Unfreezing the Status Quo: Palestinian Politics After Mahmoud Abbas

Palestinian President Abbas addresses the UN General Assembly. Photo Source: Reuter/Lucas Jackson.

In mid-September, Israel held its second election in five months to determine the makeup of the 22nd Knesset. Noteworthy was the impressive performance by Benny Gantz and his centrist Blue and White Party, which outmaneuvered Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud for a 33-32 seat plurality.[i] While the result was encouraging for Netanyahu opponents, it certainly didn’t assure Gantz premiership.[ii] In fact, President Reuven Rivlin will allow Netanyahu the first opportunity to form a coalition; if neither leader can form a majority, Israel may be heading for yet another election.[iii] Netanyahu has demonstrated a tenacious spirit for remaining in power, as evidenced by his disposal of countless would-be challengers.[iv] It remains to be seen if Netanyahu can navigate his way from the brink or if the election marks a real shift in the status-quo of Israeli politics.

But as the world focused on the Israeli elections, little attention was paid to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. That is understandable: Palestinian politics have been ossified since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007.[v] While Palestinian political stagnation is surely related to the restrictive and often debilitating Israeli policies towards the Occupied Territories, it also has everything to do with the current state of Palestinian leadership. Mahmoud Abbas is 14 years into his 4 year term as president of the PA.[vi] The terrorist group Hamas rules the Gaza Strip and violently crushes popular dissent.[vii] Despite several failed attempts at reconciliation, Abbas’s Fatah party and Hamas remain in a standoff.[viii] With change likely on the horizon in Israel, it raises the question: What would a shift in the status quo yield for the Palestinian politics? 

The answer may come sooner than many anticipate. At the UN General Assembly on September 26, Mahmoud Abbas announced his plan to hold the first Palestinian parliamentary elections since 2006.[ix] Abbas has often vowed to hold elections in recent years, but he has yet to make good on his promise.[x] According to Palestinian Basic Law, office of the President is vacant if a) the president dies, b) the president resigns, or c) there is a loss of authority which requires a 2/3 majority of the Palestinian Legislative Council.[xi] Abbas is clearly unwilling to vacate his office voluntarily and elections remain on the distant horizon. If Abbas were to perish in the near-term – not an impossibility given his smoking habits and health problems – his successor would likely be decided by what some have described as a “silent primary.”[xii] This is how Abbas gained the presidency following Yasser Arafat’s death in 2004, and it entails the PLO selecting its chairman, who then acts as Fatah’s candidate for PA President.[xiii]

The list of potential successors is an assortment of former negotiators, diplomats, and politicians, each of whom hold different opinions on crucial issues (i.e., national priorities, relations with Israel, and the use of violence). Longtime members of Fatah, such as former negotiator Saeb Erekat, foreign relations head Nabil Sha’ath, and well-known diplomat Hanan Ashrawi, would likely represent a continuation of Abbas’ longstanding policies. Current Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh appeals to both ends of the political spectrum and reportedly has a close working relationship with Abbas.[xiv] However, the favorite internal candidate is Fatah deputy-chairman Mahmoud Al-Aloul, who is reportedly Abbas’ preferred successor.[xv] Although he supports popular resistance, al-Aloul has expressed interest in a one state solution in the past, which would mark a considerable departure from longstanding Palestinian policy.[xvi]

There are likewise politicians who operate outside of the PA machine yet hold considerable sway in Palestinian politics. That includes Mohammad Dahlan, the former security-chief of the Gaza Strip and vocal Abbas opponent. Since being exiled from the territories in 2011, Dahlan has been busy consolidating external support—mostly in Europe and the Gulf— while coordinating with Hamas to stage anti-Abbas rallies.[xvii] His considerable resources make him a formidable opponent. Another possibility is Jabril Rajoub, who rose as high as Deputy Secretary General of the PLO but now launches attacks at Israel from his position as head of the Palestinian Soccer Association.[xviii] Rajoub has political capital from his relationship with Yasser Arafat and his previous rank within the Fatah. The renowned reformer Salam Fayyad is another contender who merits consideration. Fayyad has operated on the fringes of Palestinian politics since being marginalized by Abbas in 2013, but would be a dream candidate for the US and Israel given his reputation for fighting corruption and pushing economic development.[xix]

Finally, there are prominent Palestinians who are unlikely to succeed Abbas yet will surely play a role in the succession battle to come. This includes jailed PLO leader Marwan Barghouti, who is serving multiple life sentences in Israel for attacks perpetrated during the Second Intifada. Since Barghouti was first imprisoned, he has seen his popularity rise, especially as he makes policy statements in direct opposition to Abbas.[xx] His release could be facilitated by a “Nelson Mandela scenario whereby popular pressure might secure his freedom and pave his way to power.”[xxi] On the other end of the political continuum is Head of Palestinian Intelligence Majid Faraj.[xxii] Trusted by Abbas and respected by the U.S., Faraj has demonstrated a willingness to coordinate security with Israel that makes him a compelling dark horse candidate.[xxiii]

Despite its paralysis since 2007, Palestinian politics may soon enjoy the long-awaited election that the Palestinian people irrefutably deserve. Until Palestinians finally head to the polls, observers and analysts will have to make do with predictions based on the shifting sands of Palestinian political power. Trusted Abbas lieutenants in the PA are well-positioned for success; exiled former confidantes such as Dahlan and Fayyad may soon return to the stage. A wild card like Barghouti would change the political landscape entirely. Any scenario will require some degree of Israeli recalculation. Abbas’ age and ailing health indicate that change could arrive suddenly; what that change means for Palestinian National aspirations, only time will tell. 


