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Mahmoud Abbas’ Conflicting Legacy and the Future of the Palestinian Authority

avatar by Chaim Lax

Opinion

PA President Mahmoud Abbas gestures during a meeting in Ramallah, in the West Bank August 18, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman/Pool

In June 2022, it was rumored that Mahmoud Abbas, the octogenarian president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), was suffering from health issues and that his condition might be deteriorating rapidly.

While Abbas’ office was quick to put this rumor to rest, this was but the latest incident over the past few years that raises questions about how much time Abbas, a lifelong chain smoker with a history of heart problems, has left in power.

Whenever the state of Abbas’ health is reported on in the news, two key questions inevitably arise: what is Abbas’ legacy, and who will replace him once he vacates his positions of leadership?

In this piece, we will take a look at the contradictory elements that define Abbas’ political legacy, and will analyze the possible scenarios that may arise the day after Abbas leaves office.

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Born in 1935, Abbas’ entire adult life has been defined by his role in Palestinian politics. He became a member of Fatah, the violent Palestinian group founded by Yasser Arafat, during its early years and is rumored to have been connected to Black September, the Palestinian terrorist organization that was responsible for a number of terror attacks, including the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics.

However, already by the late 1970s, Abbas was known in Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as a believer in bringing about a peaceful resolution to the conflict through negotiations with Israel. At the time, this political stance was considered risky, as similar Palestinian proponents of a negotiated settlement had been assassinated by their rivals.

However, by the late 1980s and early 1990s, Abbas’ position became more accepted within the upper ranks of the PLO, and he became known as a negotiator, representing the Palestinian side at both the talks that led to the Oslo Accords as well as the Camp David Summit between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat.

This dichotomy within Abbas’ political history (membership in violent organizations while also advancing peaceful settlements) has also defined his tenure as president of the PA since 2005.

Under Abbas’ leadership, the Palestinian Security Services have increased their coordination with Israel, arresting members of terrorist organizations and working to stop lone wolf attacks against Israelis. Similarly, the PA security apparatus has, over the years, successfully saved the lives of hundreds of Israelis who inadvertently enter PA-controlled territories.

In addition, Abbas has been instrumental in reining in the violent Tanzim organization, as well as effectively dismantling the Fatah-aligned terrorist organization, the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades.

This is a far cry from the days of the Second Intifada, when Palestinian security officers removed their uniforms and took part in violent attacks, as Arafat encouraged terrorism against Israeli civilians.

However, while once referring to security coordination with Israel as something “sacred,” Abbas has also threatened numerous times to cease security coordination if Israel doesn’t submit to his demands (by 2015, he had threatened to cancel security coordination a total of 58 times).

In addition, Abbas’ tenure as PA president has also been marked by his support for “pay-for-slay,” a program that provides financially for terrorists in Israeli jails or the families of terrorists. By some estimates, this policy takes up 7% of the Palestinian Authority’s budget.

When it comes to incitement against Israel and Jews within the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas’ legacy of conflicting values shines clear: The PA will periodically clamp down on incitement, while also continuing to praise Palestinians who are killed in the midst of attacks on Israelis.

Along similar lines, Abbas has previously apologized for the violence of the Second Intifada and expressed regret that the 1947 UN partition plan was not accepted. Yet he has also claimed that Israel has committed “50 Holocausts” against the Palestinians and that the Jews are responsible for their persecution in Europe.

This is in line with his doctoral dissertation and subsequent manuscript that questions the number of victims of the Holocaust, and claims that the Zionists cooperated with the Nazis.

Thus, Abbas walks a fine line between stepping away from the violent rhetoric of Yasser Arafat while also continuing to engage in antisemitic historical revisionism.

When it comes to his legacy within the Palestinian Authority, many West Bank Palestinians view Mahmoud Abbas in an overly negative light.

For many Palestinians, including a significant amount of the younger generation, Abbas is seen as the head of a corrupt government that holds onto power by suppressing political opposition, silencing critical journalists, and stymieing civil dissent. It is no wonder, then, that a 2021 survey found that almost 80% of Palestinians want Abbas to resign.

In short, when Mahmoud Abbas vacates his position, what will be his lasting legacy? For many Israelis, he will be remembered as a leader who brought more stability to the region but could never fully shake the violence, incitement, and antisemitic rhetoric that characterized previous generations of Palestinian leadership.

Among large swathes of the Palestinian population of the West Bank, however, he will be remembered as a corrupt autocrat who presented himself as the leader of his people but had lost all credibility on the Palestinian street many years ago.

As one analyst opined, “[Abbas] is constantly trying to seek legitimacy and validity from both Palestinians and for Israel, and everyone finds him detestable.”

Another aspect of Mahmoud Abbas’ lasting legacy is that, even though he is 87 and racked by health problems, he has never appointed someone to succeed him as president of the Palestinian Authority, chairman of Fatah, and chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Without a successor (or successors) in place, no one knows exactly what will happen once Abbas leaves office.

The following are five possible scenarios put forward by political analysts and observers concerning what will happen the day after Mahmoud Abbas leaves office.

1) The most likely scenario is that the Palestinian National Council, the legislative body of the PLO, will elect someone to replace Abbas. While it is unclear who the forerunner is, the top four contenders for the leadership of the Palestinian Authority are Hussein Al-Sheikh, Jibril Rajoub, Mahmoud Aloul, and Majid Faraj.

Although they all possess different leadership styles and temperaments, it is believed that these men will continue Abbas’ legacy of security cooperation with Israel, reining in extremist forces, and acting as pillars of stability. However, this may harm their credibility on the Palestinian street and they will not be able to command the respect needed to effectively administer the Palestinian Authority.

A wildcard contender to replace Mahmoud Abbas is Mohammed Dahlan, a former Fatah head in Gaza who was ousted from the party by Abbas in 2011 and has lived in the UAE ever since.

Although his turbulent relationship with Abbas may make him an attractive leader to those who are disaffected with the current Palestinian leadership, it is unlikely that Dahlan will replace Abbas, as he only possesses loyal followers in Gaza, some refugee camps, and among the militant factions of Fatah.

2) Another possibility is that Abbas’ roles will be split among three successors (with Faraj likely to be one of the three) until general elections are held for the PA. However, it is unclear if the PA will hold elections, as both Fatah and Hamas are unwilling to test their positions of power in the West Bank and Gaza respectively.

Nevertheless, there is the possibility that, in the wake of Abbas’ departure, there would be a broad grassroots demand for elections, which would open the door for the US-designated terror group Hamas to integrate into all the institutions of the PA. Ultimately, this could lead to Hamas becoming a member of the PLO and ousting Fatah from its position of power.

3) If there is no consensus among the Fatah leadership as to who will replace Abbas, this could lead to an outbreak of violence between different Fatah factions, with different regions of the West Bank ultimately being controlled by separate leaders and armed militias.

Hamas may take advantage of this situation by portraying itself as the more stable leadership option.

4) The person who replaces Mahmoud Abbas as president of the Palestinian Authority may seek to gain credibility among the Palestinian masses by taking a hostile approach toward Israel. This would most likely mean the suspension of security coordination between the Palestinian and Israeli security services.

While this may make the novice Palestinian leader more popular among his own constituency, it is unlikely to occur since the PA is heavily dependent on Israeli tax dollars to fund its administration.

5) The last possible scenario for a post-Mahmoud Abbas Palestinian Authority is the dissolution of the PA altogether. If the successor to Mahmoud Abbas fails to maintain authority over the Palestinians of the West Bank, this could lead to the loss of the PA’s integrity, its monopoly on force and ultimately its ability to function as a civil administration.

While this idea does hold sway on the Palestinian street (a survey found that 45% of West Bank Palestinians support the dissolution of the PA), it would prove to be an economic disaster, as the PA is the largest employer of Palestinians in the West Bank.

For close to 20 years, Mahmoud Abbas has been the public face of the Palestinian Authority, meeting with international leaders, speaking at the United Nations, and representing the PA in its rocky relations with Israel. Now, in the twilight of his public career, it appears that Abbas’ legacy is multifaceted and full of conflicting values.

On the one hand, Abbas has overseen greater security coordination with Israel and has moved away from the violent rhetoric of Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian leaders who preceded him. On the other hand, Abbas continues to financially support terrorists and their families and to trivialize Jewish history and belittle the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel. For the Palestinians, his legacy is one of corruption, autocracy, and the silencing of criticism.

However, if Abbas fails to appoint a successor (or at least establish channels of succession), his lasting legacy will be of someone who endangered the stability of the Palestinian Authority, left the door open for Hamas to infiltrate PA institutions, and threatened the continued existence of everything he worked towards for most of his adult life.

The author is a contributor to HonestReporting, a Jerusalem-based media watchdog with a focus on antisemitism and anti-Israel bias — where a version of this article first appeared.

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

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