Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is in the 18th year of a four-year term, 87 years old, and a heavy smoker. A recent Palestinian public opinion poll indicates that Abbas and the PA are unpopular with the West Bank Arabs they administer and continue to lose influence to groups like Hamas, the Iranian-backed Islamic Resistance Movement. Hamas, a U.S.- and Israeli-designated terrorist movement, violently expelled the PA from the Gaza Strip in 2007.
So, who will succeed the PA president, and will the change be an improvement for Israel and the United States, not to mention Palestinian Arabs themselves? Not likely, said Sean Durns, speaking on the March 9 Jewish Policy Center webinar, “the Palestinian Game of Thrones—The West Bank After Abbas.”
According to Durns, a senior research analyst for CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis), the Palestinian leader’s unpopularity “hasn’t stopped Abbas from consolidating power.” He has refused to hold elections, not convened the Palestinian Legislative Council since 2007—after Hamas handily defeated Abbas’ Fatah movement in the first and only Palestinian balloting—and rules by decree. Dissidents have been jailed and beaten or emigrated.
Durns, whose master’s thesis at the London School of Economics examined U.S. Middle East security policy early in the Cold War and who has written for the Washington Examiner, Jerusalem Post, Fox News, National Review and National Interest, among others, sees Iran as playing an influential role in Palestinian politics and potential leadership succession. “Unlike Arafat, Abbas has rejected support from the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Durns noted. But Tehran “has trained and supported several terrorist groups, including Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and others that surround the Jewish state.”
Noting the high number of fatal Palestinian terrorist attacks so far in 2023—16 Israelis killed, and more than 60 Arabs, most of them gunmen according to Israeli security sources—Durns pointed to Iranian involvement. “Iran has been using PA-ruled territories as a way station for the smuggling of both weapons and drugs into Israel, including into Arab Israeli communities. By smuggling arms and sowing social discord, Iran is seeking to destabilize the West Bank.”
Hezbollah, the Lebanese-based “Party of God,” Iran’s biggest, best-armed international terrorist proxy, has managed not only to control Lebanon and base itself in Syria as well, but has managed to take root in the West Bank. “Should Iran seem likely to take over the West Bank, Israeli intervention probably would be a foregone conclusion,” said Durns.
Opening the door to greater Iranian penetration of Palestinian-populated territories is the fact that “Abbas lacks a true, designated successor,” he said. “Like other successful autocrats, Abbas has prevented any rival centers of power from forming and gaining enough strength to challenge his rule.”
Nevertheless, there are potential successors. Among them, “in an environment where the ethos of ‘who holds the gun, holds the power’ dominates, the PA’s longtime intelligence head, Majid Faraj, would be able to muster considerable hard power in any potential power struggle,” Durns believes.
Others include Mahmoud al-Aloul, deputy chairman of Fatah; Mohammad Shtayyeh, the PA’s prime minister; and veteran Fatah operatives Jibril Rajoub (a convicted terrorist who also has worked with Israelis at times) and Abbas Zaki. “Zaki has expressed a willingness to receive support from Iran—a move that would be a shift back to the [Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser] Arafat era,” Durns said.
Noting that in its 100 years, the Palestinian Arab national movement has had only three leaders—Haj Amin al-Husseini, a Nazi collaborator; Arafat, supported by the Soviet Union; and Abbas, who has spurned Israeli offers to negotiate a “two-state solution”—Durns’ forecast for the short- and mid-term after Abbas was bleak: First, West Bank chaos. Second, new rejectionist leadership. On the plus side, Israel’s intelligence and military appear able to deal with such a scenario, though with tragic casualties for both sides.