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The West Bank After Abbas

Sean Durns Spring 2023
Palestinian National Authority Mahmoud Abbas. (Photo: EU /European Parliament)

“Authority,” the nineteenth century British poet Alfred Lord Tennyson once wrote, “forgets a dying king.” Few would describe Mahmoud Abbas, the obese, 87-year-old autocrat who rules the Palestinian Authority (PA), as “kingly.” Indeed, the Soviets reportedly used the code name “Mole” to describe his stolid, bespectacled figure. But there is little question that Abbas’s power is ebbing and that the PA’s control over the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) is slipping.

Abbas is currently in the eighteenth year of a single, elected four-year term. The aging kleptocrat is deeply unpopular. So, for that matter, is the PA that he leads. Those who care about both Israel’s security and American national interests should begin to think about scenarios that might unfold should Abbas depart, either from office or from this mortal coil. Iran and Hamas, among others, hope to gain from a succession struggle.

The PA was born out of the Oslo Peace Process that began three decades ago. It was created to provide Palestinians with limited self-rule in exchange for promises from then-Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat that they would renounce terrorism and resolve outstanding issues with Israel bilaterally.

The PA was not created to give Palestinian Arabs a state, as then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin made clear. Rather, it was, to use a phrase popular at the time, a “chance for peace.”

Yet, that chance has been given and Palestinian leadership has been found wanting.

The promises made by Arafat – and by the PLO’s then-foreign emissary, Mahmoud Abbas – provided the impetus for the PA’s creation. And they remain the basis for the international aid that the Authority receives. But from the Authority’s inception, those promises have been broken.

The PA has incentivized terror attacks against Israelis, paying tax-deductible salaries to terrorists and using its official media and school curriculum to celebrate the murder and maiming of Jews. And it is both corrupt and repressive, known for imprisoning and torturing dissidents while top Fatah apparatchiks enrich themselves.

By installing Arafat and his Fatah movement as the inaugural heads of the PA, American, and Israeli policymakers at the time were making a risky bet that they could co-opt so-called “hardliners.”

That bet, however, has not paid off.

Arafat rejected offers for a Palestinian state in exchange for peace with Israel. In 2000, he launched the Second Intifada, a five-year-long terror campaign in which 1,000 Israelis were murdered. Arafat’s decision echoed the choice of the 1930s Palestinian Arab leader – and future Nazi collaborator – Amin al-Husseini, who launched what was arguably the first intifada in 1936. And like Husseini before him, Arafat’s decision to reject peace in favor of war, only further splintered the Palestinian movement, leading his people to disaster. Instead of warding off rivals like Hamas, a Muslim Brotherhood derivative, Fatah only emboldened them.

When Arafat died in 2004, Fatah was in ruins. For many Palestinians, Hamas seemed like a better option. The aging kleptocrats of Fatah were viewed as the past. Hamas, whose charter called for the destruction of Israel and genocide of the Jews, was the future.

When elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council, the PA’s unicameral legislature, were held in January 2006, Hamas beat Fatah handily. The electoral loss led to a brief-but-bloody civil war that culminated with Hamas seizing the Gaza Strip. The US-designated terrorist group has maintained an iron grip on Gaza ever since, and has launched several wars against the Jewish state, each resulting in death and destruction primarily in the Strip.

For its part, Fatah has never recovered.

Arafat’s successor, Abbas, could have chosen a different path. Biographers Amir Tibon and Grant Rumley note that Abbas privately opposed Arafat’s decision to launch the Second Intifada.

Initially, foreign governments, including the United States, viewed Abbas as more moderate than his predecessor.

Indeed, as Tibon and Rumley have pointed out, “Abbas was more popular in Washington than in Ramallah, Gaza, or Jerusalem.” The “Mole” had spent most of his career with the PLO and Fatah in behind-the-scenes work – and much of it abroad, including a period studying under Soviet auspices. He didn’t have either Arafat’s charisma or his street cred. With his aviator sunglasses, keffiyeh and stubble, Arafat looked like a 1970s revolutionary. Abbas, by contrast, looks like an overfed banker.

