Last September, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE announced renewed efforts to revive reconciliation between competing Palestinian factions. Referred to as the Arab Quartet, the group seeks to end years of internal political fracture, hoping to unify the ranks of the Fatah movement and end the power struggle between rival parties Fatah and Hamas.
Various attempts to shake the Palestinian political stalemate have come and gone over the past decade but failed to unite the competing groups. This time, however, regional actors have adopted a new approach, attempting to shift the internal Palestinian balance of power away from the current coterie of ineffectual Palestinian leaders.
Amid frictions between the Palestinian leadership and its Arab allies, the Egyptian government has ensured that it maintains an active role in Palestinian affairs. On Monday, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi met with the President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Mahmoud Abbas in Cairo ahead of an Arab League summit set for March 29 in Jordan, as well as planned visits by both Abbas and Sisi to Washington, where restarting stalled peace talks will top the agenda of talks with the US administration.
But the relationship is altering as Egypt continue to increase severe pressure on Abbas to introduce reforms aimed at ending internal division and resuming Palestinian-Israeli peace efforts.
Geopolitical factors have redefined the priorities of regional actors, who have called for the revival of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, an agreement that would advance Arab normalisation with Israel. This requires an immediate breakthrough on the Palestinian front in order to re-engage Palestinians and Israelis in peace talks and legitimise an Arab push for comprehensive peace.
Abbas’ aging circle of loyalists have been largely discredited in the eyes of Arab leaders owing to the PA’s failure to achieve internal unification, provide an alternative to the authority of Hamas in Gaza, and stem popular mobilisation against the Israeli military occupation in the West Bank.
It also means pressuring Palestinians into accepting a regionally prescribed settlement that may ignore the Palestinians’ vital interests in favour of peace.
But it was the Quartet’s insistence on the return of Mohammed Dahlan, a 55-year-old former head of the Palestinian Authority’s security services in Gaza, to Palestinian political scene that has sparked recent tensions between the PA and its Arab patrons.
In the wake of unprecedented criticism by Abbas of those who “underestimate the independence of the Palestinian decision”, remarks reportedly directed at Egypt, Egyptian intelligence officials denied entry to Jibril Rjoub, a senior member of Abbas’ Fatah party who was on his way to attend an Arab League conference on counterterrorism in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh.
In a broad sense, Egypt’s actions highlight Arab motivations to raise Dahlan’s profile in preparation for Abbas’ departure.
The octogenarian president’s failing health has prompted different camps to begin shoring up support ahead of an anticipated succession struggle, particularly after Abbas dismissed the secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and his effective number two, Yasser Abed Rabbo, over links to Dahlan.
But Abbas’ aging circle of loyalists have been largely discredited in the eyes of Arab leaders owing to the PA’s failure to achieve internal unification, provide an alternative to the authority of Hamas in Gaza, and stem popular mobilisation against the Israeli military occupation in the West Bank.
For those with an interest in seeing the Palestinian cause resolved as swiftly as possible, Dahlan, on the other hand, represents the potential to inject new energy into the ossified Fatah movement, helping to rearrange the Palestinian political scene from within. Further, his close ties with the Israeli security establishment have greatly increased his prospects to become a key figure in forging connections between Israel and the Arab world.
A security commander-turned-businessman and seasoned politician, Dahlan was expelled from Fatah’s ruling body in 2011 on allegations of plotting to overthrow the president. He has been living in exile in the United Arab Emirates since 2012.
Even before the Quartet’s initiative, media reports spoke of a joint plan of action to reintroduce Dahlan to the Palestinian territories in a role that would not directly challenge Abbas, but would facilitate his control over key portfolios as well as his rise as a successor to the president.
Dahlan’s strong links to top PA officials such as Nasser al-Qudwa, Hassan Asfour, Ahmed Qurei and Yasser Abed Rabbo, bolster his stature within the ranks of Fatah, but his limited popularity among Palestinians is considered a point of weakness.
It is in this context that Abbas has rejected the Quartet’s vision to realign Fatah’s leadership structure, fearful that the balance in the ongoing succession struggle will be tipped in favour of a bitter rival rather than someone of his own choosing.
To further distance Dahlan and his supporters from any influence on Fatah, Abbas ensured their exclusion from Fatah’s seventh general conference, held in November. Moreover, PA security forces cracked down on activists loyal to Dahlan in defiance of the Quartet’s entreaty to reconcile with the exiled leader.
The Quartet leaders have, meanwhile, remained unperturbed by the PA’s reaction to the Arab plan, hedging their bets on a new Palestinian leadership to move the PA’s strategic outlook closer to that of Arab governments.
Egypt has not shied away from aiding Dahlan to bolster his credentials, allowing him to host his own initiatives on Palestine’s future on its territory in recent weeks. The Egyptian government has even moved towards rapprochement with Hamas, Fatah’s political opponent, in order to strengthen Dahlan’s position, unruffled by Abbas’ surprise visits to its adversaries Turkey and Qatar amid speculation that he was seeking to replace the Egyptian role in mediating in Palestinian affairs.
But more importantly, by closing its doors to PA leaders, Cairo is using its leverage to bypass Abbas, even while Palestinian institutions remain under his singular rule, to prepare for the rise of a new Palestinian leadership, and ultimately break the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations deadlock.
This would create an opportunity to “effect warmer peace” and closer cooperation with Israeli institutions, in the words of the Egyptian president, amid efforts to “widen the circle of peace” with Israel to include additional Arab states.