The Final Countdown to Abbas’ Rule Is Gaining Pace
Recent events in the Palestinian Authority (PA) indicate that the countdown to the rule of President Mahmoud Abbas is gaining momentum. This does not mean that the PA is about to collapse as an organized institution of government, but it does raise serious questions about the viability of the Abbas administration.
The recent apparent torture and killing of Palestinian dissident Nizar Banat — now widely called the “Palestinian Khashoggi” by the Palestinian public — could signal the approach of a new era in the PA.
In the West Bank, the PA has responded to protests that erupted in the aftermath of Banat’s death with force and with frequent violence.
Abbas might still be able to repel the waves of criticisms and protests he is facing, safeguard the PA’s status, stabilize its rule, and continue to function as a central authority — but that scenario is being cast into doubt by senior Fatah operatives in Ramallah, who assume that Abbas is likely moving toward the final station of his long career.
Demonstrations held to protest Banat’s death saw protesters shout slogans such as “Abbas, leave!”
Added to this combustible mix is the ongoing power struggle that has been raging in recent years among possible successors to Abbas.
Many of Abbas’ critics point out that he led himself to this junction through several critical mistakes. The most prominent of these is his public, celebratory call for holding elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council (originally scheduled for May 22), as well as elections for the PA’s residency and the PLO’s National Council. The elections were canceled by Abbas due to a well-founded fear of a Hamas victory. Abbas justified his reversal using the pretext of Israel’s refusal to allow voting in eastern Jerusalem.
These actions created a vacuum, which Hamas rushed to fill without hesitation. Hamas seized on the opportunity to present itself as Jerusalem’s defender, and projected its patronage over the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
After Operation Guardian of the Walls ended, a bitter struggle raged between Fatah and Hamas over who would manage and allocate funds intended to develop civilian infrastructure in Gaza.
The PA’s image on the Palestinian street was dealt a severe blow, and Ramallah is today widely seen by Palestinians as a corrupt authority seeking to use Palestinian funds for its narrow interests. The PA has lost control over much of the social media narrative, and Hamas has gained the upper hand. This has allowed Hamas to present the PA as a corrupt entity that uses its security forces to cooperate with Israel and repress the Palestinian population.
The PA’s management of the Banat affair was a poorly calculated maneuver that could turn out to be one mistake too far. Banat was able to remain an opposition figure without affiliating himself politically. He did not hesitate to use social media to blast the PA and its leaders, the Fatah movement, and the PA’s security forces. He was also extremely critical of a deal reached between the PA and Israel over the use of coronavirus vaccines that were set to expire.
Banat’s death opened a Pandora’s box within the PA. Accusations have been flying between senior officials over who was responsible. Various security forces are trying to evade direct responsibility for the incident. Abbas is trying to contain the public anger, reinstate calm and stability, and thereby lengthen his political life, in the wake of the demonstrations against him.
He has sought to do this through the official announcement, publicized by Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, of an investigation into the death, and through his intention to replace key position holders in the security establishment. In this context, it now seems unlikely that Abbas’ initial intention to replace Shtayyeh will go ahead.
At the same time, former PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s intention to return to public life, through the setting up of a new “compromise government,” has been blocked. Hussein El Sheikh, PA Minister for Civilian Affairs, and Majed Faraj, head of the General Intelligence Service, both of whom are in Abbas’ inner circle and wield major power in the PA, have also been involved in the political mix in the aftermath of the Banat affair. They have pushed aside potential rivals and worked to consolidate their position in the Palestinian leadership. This has occurred as other senior Palestinian figures opposed to Abbas’ rule have been active to promote their agendas too, including Muhammad Dahlan, Marwan Barghouti, and Nasser Al-Qidwa. In this context, Azmi Bishara, a former Israel Knesset Member from the Balad party, has pulled strings from afar amid his Qatari exile.
The PA has in recent weeks taken steps to stabilize the situation, and has been able to significantly reduce public rage over the incident. To further calm the situation, PA security forces have avoided direct clashes with protesters and have been deployed only at the entrances to cities. But despite the decrease in protests, the PA’s investigation into the affair is unlikely to truly calm the thousands of people who took part in demonstrations across major West Bank cities.
The PA is keenly aware of the potential for far-reaching consequences that could develop from this affair, and fears for its legitimacy and ability to function. Ultimately, Abbas has been able to contain the crisis so far, while maintaining a “business as usual” approach by visiting Jordan’s King Abdullah, and President Erdogan in Turkey. But a scenario of renewed rallies and calls for Abbas’ departure could certainly return. Should that occur, the pressure, together with Abbas’ advanced age, poor health, and many would-be successors, could spell the end of his rule.
Col. David Hacham is a publishing Expert at The MirYam Institute. David served for 30 years in various intelligence and political-strategic positions in the IDF, including eight years in the Gaza Strip as advisor for Arab affairs to successive commanders of the Southern Command and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories.
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