Yet, this hasn’t stopped Abbas from consolidating power. He has refused to hold elections. The PLC hasn’t met since 2007. Laws are issued as decrees. And opponents and critics have become dissidents and emigres.

Abbas’s ability to speak for and lead the Palestinian people was always up for debate, but since Hamas seized the Gaza Strip in 2007, Abbas has been a crippled dictator who can’t claim to represent all the Palestinian people.

But the end of Abbas’s rule is in sight. It might not be tomorrow; indeed, it might not be next year. But the aging Abbas, who reportedly smokes two packs of cigarettes a day, is on borrowed time. And so is the imperfect lynchpin that both the United States and Israel have counted on to maintain order and a modicum of stability.

To be sure, Abbas has continued to pay salaries to terrorists and to herald those who murder and maim Jews. He has, on several occasions, incited violence, perhaps most infamously in 2015 when he declared, “We welcome every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem.”

But unlike Arafat, Abbas hasn’t carried out a terror campaign on the level of the Second Intifada.

And unlike Arafat, Abbas has rejected support from the Islamic Republic of Iran, the world’s foremost sponsor of terror and Hamas’s chief patron. A West Bank after Abbas would offer new challenges, both to Israel and to American interests in the Middle East.

The greatest danger comes from Tehran and its proxies.

Iran is committed to Israel’s destruction. The regime has trained and supported several terrorist groups, including Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and others that surround the Jewish state. The Islamic Republic’s strategy is to wrap itself, snake-like, around Israel. And should Abbas die or be deposed, the West Bank would provide the regime with a new front.

Indeed, Iran seems to be actively planning for such an occurrence. The regime has been making inroads in the West Bank and capitalizing on the growing unpopularity of both Abbas and Fatah.

According to the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, Iran has been carrying out military intelligence operations in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) for years. As the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA) has documented, Iran also has been smuggling weapons into the West Bank, often using PA-ruled territories as a way station for the smuggling of both weapons and drugs into Israel, including into the Jewish state’s Arab communities. By smuggling arms and sowing social discord, Iran is seeking to destabilize the West Bank.

The Shin Bet has arrested several Iranian-trained operatives in the West Bank, some of whom were reportedly planning attacks in Israel. In 2020, for example, Israeli security services rolled up a West Bank-based cell of Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) terrorists who were being directed from Lebanon and Syria, both of which are Iranian satrapies.

Indeed, in the years since, the tempo of Israeli counterterror raids in the West Bank has Increased markedly – a sign not only of Abbas’s diminishing authority, but of Iran’s expanding influence.

Hezbollah, the Lebanese-based, Iranian-backed terrorist organization, also has been active in PA-ruled areas. Once called the “A-Team” of terrorist organizations by a US deputy secretary of state, Hezbollah possess more missiles and rockets than most countries, and maintains a presence on nearly every continent. It is, by a wide margin, Iran’s most capable proxy. And not only does it control Lebanon, on Israel’s northern border, but it has managed to root itself into the West Bank, right next door.

Indeed, in August 2022 remarks, Hossein Salami, a top Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) operative, bragged that Iran was now arming its allies in the West Bank. It is, Salami told Iranian state media, part of the regime’s strategy to continue its jihad against “the Zionists.”

And there is every reason to expect that Iran would capitalize on the chaos that would follow in a post-Abbas West Bank.

In fact, as CAMERA detailed in a July 5, 2021 Washington Examiner commentary, Hamas has actively encouraged anti-Abbas activities – including in the weeks and days leading up to the 2021 Israel-Hamas War. That conflict, it should be recalled, was sparked, in part, by Hamas’s desire to exploit West Bank Palestinians who were dissatisfied with Abbas’s decision to cancel planned elections.

Iran has both the means and the motive to take the West Bank. It has been laying the groundwork for years. Such an occurrence would be unacceptable to Israel. Iran poses the only existential foreign threat to the Jewish state. It is the chief supporter of the myriad of terrorist groups waging war against Israel. And it is the only current enemy that can wield the resources and capabilities of a nation-state.

