After Abbas; The Coming War of Palestinian Succession

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Report, the magazine of The Jerusalem Post}

The advantage of a new year is that it offers us an opportunity to understand better the previous year, especially one like 2020 with such extreme highs and lows. For Israel and the world, the pandemic represented a low point that we are all still trying to navigate. In contrast, the normalization agreements with Arab states represented a groundbreaking high to build upon in the new year. Israel’s third and hopefully last lockdown and its stellar vaccine program mean the light at the end of the tunnel to end their pandemic nightmare. Going forward, the new diplomatic agreements have the possibility of reshaping the Middle East for generations, leading to prosperity and stability for Israel and its Arab neighbors in the years to come.

For all of its possibilities, 2021 may still hold even more uncertainty and potential risks than 2020. The most significant security threat for Israel is President Biden’s promise to rejoin the Iranian nuclear agreement (JCPOA). The risk that a northern war with Iran could begin with the killing of an Israeli soldier by Hezbollah, or an over-zealous Iranian-directed response to an Israeli pre-emptive attack, is always on the minds of Israeli security and military strategists.

But Israel’s next major security crisis that seems to fly under the radar of American Middle East analysts is the possibility of the quick and unexpected demise of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The handwriting has been on the wall for some time with lots of false calls that the ailing octogenarian President has one foot in the grave. Abbas is a chain-smoking 83-year-old with significant heart disease who always has a doctor at his side, hidden as a security team member.

Even if Abbas lives on and runs for re-election, the result could favor his nemesis Hamas, as it did in the last election nearly sixteen years ago. The Biden administration should remember that an election alone does not make for democracy, certainly not without the rule of law, freedom of the press and speech, and tolerance for other people and their religions. According to the NY Times, the announcement of elections is “viewed by analysts as a bid to lift his standing with the (incoming) Biden administration.” That could backfire if the results don’t go his way.

A December 2020 Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research Center poll revealed that most Palestinians do not believe Hamas or Fatah would accept the results of an election this spring if they were on the losing side. Over half of Palestinians do not believe the election would a fair or free. A prescription for a civil war whether President Abbas runs again or not.

Suppose tomorrow Abu Mazen passes or there is a contested election. In that case, the potential fight for Palestinian leadership succession could ignite a war between rival Fatah factions that could spill over into Israeli settlements and the nation’s heartland. Not only will factions of Fatah clash, but its bitter Hamas rival will view the chaos as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to overthrow the Fatah led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, as it did in Gaza during the 2007 coup.

Even if Abbas lives on, a Palestinian election this year as planned could again favor Hamas as it did in the last election 15 years ago. In the crazy world of the Middle East, Hamas, a branch of the world’s leading Sunni Islamist organization (Muslim Brotherhood), receives financial support from Iran’s Persian Shiite Islamists. They would love nothing better than to destabilize Israeli security and place a compliant proxy in Ramallah. “My enemy’s enemy is my friend,” is an apropos description.

The Biden administration should remember that an election alone does not make for democracy, certainly not without the rule of law, freedom of the press and speech, and tolerance for other people and their religions.

Just as Israel is planning for the inevitable transition in Iran when the aging Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei passes from the scene, it must also prepare for the consequences of a chaotic transition within the Palestinian Authority with the changing of the guard. It could ignite a Third Intifada (uprising) with its anti-Zionist participants, Fatah, Hamas, or Islamic Jihad, taking advantage of the chaos to attack Israel.

The cast of characters to succeed Abbas is overwhelmingly a roster of former terrorists, corrupt officials, and long-term party hacks, who will be vying with each other to show who can be more extreme in their approach to confronting Israel. Corruption, violence, and maximal demands will almost certainly be part of any Palestinian candidate’s election platform. No one will win by being conciliatory or pragmatic.

Unlike the Gulf states that have come to terms with Israel’s existence, the Palestinian rhetoric will return to the familiar playbook of scapegoating Israel to explain their predicament. The hard work to prepare the Palestinian people for moderation and explaining there will be no right of return to Israel is something no Palestinian leader can ever utter at this time unless he wants to be assassinated.

Will the next Palestinian leader be part of the last generation of Arafat sycophants, a placeholder until a more consequential leader can be found, or will the playing field shift towards Islamist rule and Gaza style radicalization? If Hamas wins a Palestinian election and takes control of the West Bank, it would be a game-changing nightmare for Israeli security services and the nearly half a million Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria (West Bank).

Unfortunately, the pickings are slim. The most likely non-Hamas candidates include Mohamed Dahlen, Mohamed Shtayyeh, Majid Faraj, Jibril Rajoub, and Marwan Barghouti, a convicted murderer.

Mohamed Dahlen is, in many ways, the most interesting. He taps into the anger of the disgruntled and abandoned Palestinians, especially those in the refugee camps. He was thrown out of Fatah and forced into exile by Abbas, seeking refuge in Abu Dhabi. Before that, he was in charge of PA security services in Gaza, when in 2007 Hamas handed Gaza-based PA loyalists a one-way ticket out from Gazan rooftops. After becoming persona non grata in Fatah, he reportedly was close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and was allegedly supportive of facilitating Israel’s normalization agreements with the Gulf state.

