Palestinian leaders in the West Bank refer to the wave of terror currently gripping Israel as a haba sha’abiya, or a “popular outburst.” The imagery suggests that the terror wave is widespread yet temporary, violent but not catastrophic. It’s a way for Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, to acknowledge current public sentiment while avoiding terms like intifada, which connotes a long-term campaign with his complicity.
Endorsing acts of violence while avoiding responsibility is a matter of survival for the aging Abbas. Members of his Fatah party are near mutinous in their demands for him to appoint a successor. His PA is perennially cash-strapped and on the verge of collapsing. And his diplomatic offensive against Israel in the international community is just shy of prompting a reprisal from Israel – the only actor truly capable of toppling him.
Abbas will probably be able to stave off a full-blown uprising. But it is these other factors – the succession battle, the Palestinian financial crisis, and the international diplomatic campaign – that will prove far more difficult for him to control. If any of them become flashpoints, it will mean turmoil for both Ramallah and Jerusalem.
Who Comes After Mahmoud Abbas?
Mahmoud Abbas is an 81-year-old pack-a-day smoker with two heart surgeries under his belt. His eleven years as president of the Palestinian Authority (he was elected to a four-year term) now surpass that of his predecessor, Yasser Arafat. And like Arafat, Abbas sees himself as president for life. He has no clear successor and has so far refused to name one. When asked by an Israeli journalist in January about his succession plan, Abbas insisted “Palestinian institutions” would select his successor after he was gone.
Here’s the problem: Palestinian institutions are in worse shape now than when Arafat died in 2004. Palestinian Basic Law states that should the president pass away in office, power would go to the speaker of the PA parliament for a period of 60 days while national elections are prepared. That would seem reasonable, except that parliament has been defunct since the 2007 internecine conflict between Fatah and Hamas (which left the West Bank under the control of the Fatah-dominated PA and the Gaza Strip under Hamas). Further complicating this issue is the fact that, were Abbas to pass away today, his powers would fall to the last elected speaker of parliament: Aziz Dweik of Hamas.
That the Palestinian likely succession plan would shirk Basic Law and more closely resemble the Vatican’s conclave process is no coincidence. Abbas has stamped out the green shoots of Palestinian democracy over the last decade, making it virtually impossible for any rivals to challenge him in the political arena.
Like many of the other regional autocrats, Abbas appears to believe that naming a successor would only embolden his enemies. But this has not prevented enemies from rising up. The biggest threat to Abbas right now is Mohammad Dahlan, the one-time protégé of Arafat and former head of PA security forces in Gaza. Dahlan was in charge when the PA lost Gaza to Hamas in the brief yet bloody 2007 civil war. Abbas hung that defeat around his neck, exiling him in 2011. Since then, Dahlan has been based in the United Arab Emirates, acting as an advisor to the crown prince of Abu Dhabi. Dahlan is now planning his return. He slams Abbas’s governing style at every opportunity, and rallies allies from neighboring Arab countries to undermine the Palestinian leader.
Dahlan’s activities seem to reinforce Abbas’s perceived need to clamp down on all possible challengers. He has arrested journalists for reporting on corruption, trade union heads for challenging the PA, and everyday Palestinian citizens for Facebook posts he deems controversial. One Palestinian civil rights group, MADA, estimated that PA assaults on journalists doubled from 54 in 2014 to 110 in 2015. One prominent Palestinian professor appeared on Palestine TV in January of this year and insinuated Abbas should be executed for treason. Two days later he was arrested by the PA.
When Yasser Abed Rabbo, the secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), criticized Abbas’ autocratic governing style in mid-2015, Abbas fired him and replaced him with one of his loyalists, Saeb Erekat. When members of the PLO refused to endorse this move, he sidelined them. It is for this reason that members of Abbas’ Fatah party have been demanding he name a successor at the party’s next conference. Yet Abbas has postponed the group’s conference since 2014.
Sadly, the U.S. Department of State refuses to address the succession challenge for fear of upsetting Abbas. As a result, the next Palestinian leader is almost certainly to ascend without a meaningful vote from the Palestinian people. Whether the restive Palestinian people will be satisfied with their next leader remains to be seen. In the age of the Arab Spring, it is not difficult to imagine unrest in response to an unpopular selection.
Will the Palestinian Authority Collapse?
With Abbas’s exit expected in the coming months or years, it has become commonplace for analysts to proclaim the PA dead or dying. But it’s impossible to tell just how much life the para-state body has left. What is clear is that it has just marked the 22nd year of what was designed to be a five-year phase, and it is progressively weakening. Corruption is endemic, the legislature has been defunct for nearly a decade, and Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah regularly complains of dwindling international aid. Polls in September 2015 showed over half of all Palestinians were in favor of dismantling the PA.
To keep control of the West Bank, Abbas relies on the one PA branch still functioning at a high level: the security apparatus. The security services have helped beat back Hamas advances in the West Bank through arrests and raids, thus preventing a takeover similar to when Hamas sacked Gaza in 2007. For that reason, Israel is deeply invested in the security services’ success. Thus, throughout the recent spate of terror attacks Abbas has maintained the PA’s security coordination with Israel, at times authorizing joint raids with the Israeli military against potential terrorists in the West Bank. The PA’s spymaster, Majid Faraj, told Defense News in January that the PA had pre-emptively stopped over 200 terror attacks against Israelis. Abbas has gone even further, telling reporters in 2014 that security coordination with Israel was “sacred” to the Palestinians.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a recent cabinet meeting that Abbas is unlikely to dismantle the PA himself, but that it could still collapse due to the ossified Palestinian political system. The nightmare scenario for both Netanyahu and Abbas is one in which West Bank frustrations eventually prompt Palestinians to take to the streets to protest not against Israel, but Abbas. The West Bank came close to such a scenario in July 2014, when anywhere from 10,000 to 25,000 Palestinians marched from Ramallah to the Qalandiya checkpoint near Jerusalem to protest the war in Gaza. It was the largest Palestinian protest in at least a decade, and although it was in part supported by Abbas’ Fatah party, it quickly devolved into a full-scale riot that Abbas struggled to control.
