It took a week of speculation, but finally the Palestinian leader emerged. From the hospital.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was admitted to a hospital in Ramallah a week ago with a fever after undergoing routine ear surgery. That fever turned out to be pneumonia, and it revived questions about the future of the 83-year-old leader’s reign as he struggles with declining health.
Abbas has had prostate cancer and needed a heart procedure in 2016. So when aides confirmed that Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, was hooked up to a respirator and getting antibiotics intravenously, it further fanned long-chewed-over speculation: Is the post Abbas-era upon us?
The problem is, it’s anybody’s guess who would succeed him and how that leader would be selected. The concern both is that all of the uncertainty could trigger an erosion of stability in the rule of the Western-backed PA in the West Bank, and undermine the calcified Palestinian Liberation Organization. It could also figure as a blow to prospects for reviving the still-dormant Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
The problem is that Abbas has no deputy that would immediately inherit his authority, opening up the potential for a power struggle. The Palestinians have held national elections for president once, back in 2005.
“The Israeli security establishment considers these days the beginning of the end of the Abbas era, even though they don’t know how long the entire process will take,” wrote military analyst Amos Harel in Haaretz this week.
“Everybody is preparing for the day after.”
The most immediate question seems to be whether the transition to a new leadership will result in a breakdown in the rule of law — or a “fauda,” as the Palestinians dubbed the domestic chaos in the West Bank amid their uprising 15 years ago.
“Everybody is preparing for the day after,” said Yossi Alpher, a former peace adviser to former Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
“We could see anarchy, a loss of control. We could see the Palestinian security forces dragged into this, there could be attacks against settlers, and against the IDF. Hamas is waiting to challenge for control when Abu Mazen’s rule ends. … There’s no way to say what is going to happen.”
Indeed, similar concerns of an unraveling prevailed when Yasser Arafat died in 2004. Like then, some of that worry might be overdone, said one analyst. Instead of a one-person successor, the first phase of post-Abbas rule might result in multi-person rule, or a rule by committee.
“The crisis element is exaggerated; I don’t think there will be a chaotic period in a post-Abbas era immediately,” said Gershon Baskin, an analyst and Israeli-Palestinian peace activist. “There will be an agreed-upon mechanism for a transfer of power.”
Baskin said that the transition could be managed by the Fatah executive committee, one of two senior governing parties of the Abbas’ political party. Some of the leading candidates to inherit Abbas’ powers include Jibril Rajoub, the Palestinian sports minister and a former security chief; Majed Fares, the current security chief in the West Bank; Nasser Kidwa, the nephew of Arafat and the former Palestinian U.N. representative; and Saeb Erekat, the longtime chief Palestinian negotiator.
Palestinians haven’t held a national election since 2006 and a vote would confront politicians with some tough questions, such as whether Hamas would allow Gazans to participate, whether Hamas would participate or be allowed to participate and whether the vote would be solely for president or for the parliament as well. There’s currently no roadmap.
Rule by a committee might look like a division of political and security authority between Rajoub and Fares, respectively, said Hillel Frisch, a political science professor and expert on Palestinian politics at Bar-Ilan University. One positive factor for maintaining stability is that there are no rival political organizations in the West Bank that can challenge Fatah.
“The good news for the prospects of stable change is that the street is relatively weak,” he said. The grassroots political and terrorist infrastructures of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad [in the West Bank] have been crushed.”
As for the majority of the Palestinians on the street, Abbas is enormously unpopular. In successive surveys over the last two years by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, about two-thirds of Palestinians have said that they support his resignation. In a March poll, his approval rating was 33 percent.
Many have speculated that Abbas’ recent anti-Semitic screed about the causes of the Holocaust may be connected to his health.
The Palestinian street has become indifferent to media speculation about the health of the Palestinian leader, said Orit Perlov, an independent social media expert on Arab public opinion.
In recent weeks, international focus has been directed at the Gaza Strip, where hundreds of Palestinian demonstrators were wounded by live fire during Hamas-sponsored protests and riots near the border fence with Israel. On Tuesday, more than two dozen mortar rounds were fired from the Gaza Strip, leaving three soldiers and one civilian injured. It was the worst spate of mortar fire since the 2014 war between Hamas and Israel.
The view from the Israeli government, meanwhile, appears divided between the professional security establishment and the political leaders in the cabinet. The Israeli army prizes the relative stability from years of security coordination with the Palestinian security services in the West Bank. This makes preserving the unified integrity of the Palestinian Authority a top priority.
On the other hand, there are politicians like Immigrant Absorption Minister Zeev Elkin who have enthusiastically predicted what he claims is the inevitable collapse of the PA after Abbas. In the eyes of this group of right-wing politicians, the Oslo process that begat the Palestinian Authority is dead, and so should be the Palestinian government. Elkin and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman have spoken positively of Israel dealing with local leaders in various West Bank cities as an alternative to one centralized government in Ramallah.
A further decentralization of Palestinian governance would, of course, undermine the Palestinians’ efforts to push demands for statehood in the international arena.
“The more divided and unruly they are, the less able to make their political case,” said Frisch. “If Israel could bring stability by dividing them into city-states, that would be good. If there is a trade-off between stability and cohesion, then it will get messier.”
The analysts said, however, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu probably prefers the status quo of preserving the Palestinian Authority in its current form. “Why rock the boat. Israel doesn’t need to annex the settlement blocs to assert their effective control,” Baskin said, referring to calls on the right to unilaterally annex portions of the West Bank settlements.
Alpher said that given the uncertainty in the Gaza Strip and the surrounding Arab countries, the best-case scenario is a single “status quo” successor to Abbas. “There’s no way to say what is going to happen.”