Israel, the US, and the PA succession conundrum

The US and Israel want to remove President Mahmoud Abbas from power, but that might not be in their best interests.

Mahmoud Abbas
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has faced increasing pressure to step down [File: Reuters/Mohamad Torokman]

Since the Trump administration took over in January 2017, pressure has mounted on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to resign. By now Washington clearly no longer wishes to deal with the Palestinian Authority (PA) under his leadership.

Senior White House adviser Jared Kushner recently called Abbas’s decision to boycott the Bahrain workshop, where the economic side of Washington’s peace plan was presented, “hysterical and erratic”.

Meanwhile, various Israeli officials have also suggested that they are hoping for Abbas to leave office. Some, like former Foreign Minister Dore Gold, have gone as far as to claim that within the next six months, Palestinians themselves will demand a change of leadership.

The current Israeli government has been actively trying to destabilise the PA by pursuing various hostile measures, including blocking its access to $140m worth of tax revenue meant to help pay for salaries each month. This, along with cuts in US aid, have put Ramallah under increasing financial strain.

While it is clear that the American and Israeli governments are trying to push Abbas over the edge of a cliff, their plan after his fall is rather vague at best. In fact, various actors within the Israeli security establishment have warned that such a move could have dangerous consequences.

The succession battle

Discussions about leadership succession in the Palestinian Authority have been going on for a decade now. Abbas’s presidential term expired officially in 2009, and was provisionally extended by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) that year. Since then, Palestine has not been able to hold presidential and parliamentary elections because of the persisting spat between Fatah and Hamas.

The 83-year-old Palestinian president has so far resisted not only handing in his resignation but also appointing a deputy and designating a clear path for succession. But as his health deteriorates, sooner or later the question of succession will have to be resolved. Severe pressure from Washington and Israeli machinations are likely to accelerate this process, as is increasing discontent within the West Bank which over the past two years has provoked a number of major street protests.

There are a number of senior figures within Fatah that have emerged as contenders for Abbas’s post in recent years.

Mahmoud al-Aloul, deputy chairman of the party and Nablus governor, is one of the favourites. He is quite popular with Fatah supporters for his anti-Israel position and has also so far escaped being implicated in any corruption scandals.

Another candidate is Jibril Rajoub, one of Fatah’s most prominent leaders, the president of the Palestinian Football Federation, and the former head of the Preventive Security Forces in the West Bank. He is known to have major sway within the Palestinian intelligence services and the confidence of both US and Israeli security agencies.

Majed Faraj, head of the General Intelligence Service, is another strong candidate to succeed Abbas. He has been the Palestinian president’s confidante and headed a Palestinian delegation that met American officials despite the current PA boycott on talks with the Trump administration.

Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the PLO, has also been rumoured as a potential candidate. However, the 2011 leaks known as the Palestinian papers, which revealed Erakat’s willingness to give Israel major concessions during negotiations, have left a permanent stain on his reputation and he is unlikely to garner much popular support. Similarly, Mohammed Dahlan, Abbas’s long-time arch-enemy, was also a contender for his post, at least in the past. His chances, however, have recently dwindled due to his close ties to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which are currently unpopular in the Palestinian streets due to their push for normalisation with Israel.

Although all of these candidates (except for Dahlan) are supporting Abbas’s boycott of the current US administration, their position could change if any of them were to take over the PA presidency. With this in mind, Washington has actively been pushing for a change of leadership in Ramallah.

The future of the PA

While the Trump administration has not been able to engage directly with any of the main contenders for the PA presidency, it has been reaching out to other prominent Palestinian figures outside Abbas’s inner circle. Over the past two years there have been a number of meetings between US officials and various representatives of the Palestinian political and business elites.

At the same time, political figures seen as having close ties to Washington, including former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Palestinian businessman Adnan Majali, have re-emerged on the political scene. The latter went as far as attempting to broker a reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas last year.

Ahead of the Bahrain workshop, the US administration managed to find a Palestinian businessman willing to cross the picket line and attend – Ashraf al-Jabari from Hebron. Earlier this year al-Jabari, who has been called a “friend” by US ambassador to Israel David Friedman, announced he is going to create a party in the West Bank called Reform and Development, which will oppose Fatah’s statehood agenda.

Washington may realise that none of these figures has a real chance in taking over from Abbas because they are unlikely to win an election, but they are still useful to put pressure on the PA. Ultimately, the Trump administration wants the Palestinian leadership to accept its proposals for “peace” with Israel and cares little for who takes over after Abbas.  

Various stakeholders in Israel, on the other hand, not only want change of leadership in Ramallah but also hope for a complete collapse of the PA. A number of current and former Israeli officials have repeatedly declared the Oslo Accords “dead” and suggested that it is time Palestinians accept defeat and stop demanding statehood. One solution that has been put forward is for parts of the West Bank populated by the Palestinians to be linked to Jordan and enjoy some form of administrative autonomy.

Others have taken this further and suggested that Israel seek the dissolution of the PA and the establishment of local Palestinian municipal rule based on clans and families. This envisions a form of self-rule where Israel helps local leaders in different West Bank cities to run their daily affairs as they had done before the establishment of the PA.

While it is increasingly clear that the Israeli establishment is pushing for the demise of not only the PA but also any vestiges of statehood within the occupied Palestinian territories, some, especially within the security sector, are warning that this might not be in the best interests of the Israeli state. According to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, there are fears that if the PA starts to lose control over the West Bank, Israeli security coordination with Ramallah could be compromised and Hamas and other opposition elements could try to take over.

For this reason, Israeli intelligence agencies have been eager to shield the PA and Abbas’s presidency from efforts to undermine them and have at times paradoxically worked against both Washington and Tel Aviv’s declared policies.

While the Israeli political leadership and its US allies are happy to pronounce Oslo dead and consider the dissolution of the PA, they are ignoring the fact that for decades Tel Aviv has benefitted majorly from the arrangements which these accords established. They effectively smothered the Palestinian struggle, reined in political activism and made the PA the main guarantor of Palestinian political passivity.

If Israel and the US manage to disrupt this status quo with their aggressive policies, what comes next may not be to their liking.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.