"Rumors and gossip about President Mahmoud 'Abbas's ill health, which turned out to be false, brought the issue of his succession back to the fore," notes Palestinian commentator Hani al-Masri on the independent Palestinian news-portal www.masarat.ps.
However, there is no smoke without fire. Multiple sources reported that the president and/or a large number of his senior aides, at least, had contracted covid. These rumors would not have attracted all this attention had they not been used in the fight over succession and to fuel people's fears about failure to settle the matter, and had the PA and the president practiced transparency and disclosure by having his physician or spokesperson issue regular reports on his health (as many countries whose heads-of-state contracted covid did). But there was no word from any of them as the rumors spread. The president did not appear in the flesh on TV for the people to see until several days after the rumors began to spread.
The rumors attracted considerable attention given that the succession issue remains unresolved in terms of the person or persons who may succeed the president. The matter has been decidedly uncertain since the president dissolved the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), meaning that in the event that his post becomes vacant due to resignation, retirement, illness or death, there is no agreed-upon mechanism for the transfer of power. It is not the case that the Palestinian Central Council (PCC) can automatically resolve the matter, as it is an unelected and disputed body. Its last session was tarnished with political and legal problems. This means that unless the issue is resolved during 'Abbas's presidency, he may be replaced by the vice chair of Fatah, or the VP if he appoints one before his departure, or some other person. Or, the natural and proper option would be to hold legislative and presidential elections, or legislative elections leading to the election of a PLC speaker to replace the president should his post be vacated, or for an agreement to be reached between Fatah, the PA, and the PLO or at the level of the general national movement on a course of action during the transitional period.
The uncertainty surrounding the succession and the candidates for succession affords President Mahmoud 'Abbas further power, helping prolong his tenure, on the local, Arab, regional, international, and Israeli fronts. If it were known who is to succeed him, it would mitigate the fallout of his departure and could hasten it. But fear of the unknown and what might happen makes players of various kinds, interests, and camps cling to the president remaining in office so as to maintain stability. They fear the chaos, collapse, fighting, and insecurity that could result from the presence of several contenders for the succession in the absence of political prospects and an agreed upon national project, and in the absence of a person or persons or camp with sufficient strength to resolve the matter in a guaranteed or even somewhat guaranteed manner.
Several factors complicate the succession issue, including:
First: The inter-Palestinian split, which is only deepening as we approach its 15th anniversary, makes deciding on the successor or successors fraught with risks. In the event that the presidency is vacated, Hamas, which unilaterally controls the Gaza Strip, could insist that that the Speaker of the PLC, whose dissolution it does not recognize, should act as interim president of the PA for a 60-day period, to be followed by presidential elections, exactly as happened following late president Yasser Arafat's assassination. But at the time, there was a consensus on the local, Israeli, Arab, and international fronts for Mahmoud 'Abbas to assume the presidency, because it would guarantee continuity and open the door for the resumption of the political process, especially since he adopted a flexible, more moderate line than his predecessor, in particular after Arafat re-embraced the resistance option following the Camp David summit's failure and the outbreak of the second intifada.
Second: Holding elections to select a new president is not a serious option on the table. Due to fears of the Fatah candidate losing, especially in light of the split and the party's falling popularity, it will not be proposed and implemented unless mass Palestinian political pressure is exerted that finds regional and international support. Moreover, based on all the opinion polls for many years, there is no candidate from or affiliated with Fatah capable of winning the elections other than Marwan Barghouti, whom the PCC does not endorse. This gives a Hamas or Hamas-backed candidate a high chance of winning, and should that happen, it would change the rules of the game entirely.
This explains the Palestinian decision – backed, or even inspired, by active regional players or U.S. and Israeli players – to cancel the legislative and presidential elections scheduled for last year. This makes it likely that elections will not be held in the near future in the event that the presidency is vacated under the same pretext of the occupation preventing elections from taking place in Jerusalem.
President 'Abbas, whose term expired 13 years ago while the PLC's ended 12 years ago, has excelled in consolidating his position despite all the raging storms he has faced, as well as in blocking the paths of potential successors: From stonewalling Ahmed Qurei from the beginning, to dismissing Mohammad Dahlan and stonewalling Salam Fayyad and Rami al-Hamdallah, to appointing Mahmoud al-'Aloul as Fatah deputy chairman instead of Jibril Rajoub, to undermining Marwan Barghouti and dismissing Nasser al-Qudwa.
