Looming transition in the Palestinian leadership

Everyone involved in the Palestinian question seems to have lost all sense of direction.
Friday 09/03/2018
Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas(C) attends the United Nations Security Council in New York, on February 20. (AFP)
Waning power. Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas(C) attends the United Nations Security Council in New York, on February 20. (AFP)

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas draws legitimacy for his leadership from internal and external sources. In both cases, his legitimacy is waning.

Abbas’s main problem is US President Donald Trump’s announcement to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. That decision was practically an international poll about Abbas’s role in the future of the Palestinian-Israeli settlement.

Abbas fought hard against Trump’s decision to back Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s choices. What Abbas painfully lacked, however, was time.

A diplomatic source in Cairo confirmed the deterioration of Abbas’s health. His brief hospitalisation in February during a trip to the United States set off alarms in the intelligence community, which was aware of his health problems but probably didn’t expect them to be that bad.

The diplomatic source said Abbas’s heart condition has affected his mood and his capacity to listen to different points of view. It has made him anxious about Fatah’s future.

Abbas’s condition has given rise to grave concerns among Arab countries, which were “patronising” the Palestinian cause. Abbas has chosen Mahmoud al-Aloul as his candidate for vice-president. It was a safe choice, given Aloul’s weight inside Fatah. It is, however, safe for Abbas only.

Given his past within the “popular resistance” camp, Aloul is a man of compromises. Abbas did, indeed, make an expected choice. Aloul is not known internationally and does not represent a danger to Abbas’s legacy.

Furthermore, his appointment is not likely to cause serious rifts inside Fatah. Rumours about Aloul being propped for the vice-presidency and Saeb Erekat for the presidency of the Palestine Liberation Organisation might keep Fatah together but might also divide all of Palestine.

The Palestinian Constitution says that, in the case of the absence of the president for any reason, the speaker of the Legislative Council takes over. The problem for Abbas is that the current speaker is Aziz Duwaik, a well-known leading figure in the Hamas movement. Should Duwaik become president, the Palestinian scene will be turned upside down.

The problem with Abbas’s succession plans is that they may strike at the very heart of the delicate balance between the various Palestinian forces and reshuffle cards at the regional and Arab levels.

The main Arab sponsors of the Palestinians fear the aftermath of Abbas’s departure. Egypt, for example, would rather not see the Palestinian reconciliation it had sponsored turn into another Palestinian quagmire with its endless negotiations and mediation efforts. The debate about refusing the “historic” US mediation between Palestinians and Israel risks changing into a debate about Egypt’s “historic peace process” between Hamas and Fatah.

Everyone involved in the Palestinian question seems to have lost all sense of direction. Trump’s Jerusalem decision kicked up so much dust that neither the Palestinians, the Arabs, the Americans nor the Israelis can see clearly. Everybody is complaining but only the Israelis are heard.

Immediately after Trump’s decision, Abbas insisted on attending the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation meeting in Istanbul, sweeping aside reservations by influential Arab countries. Iranian President Hassan Rohani also attended. Abbas seemed to favour the Turkish-Iranian camp over the Arab choice. He must have forgotten that he was the only leader in the region who does not have the luxury of switching allies as he wishes.

Abbas was repeating the mistake made by the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Arafat incomprehensibly thought he could play the conflict to his advantage but discovered it wasn’t that simple.

There is one thing the Palestinians cannot do anything to change and that is their geographical location. They are enclaved. They will not be able to skip their immediate neighbour to reach the next neighbour. If Arafat was not able to skip his next-door Arab neighbours to go to Arab neighbours beyond the first ones, how can Abbas hope to skip the entire Arab region and adopt a doomed Turkish-Iranian solution?

In the past, the Palestinians were able to survive their intractable crises with the Israelis because they have never become a burden for the Arabs. Now, however, Abbas is facing crises with Israel, Hamas, the Arabs and Trump. Who’s left then? Nobody.

The worst fear is that these enmities might worsen the complexity of the Palestinian question to a point that Abbas will become a burden to the Palestinians themselves.

In the end, it is difficult to know what caused what and who will bring down whom.

Did Trump’s decision about Jerusalem cause Abbas’s health to deteriorate?

Or will Abbas’s response to that unjust and stupid decision eliminate any hope for garnering widespread regional and international support for the Palestinian cause?

One thing is sure: Abbas, who will turn 83 by the end of this month, will not come out of this crisis unscathed, politically or health-wise. What interests the regional and international powers now is how to minimise the damages caused by his exit.