. The absence of Abu Mazen [Mr Abbas] will be a problem for everyone.”

Mr Abdul Kareem said that in practice the roles of head of Fatah, chairman of the executive committee and president of the authority were intertwined and it was at present unworkable to separate them.

“Stepping down without the system being prepared could cause Israel to fill in the vacuum by more intervention in the daily lives of the Palestinian communities, setting things even further back from independence,” he said.