The most essential role of the position of a vice president is to allow for a smooth transition in case the president becomes incapacitated. In many autocratic systems, presidents are afraid to appoint a vice president precisely for that reason. Palestine had not been an exception to this, until now.
The Palestinian Basic Law, a sort of temporary constitution, does not reference a position of vice president in any of its articles. Palestine’s first president, Yasser Arafat, never had a vice president, but he did anoint Mahmoud Abbas, the secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization's (PLO) Executive Committee, as his No. 2.
Abbas was elected Palestinian president in 2005, after Arafat's death and following a 60-day transitional period led by the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), Rauhi Fatouh. The 78-year-old Abbas has dropped no hints about a preferred successor, but he has approved a legal research process to create such a position.
While article 34 of the Basic Law allows for a sitting president to make temporary laws, it is believed that creating the position of vice president requires a vote by the currently inactive PLC. The problem is further compounded by the last elected speaker of the Palestinian legislature, Abdel Aziz Dweik, being a strong supporter of Hamas.
Some analysts have argued that the Basic Law's article 38, which allows the speaker of the legislature to assume presidential duties for 60 days, is obsolete given the UN General Assembly's recognition of Palestine as a non-member observer state. Instead they assert that the secretary general of the PLO’s Executive Committee, which is a higher body than the Palestinian legislature, should take on the transitional job.
Current Secretary-General Yasser Abed Rabbo is a staunch Abbas confidant. Salim Zanoun, head of the Palestine National Council (PNC), often referred to as the Palestinian parliament in exile, which includes all members of the Palestinian legislature, has been asked by the Palestinian leadership to provide a legal remedy for the issue of creating the position of vice president.
Palestinian officials and pundits have offered different reasons for the rush to create a vice presidency. Senior Fatah official Abbas Zaki argued that such a position would protect Abbas if he takes a position on the current US-led peace talks that is unpopular with the United States or Israel. A quote attributed to chief Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni, in which she said that Abbas would pay a huge price if he rejected the plan of Secretary of State John Kerry, is often used to justify the current talk of a vice president. Kerry himself has been reportedly quoted as saying that Abbas’s fate would be similar to that of Arafat's if he rejected the peace offer.
Sources in Ramallah, however, told Al-Monitor that the real reason behind the recent frantic interest by the ruling Fatah movement has to do with the succession struggle after the current chain-smoking leader exits. In particular, they point to the resurgence of disgraced Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan as the primary reason for the rush to appoint a vice president. Dahlan has forged solid ties with the leader of the United Arab Emirates and the current Egyptian leadership. He recently met with Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s strongman and possible future president. Dahlan has even been approached by Hamas to improve their ties with Egypt.
If the legal issues are resolved, it is unclear who will be chosen for the position of vice president. The Fatah Central Committee has established a five-person committee to deal with the matter. Marwan Barghouti is the personality most can agree on to fill the position, but he is serving multiple life terms in an Israeli jail for allegedly ordering the killing of Israelis during the second intifada.
Absent Barghouti, the two most likely candidates are Dahlan and Fatah Deputy Secretary Jibril Rajoub. Of note, all three — Barghouti, Rajoub and Dahlan — were deported by Israel during the first intifada and were with Arafat in Tunis prior to his return to Palestine. Upon their return, Rajoub took over as head of security in the West Bank, and Dahlan took a similar position in Gaza, but Barghouti refused an official position, preferring instead to remain as a leader of the Fatah Shabiba Tanzim (youth movement).
Organizing the succession to Abbas is now on a fast track. While there are legal complications to creating a position that does not exist under the current constitutional framework, the big issues remain how the process of choosing a deputy to the current leader will be conducted and whether it will be a closed debate among the Fatah leadership or also include input from the Palestinian public.