Abbas and the PA haven’t allowed a similar protest since, in large part because they know the next one might turn around and come back to Ramallah. Palestinian leaders quietly acknowledge this concern, and watch nervously as the PA’s legitimacy continues its decline.
The Future of Palestine 194
To deflect the sharp criticisms launched at him and his failing government, Abbas has doubled down on what is now known as “Palestine 194” – a five-year-old international diplomatic campaign against Israel.
While much of the campaign has until now focused on rather futile declarations of independence and accession to little-known international organizations at the United Nations, the effort is taking a new turn. The Palestinians are now focused on convening an international conference to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
While this may sound benign, it’s not – at least, not for Israel. The Palestinians want this conference to bind Israel to a set of parameters, suggested by the Palestinians and enforced by the international community, to lay the foundation and accelerate the timeline for the establishment of a Palestinian state. As a collection of senior Fatah and PA officials advocated last year, an “internationalized route” would make sure “any future negotiations play the role of implementing what has already been internationally endorsed.”
To understand why the Israelis are nervous about this, it is instructive to consider the deeply flawed nuclear agreement reached last summer between the P5+1 international negotiators and Iran. That agreement left Israel vulnerable and Iran considerably stronger. Thus, when senior Fatah official and former peace negotiator Mohammad Shtayyeh called for a conference last November, he specifically mentioned the nuclear negotiations: “If there was a Geneva Conference for Iran, with the successful 5+1 formula,” Shtayyeh argued, “Why shouldn’t there be an international conference for Palestine?”
While the Palestinians pursue such a conference, they continue to consider other elements of the Palestine 194 campaign. For example, they joined the International Criminal Court (ICC) last year, with the intention of suing the Israelis for war crimes, but have been stuck in legal purgatory since joining the international body. The ICC may have succeeded in worrying Israeli officials, but any ruling on settlement building, for example, is unlikely to come for many years, and even then, it is difficult to see how a ruling could pave the way for a Palestinian state.
Nevertheless, Abbas and the Palestinians see a golden window for the Palestine 194 campaign in the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency. The president has been sympathetic to the Palestinians throughout his presidency, and even seems to be working on the margins to support the Palestine 194 effort. For example, he upgraded the PLO embassy in Washington amidst Palestinian declarations of independence at the United Nations, and has publicly hammered Israel for settlement construction. Mahmoud Abbas knows that with Washington less inclined to shield Israel from his efforts, and with the UN and EU firmly on his side, there are opportunities for progress. What exactly he will accomplish is unclear. But the next American administration, Republican or Democrat, will almost certainly be less sympathetic to his campaign.
There are several options for American and Israeli policymakers to stave off the above crises. First and foremost would be to demand that Abbas name a successor, whether as a deputy member of his Fatah party or as a vice president. Such a move might incur the wrath of his political rivals in the West Bank and Gaza, and it certainly wouldn’t help the cause of democracy, but it would also allow the U.S. and Israel to prepare for a transition phase. If Abbas is to pass away suddenly without a clear successor, a violent power struggle is more likely than a repeat of the relatively smooth transition after Arafat died in 2004.
Working to ensure a smooth transition into the post-Abbas era goes hand-in-hand with preventing the collapse of the Palestinian Authority. The U.S. and Israel have several stopgap measures at their disposal to halt such a collapse. The first is bolstering the Palestinian economy, which has long been dependent on Israel for growth, in ways that do not undermine Israeli security. The second area of focus should be on revitalizing the stagnant Palestinian civil society. The waning years of the Abbas presidency have seen him push out reformers (Prime Minister Salam Fayyad) and independent political figures (Yasser Abed Rabbo), while eroding the independence of journalists and the judiciary. Finding ways to inject new life into the political space and key institutions will go a long way in lessening the stress on the Palestinian Authority.
Countering the Palestine 194 campaign will require similar creativity. What started as a periphery “Plan B” in the event peace negotiations failed has morphed into the “Plan A.” From Abbas’ allies in Fatah to his rivals in groups like Hamas, attacking Israel on the world stage receives near-unanimous support. Such moves already come at a price. Congress has already punished the Palestinians for several diplomatic steps they have taken. But it will also be important to provide the Palestinian people with a clear sense of which state-building steps are welcomed.
The Obama administration, however, has demonstrated little willingness to expend political capital on Palestinian politics in the last year of its term, and Israeli politicians prefer the near-term relative stability of Abbas to the potentially unstable long-term reform process. Still, it is in the interest of America, Israel, and Palestinians to begin a revitalization that not only addresses intransigent leaders, but injects some vitality into West Bank institutions. Only then, with new leaders and a renewed sense of political openness, will conditions be ripe for making peace with Israel.
Jonathan Schanzer, Ph.D., is vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Grant Rumley is a research fellow for FDD.