[i] “Israeli elections: Netanyahu and Gantz take ‘significant step’ towards deal,” BBC News, September 23, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-49805584?intlink_from_url=https://www.bbc.com/news/topics/cwjdz1r4gj6t/israel-elections-2019&link_location=live-reporting-story.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Isabel Kershner, “In a Twist, Netanyahu Wins a Chance to Keep his Job,” The New York Times, September 25, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/25/world/middleeast/israel-election-results-netanyahu.html.

[iv] Neri Zilber, “Netanyahu’s Coalition Games, Foreign Affairs, May 23, 2016, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/israel/2016-05-23/netanyahus-coalition-games.

[v] “The ‘Political Paralysis’ Behind the Collapse of the Palestinian Unity Government,” World Politics Review, February 20, 2019, https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/trend-lines/27472/the-political-paralysis-behind-the-collapse-of-the-palestinian-unity-government.

[vi] “Abbas said set to pledge Palestinian elections at United Nations assembly,” The Times of Israel, September 25, 2019, https://www.timesofisrael.com/abbas-said-set-to-pledge-palestinian-elections-at-united-nations-assembly/.

[vii] Iyad Abuheweila and Isabel Kershner, “Hamas Crackdown on Gaza Protests Instills Fear,” The New York Times, March 25, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/24/world/middleeast/gaza-protests-hamas.html.

[viii] “Hamas and PA continue to ‘arbitrarily’ detain, silence critics: HRW,” Middle East Eye, May 29, 2109, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/hamas-and-pa-continue-detain-silence-critics-report.

[ix] Jack Khoury, “Abbas Says He Will Announce First Palestinian Elections Since 2006,” Haaretz, September 26, 2019, https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/palestinians/.premium-abbas-says-he-will-announce-first-palestinian-elections-since-2006-1.7912929.

[x] Christine Hauser, “Abbas postpones elections in a move rejected by Hamas,” The New York Times, June 5, 2005,https://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/05/world/middleeast/abbas-postpones-elections-in-move-rejected-by-hamas.html.

[xi] “2003 Amended Basic Law,” The Palestinian Basic Law. https://www.palestinianbasiclaw.org/basic-law/2003-amended-basic-law.

[xii] Grant Rumley, “The Race to Replace Mahmoud Abbas,” Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, (September 2015): 7, https://s3.us-east-2.amazonaws.com/defenddemocracy/uploads/publications/Rumley_Understanding_Palestinian_Succession.pdf

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] “New Palestinian PM: Who is Mohammad Shtayyeh?” France 24, March 10, 2019, https://www.france24.com/en/20190310-new-palestinian-pm-who-mohammad-shtayyeh.

[xv] Khaled Abu Toameh, “Who is Mahmoud al-Aloul, touted as Abbas’s possible heir?” The Times of Israel, March 7, 2018, https://www.timesofisrael.com/who-is-mahmoud-al-aloul-touted-as-abbass-possible-heir/.

[xvi] Yoni Ben Menachem, “Fatah Prepares to Replace Mahmoud Abbas, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, March 6, 2018, http://jcpa.org/fatah-prepares-replace-mahmoud-abbas/.

[xvii] “Gazans rally for ex-strongman as corruption trial opens,” The Times of Israel, December 18, 2014, https://www.timesofisrael.com/gazans-rally-for-ex-strongman-as-corruption-trial-opens/.

[xviii] Avi Issacharoff, “Abbas’s de facto ‘successor’ doesn’t want to talk about ‘the day after’,” The Times of Israel, December 19, 2016, https://www.timesofisrael.com/abbass-de-facto-successor-doesnt-want-to-talk-about-the-day-after/.

[xix] Thomas Friedman, “Goodbye to All That,” The New York Times, April 24, 2013, https://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/24/opinion/friedman-goodbye-to-all-that.html.

[xx] “Poll: Marwan Barghouti Would Win Palestinian Presidential Election,” Haaretz, May 22, 2014, https://www.haaretz.com/barghouti-would-win-election-1.5249331.

[xxi] Grant Rumley, “The Race to Replace Mahmoud Abbas,” Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, (September 2015): 13, https://s3.us-east-2.amazonaws.com/defenddemocracy/uploads/publications/Rumley_Understanding_Palestinian_Succession.pdf

[xxii] Yoni Ben Menachem, “Fatah Prepares to Replace Mahmoud Abbas, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, March 6, 2018, http://jcpa.org/fatah-prepares-replace-mahmoud-abbas/.

[xxiii] Grant Rumely, “Middle East Watchers: Keep Your Eyes on Majid Faraj,” The National Interest, August 20, 2014, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/middle-east-watchers-keep-your-eye-majid-faraj-11107.

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