A 2020 Haaretz article by Amira Hess asked, “Is Abbas Rival Mohammed Dahlan the Secret Broker of the Israel-UAE Deal? Rumors say Dahlan, adviser to UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, acted as middleman. He is also a favorite of the Israelis and the Americans, who are planning to crown him the next Palestinian leader.”

This could also simply be a strategic move on Dahlan’s part, as he knows he will need the financial backing of the UAE to take power and control the Palestinian security forces. According to the Times of Israel, “Dahlan has spun a web of political and financial connections all over the Arab world: Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and most recently Jordan. He owns a great deal of property and also has connections in Gaza and the West Bank (mainly in the refugee camps).” Although no Israeli politician would publicly discuss who their choice for the next PA President would be, Avigdor Lieberman stated his preference for Dahlen a few years ago.

Economist and current Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh is a frontrunner to lead the Palestinian Authority, PLO, and Fatah, the three titles both Arafat and Abbas held. He has the right credentials as a supporter of the BDS movement to delegitimize Israel and was a vocal supporter of ending security coordination with Israel.

Who would Israel want? Many security officials would be satisfied with the 57-year-old Maj.-Gen. Majed Faraj, the Palestinian intelligence service head. He works well coordinating operations against Hamas operatives in the West Bank, making sure the territories continue to be stable. He was allegedly the target of a Hamas assassination attempt a few years back when he traveled with the previous Prime Minister.

In the category of old-time corrupt cronies is Jibril Rajoub, the former head of Palestinian Security Forces and now the head of the Palestinian Football Association, a position he hopes to leverage for support among young Palestinians.

The last time Abbas seemed on death’s doorstep, the presumptive leading candidate was Mahmoud Aloul, Abbas’s Fatah deputy, the “right-hand man of terrorist Abu Jihad.” His strong resume includes Israeli soldiers’ abduction in Lebanon and ransoming them for thousands of Palestinian prisoners.

According to previous polls, the most popular figure among Palestinians is Marwan Barghouti, a terrorist serving five consecutive life sentences. Not only was he the favored candidate to succeed Abu Mazen, but despite being part of Fatah and the PLO, he has allegedly, while in prison reached a meeting of the minds with Hamas, reaffirming that the primary goal is first to destroy the Jewish state.

How will the new Biden administration, sympathetic to Palestinian aspirations for a state, respond to the transition of Palestinian leadership? Will it revert to the see no evil approach of Bill Clinton when he ignored Arafat’s direct involvement in terrorism after the Oslo Accords? Will the Biden administration simply use the Obama template to pressure Israel, viewing Israel as the illegitimate occupier of the rightful Palestinian victims’ land? Or will the new administration judge the new Palestinian leadership by what it says and how it acts, likely corrupt and anti-Semitic? With so many new administrative appointees being former Obama officials, it is a safe bet that their spots will not change, remaining tied to previously failed understandings of Palestinian aspirations.

Israel is already wary because the Biden administration is looking to create a mechanism to bypass Congress’ Taylor force legislation that compels America to stop funding the Palestinian Authority until it ends its support and incentivization of terror. The next Israeli government will be a center-right, perhaps even more to the current government’s right, that will inevitably clash with the new Biden administration. Yet privately, Israeli security officials want the US to find ways to fund the PA security forces as the best choice for continued stability and cooperation.

Will the next Palestinian leader be more radical than Abbas? Abbas was no angel. His doctoral thesis defended Holocaust denial, and at the 2018 Palestinian National Council, he said Jews in Europe were massacred for centuries because of their “social role related to usury and banks.” Even the ordinarily sympathetic New York Times editorial said, “Let Abbas’s vile words be his last as Palestinian leader.” Yet he did work with Israel and avoided starting another Intifada, something not to be minimized.

Israel may not be so lucky with the next Palestinian leader, even if he is from Fatah, not Hamas. America must remember that our national interests require us to do everything we can to keep the Levant quiet while fostering the rapprochement between Arab states and Israel. American support to encourage an early Palestinian election would be the wrong strategic choice for the region.

Still, it may not have a choice, as Abbas’s departure from the scene from natural causes may create an unstable situation in an instant, even without an election. This reality requires prioritizing pre-emptive planning by the Biden administration in conjunction with the Israeli government and Arab states to manage the situation and not be just reactive. Israel’s temptation is to be focused on putting all of its energies into influencing the Biden approach in rejoining the JCPOA. Israel can walk and chew gum at the same time. It can prioritize Iran while also coordinating its response and contingencies if the struggle for Palestinian Supremacy occurs sooner rather than later.

The writer is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the US Senate, House of Representatives, and their foreign policy advisers. He is Senior Editor for Security at The Jerusalem Post/The Jerusalem Report. His work appears in The Hill, RealClearWorld, Defense News, JTA, JNS, Thinc., the Forward, and Israel Hayom, among others.

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