But the president changed his policy recently and started to make arrangements for the succession due to his advanced age and ill health and the complete lack of political prospects, as well as under various internal and external recommendations and pressures, so as to maintain stability and ensure the continuation of his approach after his death or retirement. This is evident from the formation of the constitutional court, which was created to provide legal justification for any political decision, as it did regarding the PLC dissolution, as well as the move of convening the PCC, delegating the powers of the Palestinian National Council (PNC) to it, preparing it to supplant the PLC. We have begun to hear that an alternative to the PLO, which it was imagined would come from outside of it, is being established via its offshoot, the PA. The latter's role has inflated since its birth at the expense of the PLO, which it now dwarfs in status. The PA has almost completed preparations to replace the PLO in a 'revolutionary' manner. Sometimes there is talk of turning the PA into a state, or dissolving it and having the PLO replace it. But in reality, the PA is completing the process of completely supplanting the PLO. In doing so, it overlooks the fact that the PLO officially represents Palestinian people everywhere and that the Palestinian state established by natural right and UN recognition cannot replace the PLO because it lacks sovereignty, is under occupation, and suffers from political, geographical and institutional division.
The start of preparations for the succession has triggered unprecedented, heated competition, especially after the PLO Executive Committee (EC) elections and the PNC speaker and leadership bureau elections, and after Hussein al-Sheikh's appointment as PLO EC acting secretary, a presidential decree delegating him all the powers thereto. The PLO statutes require the secretary's appointment to take place through a vote of the EC, which has only convened once since it was elected last February. This gradual progression of developments indicates that the move faces strong opposition within Fatah.
The intense competition, to the point of conflict, over the succession, candidates for succession, and the government manifests itself most clearly in the repeated talk of the government's failure and the need to change it. This is all the more crucial given that the PM, regardless of his identity, will play a key role in navigating the succession should it occur during his tenure in office. This is despite the fact that, during President 'Abbas's tenure, governance in the PA has effectively fallen to the presidency while the government is merely a reflection of the president's will on matters of governance, without playing an independent role as provided in the Basic Law of the PA.
The competition and conflict are also manifested in the postponement of the 8th Fatah Congress, which was scheduled for March then postponed until May, only for the date to pass without a new one being set. There are predictions, which are closer to speculations than decisions, that it will be held before the year's end, depending on the prospects of achieving the intended purposes of the congress.
The congress is impeded by the failure to agree on outcomes, especially who to elect as deputy chairman of Fatah. Mahmoud al-'Aloul and Jibril Rajoub are competing for the post, and the matter was not originally resolved in the last congress. At the time, it was settled with a rotation agreement on an interim basis, keeping the competition open. This is a crucial point because the Fatah deputy chairman will be a strong contender to succeed the president in heading Fatah, the PA, and the PLO.
Another disputed issue is who will join the Fatah Central Committee (FCC) and who will leave it. The most prominent candidate for membership is Majid Faraj. The president's attempts to appoint him to the FCC since the 7th Congress was convened, as part of the quota provided by Fatah's internal statutes to appoint three members without a vote, were to no avail. Faraj's potential FCC membership faces opposition because it would afford him significant power and make him a strong contender for the succession. There is also the issue of the endorsement of Nasser al-Qudwa's dismissal and the decision regarding those who ran as candidates in the legislative and municipal elections, including some members of the Fatah Revolutionary Council (FRC) and some belonging to Marwan Barghouti's camp, first and foremost his wife Fadwa al-Barghouti. They have been effectively frozen out and were not invited to FRC meetings held since the decision to cancel the elections and until now. According to some assessments, they are not expected to be invited to participate in the congress unless they apologize for not complying with the FCC's decisions and vow not to do it again.
There is another issue up for debate: Is the president considering retiring and resigning (which is an issue requiring separate discussion) and handing over the succession to another or several others, or will he remain in office until God claims him? If he is thinking of resigning, it would expedite the arrangements for his succession, but if he remains in office, the matter will brew slowly, over a low flame. In that case, a VP position can be created by ratifying an amendment to the law through the PCC.
Another issue that must be discussed is whether the president will be succeeded by a single figure who heads Fatah, the PLO, and the PA and controls the government and the PM, or whether these posts will be distributed to three or four figures, assuming a recipe is reached to maintain the competition over several centers of power. Division of labor and posts is a crucial, positive step in the presence of a sovereign state, collective action, strong and independent institutions, good governance, a shared program, and geographical, and political and institutional unity. But in the presence of hollowed-out institutions, the erosion of legitimacy, the lack of a joint program, and the split, the distribution of offices is the shortest path to chaos. It will foster more fragmentation and division. And, in any case, given the PLO's absence and marginalization, and given the powers, capabilities, support, and Israeli, Arab and international recognition afforded to the PA and its president, the PA still holds the greatest power and controls the other institutions, whether of Fatah or the PLO.
On to the succession scenarios. The first scenario involves an imminent vacancy in the presidency, whether due to death, resignation, or severe illness, before preparations are complete for a potential successor or successors, opening the door to several sub-scenarios: For example, the Fatah deputy chairman may assume the presidency, in the event that self-interested instincts and fear of losing power prevail over the instinct for competition. In that case, Mahmoud al-'Aloul may be the consensual Fatah candidate to stave off polarization and postpone a reckoning or heated competition that threatens to cost everything and opens the door to chaos and fighting, perhaps leading to the PA's collapse. However, Israel and other players will not stand idly by as the PA crumbles or its centers of power clash. If Fatah fails to agree, Hamas will play a greater role, and that in turn will pave the way for Marwan Barghouti, Mohammed Dahlan, and Nasser al-Qudwa to play a bigger role too. Or, PNC and PCC Speaker Rawhi Fattouh or another figure could be appointed interim president with cover from the PCC.
In the second scenario, President 'Abbas may remain in office for a long time yet, a year or two or longer, in which case he will have a greater opportunity to establish his successor or successors as he sees fit.
In this scenario, he may resort to maneuvers such as creating a VP post, or pledging to nominate Marwan Barghouti for the presidential elections if the president's post is vacated, or a national agreement is reached over a consensual candidate, as happened in the Istanbul understandings – although these possibilities are unlikely.
The third scenario involves distributing the president's offices among several figures. This would not resolve the struggle for power, but only delay it. It would produce a PA plagued by internal conflict between the centers of power in the West Bank and between the latter and the Hamas establishment.
The fourth scenario involves a PA with two presidents. This scenario is highly unlikely, because Hamas so far does not entertain competing for the presidency of the PA as a whole or establishing a presidential position for the PA in Gaza. This is evident from the fact that it agreed on President 'Abbas as a consensual candidate in the elections scheduled for last year while discussing the formation of a joint list with Fatah. It realizes that a measure that results in a PA with two heads and two presidents, one in the West Bank and the other in the Gaza Strip, would be unacceptable and would face dire repercussions on the home, Israeli, Arab, and regional, and international fronts.
This scenario could transpire if elections are held in the West Bank alone, under the pretext that it is impossible to hold them in the West Bank and Gaza together. If this were to happen, it would be very bad, as it would deepen and legitimize the split.
It is crucial to realize that the most important issue is not who will succeed the president, and whether it will be one figure or several, but rather to determine what the Palestinian people need and then choose a successor on that basis. In other words, the most important issue is the approach and program they will follow. Will they continue down the same path the PA has followed so far and that has led to the deplorable situation we endure in the West Bank, Gaza, the 1948 territories, and the diaspora, as reflected in the decline in the Palestinian cause's status on the Arab and international fronts? Will they lead us towards further deterioration, or will there be a major turning point that restores the Palestinian democratic liberation movement to glory, which is a possibility that cannot be discounted for all its difficulty?
Selecting Palestine's president is not the sole purview of Fatah, but concerns all Palestinians. They must participate in their self-determination, choose their president, and insist on elections or a national consensus if elections cannot be held due to external factors, most notably the occupation. It would be a mistake to accept that the matter is up to Fatah, or more accurately, the contenders for the succession.
Realpolitik requires recognizing that the Palestinian president is not decided by the Palestinians alone, but is determined by a number of local, regional and international players, in particular the Americans and the Israelis. The more the Palestinians are divided, lost and exhausted by conflict and fighting between two establishments under occupation, in the absence of a single vision, strategy, leadership and will, the more they will be controlled, including by others choosing their president for them.
It is not true that this will happen anyway, and that it is not possible to be more creative than we have been in the past. Indeed, the Palestinians can decide their own fate with minimal external interference if they choose to take ownership of their cause, prioritize public interest, and adopt a comprehensive package solution that includes changing course. This must entail changing the PA's functions and obligations, forming a national unity government that ends the split and prepares to hold presidential and legislative elections, committing to a basic national program, rebuilding PLO institutions to include all shades of the political and social spectrum, and holding PNC elections wherever possible. This must happen based on the balance of principles, powers, and interests and a realistic common ground national program that takes off from the reality on the ground and seeks to change it, in accordance with what is attainable at this phase, without misadventures or surrender, and without relinquishing rights and ultimate goals, and with true partnership.
Finally, we live in a state of flux and change in Israel, the vicinity, the region, and the world. The factors affecting the Palestinian situation are highly variable and dynamic; making it impossible to determine potential scenarios with certainty. However, the bad and worse scenarios are most likely unless something happens to change the situation.
We are not fated to remain hostage to others and the policy of waiting, stagnation, and division.
"There is room for hope and change," concludes Masri.