Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is 83, a heavy smoker with a history of heart problems and, a decade ago, prostate cancer. He was hospitalized in the West Bank, reportedly for a “minor” ear operation in mid-May. This followed a biopsy at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore in March.
Abbas also is 13 years into a four-year term as PA president. Speculation abounds as to who will succeed the Palestinian leader, who also serves as chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization and head of Fatah (Movement for the Liberation of Palestine), the largest and most influential PLO faction.
One of those mentioned is Jibril Rajoub, a long-time Fatah/PLO stalwart. Rajoub (Abu Rami), currently head of the PA Football (soccer) Authority, says Abbas will outlive many in the Palestinian leadership. He should hope so; the succession process may be improvised and unkind to veterans like himself.
Rajoub, 65, was sentenced to life in prison for throwing a grenade at an Israeli army bus in 1970. Released in the 1985 exchange of three Israeli hostages for 1,150 Palestinian terrorists and terrorism suspects, he worked with Fatah co-founder Khalil al-Wazir. Al-Wazir (Abu Jihad) had helped plan the 1975 Tel Aviv hotel murders of 11 Israelis and 1978 Coastal Road massacre in which 38 Israeli civilians were murdered, including 13 children, and 71 wounded after a bus hijacking.
Al-Wazir, Yasser Arafat, and a handful of other Palestinian Arabs had established Fatah in 1959. This was eight years before Israel gained the Jordanian-occupied West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, Egyptian-controlled Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula and Syrian Golan Heights in the 1967 Six-Day War. The “Palestine” they meant to “liberate” was first Israel and secondarily—should conditions permit—Jordan.
The PLO, including Fatah and other Palestinian anti-Israel terrorist groups, was created under the auspices of Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1964.
Rajoub has said he supported negotiations with Israel to buy time. He endorsed the 2015-2016 al-Aqsa mosque/Jerusalem “stabbing intifada.”
Marwan Barghouti, 58, may be the most popular of those considered a potential successor to Abbas. He co-founded the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, one of Fatah’s terrorist arms, during the second intifada (2000-2005) in which 1,100 Israelis and foreign visitors and 3,000 Palestinian Arabs died.
Convicted in an Israeli civilian court, Barghouti is serving five life sentences for murder. Recent Palestinian polls rate him the favorite to take over after the relatively unpopular Abbas. Yet Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh also receives poll sentiment similar to that for Barghouti.
Mahmoud al-Aloul, 68, (also known as Abu Jihad or “father of the holy war/struggle”) was appointed deputy head of Fatah and the PA by Abbas in 2017. He has called Israel’s re-establishment in 1948 “the greatest crime” and claimed Palestinian terrorism is “a legal right.”
Ignoring more than $5 billion in U.S. aid to PA and Palestinian agencies since the Oslo diplomatic process began in 1993, in January, 2018 al-Aloul stated no American administration had given Palestinian Arabs “anything of substance.” In March he praised Dalal Mughrabi, female leader of the Coastal Road massacre.
Mohammad Dahlan, 56, formerly led PA security services in the Gaza Strip. He along with the rest of Fatah’s Gaza leadership, was ousted by Hamas (Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement) from the Strip after the 2007 “five-day war.” Hamas had won a plurality in Palestinian Legislative Council elections in Gaza and the West Bank the year before. None have been held since; the council is dormant.
Other Fatah leaders blamed Dahlan for the Hamas take-over. Exiled by Abbas from the West Bank as a possible rival in 2011, Dahlan became a paid advisor to the United Arab Emirates.
He subsequently attempted a reconciliation with Hamas and founded his own movement, the “Democratic Reform Trend,” which Abbas’ PA apparatus has tried to suppress.
Majid Faraj, 56, heads the PA intelligence service. In March, 2018, he made a rare visit to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip with the authority’s prime minister, Rami Hamdallah. A bomb exploded near the armored SUV carrying Hamdallah and Faraj. They were unhurt but 10 others in unarmored vehicles were slightly injured.
The Associated Press, among other news media, have reported that Faraj maintains “good behind-the-scenes working relations with Israel and the United States.” He might have been the primary target of those who organized the bombing.
Saeb Erekat, 63, former PA chief negotiator with Israel, received a master’s degree (political science) from San Francisco State University in 1979 and doctorate (peace and conflict studies) from Bradford University in the United Kingdom in 1983. He suffered a heart attack in 2012 and in 2017 underwent a lung transplant in the United States.
The English-speaking Erekat long has been a familiar source for Western news media, despite his serial fabrications.
He infamously claimed to CNN in 2002 that at least 500 Palestinian Arabs had been massacred in Jenin during the second intifada; the number of dead turned out to be 56, nearly all combatants killed in house-to-house fighting in which 23 Israeli soldiers also died.
Erekat wrote in a 2005 International Herald Tribune column that Israel’s was the world’s “fifth largest” army; the International Institute for Strategic Studies said 18th.
In 2014, he claimed Palestinian Arabs could not accept Israel as the Jewish state because they had lived in the area—as Canaanites—for 5,000 years before the Israelites showed up; Hebrew University Prof. Raphael Israeli called that insistence “absurd,” another Palestinian attempt—like anachronistic links to the Biblical Philistines—“to invent origins” for themselves.
In any case, though Erekat was closely associated first with Arafat and later Abbas, he has no political base of his own. This, regardless of his health, makes him an unlikely successor to Abbas.
Hamas leaders might want to displace Fatah and the Arafat-Abbas line on the West Bank as they did in Gaza. However, Israel—having fought three wars with Hamas since, in December, 2008-January, 2009, November, 2012 and July-August, 2014—is unlikely to permit a West Bank sequel.
Whoever follows Abbas as head of the Palestinian Authority and PLO, a change in ideology seems questionable. Former PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, seen by the United States and many Israelis as a real Palestinian reformer, was pushed out by Abbas’ loyalists and, like Erekat, lacks a political following.
Since the 1920s under Haj Amin al-Husseini, British-appointed grand mufti of Jerusalem and World War II collaborator with Adolf Hitler, Palestinian Arab leadership has rejected compromise and coexistence. It did so first with the Zionist movement and later with Israel. Rejection of the 1937 British Peel Commission plan preceded dismissal of the 1947 U.N. partition plan, 1967’s “three no’s of Khartoum—no recognition, no negotiations, no peace—rejection of the 1979 Palestinian autonomy provisions of the Egyptian-Israel peace treaty; undermining the 1985 Jordanian-Palestinian peace initiative; failing to uphold the 1993 Oslo process pledges; rejecting “two-state” offers at Camp David in 2000, in Taba in 2001, and the Israeli proposal in 2008, including land swaps.
Palestinian leadership has built a nearly 100-year-long record of rejecting a second majority Palestinian Arab state, in addition to Jordan, in what had been British Mandatory Palestine if it meant peace with a sovereign Jewish state. The Palestinian leader willing and able to break that record remains unannounced.