With Change Rippling Through the Middle East, Where Do the Palestinians Stand?
JNS.org – The winds of diplomatic change in the Middle East are blowing strongly, but which way will they move the Palestinian Authority? PA leader Mahmoud Abbas is not getting any younger, longtime adviser Hanan Ashrawi tendered her resignation earlier this month calling for the “renewal and reinvigoration” of the PA’s political leadership, and last month chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat died as a result of complications due to the coronavirus.
Furthermore, with so many countries normalizing relations with Israel and more countries are expected to join, where is the PA now headed? And is there a plan for the day after Abbas?
Michael Milstein, head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, told JNS that the Palestinians already know they cannot reverse the decisions made by the Trump administration regarding the US embassy move to Jerusalem or the normalization deals between Israel and certain Arab countries.
However, according to Milstein, the PA will wait until President-elect Joe Biden assumes his role in January before it assesses the renewal of formal relations with Washington and the expected return of American economic support to the Palestinians.
“Abbas himself said there will be no plan for the day after him,” said Milstein. “There are a lot of talks, but no particular plan.”
Recent reports have surfaced that Mohammad Dahlan, a former Fatah security chief who now lives in the United Arab Emirates, is attempting to make a comeback.
While Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian political figure convicted and imprisoned for murder by Israel, has the support of his wife to pursue leadership of the PA, he “can cause trouble if he decides to present himself as a candidate for presidency while he is still in jail,” said Milstein, adding that it “could be a mess,” and that many senior PA figures are busy ensuring that he does not promote such a scenario.
As for Dahlan, Milstein said he believes he will try to return to Ramallah when Abbas is gone and again become a member of the ruling elite, although Milstein said it won’t be easy, and he will need the support of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Dahlan isn’t the only one waiting for the day after Abbas.
According to a survey published this week by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, two-thirds of Palestinian respondents are demanding the resignation of Abbas.
With the perception of corruption in PA institutions standing at 86 percent, according to the report, Palestinians are clearly fed up.
The percentage of those demanding the resignation of Abbas has increased to two-thirds and three-quarters of the public demand the holding of general legislative and presidential elections, but only a third or less expect the PA to actually hold them.
If elections are held under current conditions, findings show a sharp split among Fatah voters. The largest percentage is more likely to vote for an independent list formed by Barghouti than for an official Fatah list formed by Abbas and the Fatah leadership.
Furthermore, 45 percent of Palestinians think people in the West Bank can criticize the PA without fear, while 51 percent think they cannot.
The Palestinian public is also divided over its assessment of the PA—a majority of 55 percent views it as a burden on the Palestinian people, while 41 percent view it as an asset.
The last elections for the Palestinian Authority Legislative Council were held in 2006, and the last election for PA president was in 2005, with Abbas’s term meant to expire in 2009. Despite calls for elections, Abbas has said that they could only occur if they include eastern Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, which is under the control of Hamas.
‘He calls all the cards’
Hillel Frisch, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, told JNS that Abbas’ PA “is going to continue to operate as it has in the past—a one-man show where he calls all the cards.”
Frisch outlined four reasons why Abbas remains firmly in power.
First, “the moderate but autocratic Sunni states support him against the Hamas-Gaza rival. After all, he operates in their image.”
Second, “his would-be successors rally around him against the Hamas threat supported by Iran. They are also ensuring their pensions.”
Third, the Europeans “will continue to finance him to contain Israel and keep the two-state solution alive.”
Fourth, the Palestinian public is “politically fatigued from the inter-Palestinian partition and is not in a mobilizing mode.”
With regard to Abbas’s intentions vis-à-vis the Biden administration, Frisch said that at the age of 85, “Abbas has no intention of rocking the boat and being the traitor that abandons the [Palestinian] ‘right of return.’ ”
Frisch also said that while there is no plan for the day after Abbas, Israel is prepared to “move in to prevent a Hamas takeover.”