It would be unthinkable for Iran to gain another foothold in the area – particularly directly on Israel’s doorstep. Accordingly, should Iran seem likely to take over the West Bank, Israeli intervention probably would be a foregone conclusion.

Nor would Jerusalem be alone. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has long been both weak albeit surprisingly durable. The current monarch, King Abdullah II, isn’t popular, and Jordan likely would be loath to intervene. Yet, an Islamist power that seeks to foment revolution would be an unwanted neighbor. It is possible that Jordan, which has previously relied on Israel to prevent the rise of threats to Hashemite rule, would assist in some fashion, Israeli efforts to prevent Iran from taking Fatah’s place.

The United States would be right to support operations aimed at forestalling an Iranian takeover. Failing to do so would be tantamount to abandoning longtime allies and would erode US deterrence and credibility in a region key to American interests.

Of course, the reason for the West Bank’s vulnerability can’t be overlooked – or overstated. Fatah has grown increasingly unpopular. A June 2022 poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found a “significant drop in support for Fatah and its leadership.” The survey of West Bank Palestinians found a “significant change in the domestic balance of power in favor of Hamas.”

Abbas lacks a true, designated successor. In February 2022, he promoted a longtime associate to an important post. Hussein al-Sheikh, described by Reuters as an “Abbas confidant,” was named to the PLO’s executive committee. In June 2022, he was appointed Secretary-General of the PLO, effectively making him Abbas’s second. A quarter century younger than the PA leader, he seemingly has the support of the older man, as well as established relationships with Israel from when he served as Abbas’ liaison to the Jewish state.

Yet, it would be a mistake to assume that Hussein al-Sheikh would be anointed. Like other successful autocrats, Abbas has prevented any rival centers of power from forming and gaining enough strength to challenge his rule. In February 2022, the PLO’s Central Council named the 73-year-old Rawhi Fattouh, another Abbas aide, to head the PLO’s National Council. Fattouh, however, is older than al-Sheikh, and he was not subsequently named secretary-general.

Other potential successors exist.

Mahmoud al-Aloul, the deputy chairman of Fatah, was called a “likely successor” to Abbas in 2018 but has seen his star fade in more recent years. Mohammad Shtayyeh, the PA’s prime minister, is another possibility. Abbas himself was briefly prime minister in 2003 – however that was largely an Arafat concession to the West.

And 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. Other longtime Fatah operatives, such as Jibril Rajoub and Abbas Zaki, are also possibilities. Once an imprisoned terrorist, Rajoub does not lack for street cred, although at 70, he is very much part of an older generation. Notably, Zaki has expressed a willingness to receive support from Iran – a move that would be a shift back to the Arafat era.

Mohammad Dahlan, a charismatic Abbas rival who was banished in 2010, is a frequently discussed possibility. Dahlan has spent subsequent time living in Egypt and the U.A.E. Despite his time abroad, the Abbas regime fears him enough to have arrested several of his supporters in 2020. Dahlan and arch-terrorist Marwan Barghouti, who sits in an Israeli prison for five counts of murder, are longtime Abbas rivals who are frequently mentioned as possible successors. Yet, due to imprisonment and exile, both men would face significant hurdles to claiming the throne.

While it is difficult to predict who will succeed Abbas, the immediate outcome – chaos – is a near-certainty. In the last century, the Palestinian movement has had only three leaders: Amin al-Husseini, Arafat and Abbas. It is utterly lacking in healthy and functioning institutions and the rule of law. This problem has only worsened under Abbas, who has centralized power, and it has failed to be addressed by both policymakers and press who, via both money and neglect, have enabled it. Their derelictions will soon prove costly, and it will be Israelis, Palestinians, and potentially the United States itself, that will be picking up the tab.

Sean Durns is a Senior Research Analyst for CAMERA, the 65,000-member, Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis.