Last week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, 82, replete with heart disease, was hospitalized for the second time in ten months with exhaustion and chest pains. A heavy smoker, overweight, under enormous job stress, Abbas had stents inserted to treat artery blockage last October.
Abbas has recently faced three high political tension points. In early May at the White House, President Trump raised his voice at Abbas, castigating the Palestinian leader for inciting violence against Israelis and providing social welfare payments to parents of dead Palestinian martyrs. In the past several weeks, Abbas has monitored and directly dealt with tensions with Israel over the Temple Mount crisis. Egypt’s top leader instigated the third point of stress, encouraging, if not orchestrating, the renewed relationship between Hamas and Mohammed Dahlan, Abbas’ chief electoral rival. Most observers agree this rapprochement could lead to coordinated replacement moves — or a coup — directed against the current incumbent.
Heightened concerns circulated within the Palestinian Authority, Gaza Strip, Palestinian diaspora, and Israel last week about Abbas’ future. In Ramallah’s coffeehouses, rampant uncertainty and speculation reign, but the question of “After Abbas, who?” remains unanswered.
Currently, the Palestinians have no succession plans — and Abbas has no plans to step down. Nor is there a central institutional authority that is shaping the near future. Points of power in Ramallah and Gaza are: (1) the Fatah’s Central Committee (led by the secretary general), (2) the Constitutional Court, (3) the PLO Central Committee (with 120 members), (4) the PLO Executive Committee (with 22 members), and (5) the Palestinian Legislative Council (which has not met since 2007 and speaker Sheikh Aziz Duwaik is a high ranking member of Hamas). Dysfunctionality is rampant, close observers agree.
Only time will tell the outcome of a bitterly contested power struggle that will take place when Abbas becomes physically and mentally incapacitated.
In 2005, Mahmoud Abbas was elected president for a four-year term. But in 2007, the rival militant group, Hamas, seized control of the Gaza Strip, leaving Abbas to oversee two competing governments — his Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Hamas operation in Gaza, without reconciliation and unity in sight.
Who are today’s leading contenders to succeed Mahmoud Abbas as president of the Palestinian Authority?
Majid Faraj. He currently heads the Palestinian Authority’s General Intelligence Service. Born in a refugee camp near Bethlehem and seen as a pragmatic negotiator, Faraj has excellent relations with the United States and Israel. He bragged recently in a Defense Weekly interview that, since October 2016, the PA’s intelligence forces have foiled 200 attacks against Israel, confiscated weapons, and arrested about 100 Palestinians. Hamas, jihadists, and many Ramallah politicians reacted angrily to this claim. Faraj was called “a traitor” and other pejoratives. But important moderates defended him. The Medical Association of Jerusalem, for instance, praised Faraj for “protecting our children and youth.” Abbas himself also praised Faraj.
A Hamas leader. There is a pecking order among Hamas’ top leadership — Ismail Haniyeh, Khaled Meshal, Moussa Abu Marzook, and Yahya Sinwar. Least known is the latter. A founding member of Hamas’ military wing, Sinwar spent 23 years in jail for killing Fatah officials and Israelis. He was recently chosen as the new chief of Hamas in the absence from Gaza of the other three leaders.
Mohammed Dahlan. During his leadership of the Palestinian security services in Gaza, Dahlan was seen as “a strong man.” It was in this position that he got on the bad side of both Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leaders, and was unceremoniously expelled by Abbas from the Strip in 2011. He has lived sumptuously in the United Arab Emirates ever since. He has good relations with Egypt, particularly President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel. Last month, Dahlan carved out “an unholy alliance” with Hamas under Sisi’s auspices in Cairo. Dahlan and Hamas agreed to reopen the Rafiah crossing between Egypt and Gaza, allow entry of medicines and fuel for power plants, build a security buffer zone along the Gaza border, stop smuggling of weapons and the infiltration of terrorists, and to establish a new “management committee” of the rebellious Palestinian enclave. An aspiring, charismatic Palestinian politician, Dahlan wears his ambitions to succeed Abbas on his sleeves.
Jibril Rajoub. Former head of Palestinian security, he is currently the czar of sports in Palestine and chairman of the Fatah Central Committee. He has used sports to build up his political reputation. His closest allies are Mahmoud Aloul, Hussein al-Sheikh, and Majid Faraj.
Others mentioned quickly and quietly are: Marwan Barghouti, leader of two intifadas and now serving five life sentences with no prospects of getting out of jail; Saeb Erekat, a veteran peace negotiator, but now very sick; Mohammad Shtayyeh, a trained economist; Mahmoud Alouf, vice president of the PA; Nasser al-Qidwa, Arafat’s nephew; Amira Hanania, well-known Palestinian TV presenter; and Nasser Abu Bakr, a reporter for Radio Falastin.
Meanwhile, Mahmoud Abbas, a sick man, continues to sit in his executive office, unwilling to say goodbye to the presidency of Palestine.
Caroline Quinn, Analyst
The Middle East’s geopolitical map is being redrawn. With local and global actors staking out spheres of influence in and around Syria, Iran — aided by its proxy, Hezbollah — is poised to become the preeminent power.
This was confirmed yesterday, when Hezbollah formally announced victory in Lebanon’s eastern town of Arsal. In August 2014, militants from the Islamic State (IS) and Nusra, the Syrian affiliate of al-Qaeda, seized Arsal — a consequence of spillover from the Syrian conflict. Lebanese security forces regained control within days, but scores of extremists remained, hiding out in the area’s mountains to evade strikes from Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its allies.
Now, three years later, Hezbollah has raised its flag over Arsal, a predominantly Sunni town strategically located on the Lebanese-Syrian border, after brokering a ceasefire with Nusra.
The deal includes the departure of all Nusra fighters — as well as civilian refugees who agree to leave — from Arsal, in exchange for the release of Hezbollah prisoners. On Wednesday, around 7,000 people were escorted by the Lebanese Red Cross onto busses headed for Idlib, the only Syrian province entirely under rebel control. Idlib has been a target of Russian and Syrian aerial strikes that have caused hundreds of civilians casualties. It is also where jihadists linked to Hayat Tahrir al Sham, spearheaded by Nusra, have become increasingly popular.
Some regional analysts argued that Hezbollah’s risky foray into the Syrian conflict would lead to the group’s demise. In a May 2013 article, for example, New York Times Beirut bureau chief Anne Barnard wrote that Hezbollah’s role in Syria would either bring it “new power” or “defeat with wide repercussions.” Four years later, the former prediction has come true: Hezbollah has gained more military experience and confidence.
Brokering the Arsal ceasefire demonstrates Hezbollah’s increasing influence. By taking preemptive military action against Nusra, Hezbollah denied the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) the ability to conduct the operation on its own terms. Even Amin Wehbeh, a member of parliament (MP) from the Mustaqbal Movement — the ruling party of Prime Minister Saad Hariri — admitted that “the decisions of war and peace are in the hands of the party, not the state.” The Hezbollah-Nusra deal “undermined” the sovereignty of the Lebanese state, he added.
The fighting in Arsal also shows the sophistication of Hezbollah’s military strategy and media campaign. Throughout the battle, Hezbollah’s media outlet, Al-Manar, released daily videos and images showing the group’s fighters, “men of God,” “humiliating” Nusra terrorists. Hezbollah posted maps highlighting the progression of its forces; graphics displaying its use of artillery, antiaircraft guns, and rockets; and propaganda glorifying Hezbollah’s combat engineering and expensive bulldozers. In a nod to its proxy, Iranian state-owned media corporation Al-Alam posted live coverage of Hezbollah’s battle to retake Arsal.
Hezbollah even organized a tour of Arsal for journalists last weekend to show that their fighters, not the Lebanese or Americans, are on the frontline fighting terrorism. Reporters were driven through Hezbollah bases, where they saw armored vehicles, advanced surveillance equipment, and missile technology. Officials also walked reporters through a cave complex Hezbollah fighters seized from al-Qaeda, complete with a kitchen, rudimentary bathrooms, sleeping areas, and jail cells.
Capitalizing on the chaos in Syria, Hezbollah has gradually built up its military capacity and deepened its embeddedness in state institutions. Unlike the LAF and other neighboring armies, Hezbollah has the “reach, strategic vision…and strategic patience” to crystalize hegemony, and is now a “de facto peer” to regional powers, write Thanassis Cambanis and Sima Ghaddar, Middle East experts at The Century Foundation.
Of course, all of this benefits Iran, Hezbollah’s financial and ideological backer. While last month’s US-Russian ceasefire agreement bars Iran’s proxies from southern Syria, Iran is free to impose its own sphere of influence along the Lebanese-Syrian frontier. Hezbollah has already taken Arsal, and operations to take the remaining portion of the border under IS control — near Ras Baalbek — will begin any day.
With Iran finalizing its crucial Shia land corridor and a resurgent al-Qaeda cementing its authority in Idlib, there’s little prospect for an end to the Syrian conflict — or a boost to overall regional stability — anytime soon. The Trump administration has oft-expressed its intention to curb Iranian aggression. This strategy is failing miserably.