Abbas plays Rajoub card to avert further divisions

Abbas and his inner circle have pledged party unity as they seek to fend off a challenge by their main rival Hamas, the Islamist group that seized control of Gaza in 2007.
Tuesday 23/03/2021
Senior Fatah official Jibril Rajoub, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, attends by video conference a meeting with deputy Hamas chief Saleh Arouri (on screen from Beirut) discussing Israel’s plan to annex parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on July 2, 2020. (AFP)
Senior Fatah official Jibril Rajoub attends a virtual meeting from Beirut, on July 2, 2020. (AFP)

RAMALLAH--Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is apparently turning to the Secretary of the Fatah movement Jibril Rajoub at a time when the movement is witnessing divisions that have disrupted fragile agreements among its cadres.

Abbas, now 85, has ruled the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the Israeli-occupied West Bank by decree for over a decade. The last Palestinian election was 15 years ago.

In January, he announced legislative and presidential elections, seen as a response to criticism of the democratic legitimacy of his rule.

Abbas and his inner circle have pledged party unity as they seek to fend off a challenge by their main rival Hamas, the Islamist group that seized control of Gaza in 2007.

Opinion polls show Hamas leaders edging out Abbas in the presidential ballot, planned for July. But polls also put Marwan Barghouti, long seen as a potential successor to Abbas, ahead of any other candidates.

Anger at Abbas’s policies has been on the rise and the Palestinian president has struggled to isolate two prominent leaders, Mohammed Dahlan, who is abroad, and Barghouti, who is detained in Israel.

Anger at Abbas’s policies also grew after Fatah’s Central Committee expelled Nasser al-Qudwa, a senior official, over his attempt to field a separate list of candidates in a parliamentary election.

In recent days, Palestinian political sources attributed Abbas’s reliance on Rajoub to run the general election to the fact that Rajoub is the only member of the Fatah Central Committee who succeeded in concluding an agreement with Saleh al-Arouri, the deputy head of the Hamas political bureau. The deal is known as the Istanbul Agreement.

In a statement to The Arab Weekly, the sources said that the Istanbul Agreement allowed for the continuation of Fatah’s control over decision-making after Hamas expressed a desire to take part in the Palestinian political system but from the backseat, without demanding the post of prime minister and other portfolios such as the foreign, finance and interior ministries.

Under the Istanbul agreement, Hamas pledged to support Abbas in the presidential elections and to refrain from presenting a rival candidate.

Rajoub has the organisational and political clout to impose the agreement on Fatah’s leadership. He also enjoys significant influence to counter other rivals in Fatah, including Hussein al-Sheikh, a member of the Central Committee, and Majid Faraj, the head of the General Intelligence Service.

Palestinian observers note that Abbas’s administration is currently adopting a role-distribution approach in dealing with the issue of elections. When the idea of filing a unified list with Hamas in the upcoming elections is raised, Rajoub comes to the fore as seemingly the architect and mastermind of such a project that would end division through a Fatah-Hamas merger.

And when Abbas wants to show his commitment to security relations with Israel, the two leaders in Fatah, Majed Faraj and Hussein al-Sheikh, emerge as the pair who can formulate and issue proposals.

Rajoub was tasked with negotiating with Hamas because he was close to Qatar and also to Israel, with which he cooperated when he was in charge of security and accompanied Arab leaders during their visits to the Jewish state.

Observers, however, believe that differences between Abbas and Rajoub will emerge after Rajoub ends his work organising the elections.This is because he tends to act and speak out in a similar manner to Dahlan, who is known for his courage in protesting and speaking his mind.

Such behaviour, observers say, is sufficient reason for Abbas to deny Rajoub any future political role.

One leading Palestinian noted that “We are dealing with the solid bloc of Abu Mazen that guarantees the continuation of his control over the heart of the West Bank, with Israeli guarantees.”

The individual, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added in a statement to The Arab Weekly, “Abbas’s solid bloc that has open relations with the Israeli side stays on. As for Hamas, it is under pressure. On the one hand, it wants to get out of the bottleneck in Gaza, and on the other hand, it is keen on renewing its electoral legitimacy.”

So far, Hamas has kept mum on Abbas’ unconstitutional decrees, turning a blind eye to the formation of a pro-Fatah election court that would likely ensure Abbas’s control over the electoral process.

In recent years, Abbas has managed to marginalise the judiciary and all the basic courts, including the election court, which recently fell under his complete control.

He now runs the country with presidential decrees. Despite this, independent opinion polls show that the list of Fatah’s Central Committee will be shunned by voters in the upcoming elections. The polls, however, give a clear advantage to Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank.

An informed Palestinian source expected that the lists of Qudwa and Dahlan will lead in the next elections, garnering votes that were traditionally cast in favour of Fatah.

The source added that even if Abbas manages to ban the two lists, Fatah votes will not pick up.

In a statement to The Arab Weekly, the source noted, “The Fatah list will suffer a humiliating defeat that outweighs the defeat of the 2006 elections.”

Observers suspect Abbas may postpone the elections  at the last minute. Such a move will affect Rajoub and weaken his position in the favour of his opponents from within the Central Committee, especially those who have repeatedly warned the Palestinian president that by holding elections at this time,  Fatah may lose its control over the Palestinians.