Who will replace Abbas?

Local Palestinian media have largely avoided covering the hospitalization of President Mahmoud Abbas, as debate continues over a succession plan.

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Adnan Abu Amer

Adnan Abu Amer


Topics covered

palestinian authority, pnc, mahmoud abbas, succession, hamas, fatah, plc

May 24, 2018

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was admitted to Istishari Arab Hospital in Ramallah for the third time in less than a week between May 15 and 21. There have been conflicting accounts of his condition, although doctors were satisfied with the results of the medical tests that followed Abbas’ ear surgery on May 15.

Abbas was hospitalized again and admitted to the hospital May 20 because of a lung infection accompanied with a 40 C (104 F) fever, and he was given intravenous antibiotics.

This is not the first time the 82-year-old president has been hospitalized this year. He was admitted to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland in February, and it was unknown whether he had a health problem or just went in for a routine checkup. This naturally draws attention to what could be the beginning of the end for Abbas’ presidency and all the arrangements that may be taking place behind the scenes in preparation for any sudden news regarding his health.

A Palestinian official close to Abbas told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “The president, much like any other person, gets sick and recovers, and given his age and the burdens he carries on his shoulders, it is only normal for him to get tired. However, rushing into discussing turning the page would not be wise. His associates still send him reports to the hospital and he only needs to rest for a while. But Palestinian constitutional institutions [such as the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), the Palestinian Central Committee or the Executive Committee of the PLO)] have the right to discuss any political or legal arrangements to manage the Palestinian situation in anticipation of any emergency.”

The fact that Abbas was admitted to the hospital and did not attend the Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit in Istanbul on May 17 stirred various reactions on the Palestinian street and the regional and international arenas. He received many phone calls from leaders in Egypt, Qatar, Turkey and the Arab League, checking up on his health condition.

No Palestinian leader, whether pro-Abbas or an opponent of his, has said that they contacted or visited him. Abbas’ associates, especially Saeb Erekat, the secretary-general of the PLO’s Executive Committee, said on May 21 this is proof that his health is indeed stable.

Arab, international and even Israeli media have reported on Abbas’ recurring hospital visits and spoke of his deteriorating health. However, Palestinian media outlets refrained from covering the subject, perhaps to avoid mentioning possible scenarios should Abbas suddenly leave the picture. 

Hassan Asfour, the former minister of Palestinian nongovernmental organizations affairs, told Al-Monitor, “Abbas' current health crisis seems to affect his future the most and it happened to reveal the extent of the political crisis within the Palestinian Authority [PA], which has not opened up about the truth of what [Abbas] is going through. The PA is intentionally keeping the public in the dark so as to avoid certain situations that Abbas’ associates do not seem to be ready to face.”

Asfour added, “They seem to be avoiding talking about what could happen after Abbas, a question that may pave the way for political chaos if agreement is not reached over a constitutional political mechanism to choose a successor.”

Several scenarios for the post-Abbas period are on the table. The Palestinian Basic Law authorizes the PLC speaker to chair the PA for 60 days in the absence of the president, pending presidential elections. Another scenario would be to appoint a deputy to Abbas before he is out of the picture. The third scenario would be for Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, or the Fatah deputy head, Mahmoud al-Aloul, to lead the PA in case of Abbas’ absence. The most dangerous scenario would be for his absence to lead to an internal conflict among Fatah leaders and the PA.

Abbas, who seems to be holding on to the reins of power, refused to appoint a deputy perhaps for fear that this deputy would turn against him.

Hamas has not paid particular attention to Abbas' health. The president has become a strong opponent, as he tried to tighten the grip on Gaza and force Hamas into a corner with the sanctions he imposed on the Gaza Strip since April 2017. Hamas did not comment on Abbas’ hospitalization, and its spokesmen refused to talk to Al-Monitor about the matter.

It seems Hamas believes it holds a constitutionally winning card since the PLC speaker will chair the PA for 60 days in the absence of the president, until elections are held according to the law. And it just so happens that Aziz Dweik, a Hamas leader in the West Bank, is the PLC speaker and thus could fill the position. However, Dweik is practically absent from the political arena and refrains from getting involved in political bickering with the PA. He is also fearful of getting arrested by Israel. If Dweik decides not to move forward and lead the transition, which is likely to happen, Hamas will be deprived of using this card.

Hani al-Masri, the head of the Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Strategic Studies - Masarat, told Al-Monitor, “Arrangements for Abbas' succession were already in motion during the PNC sessions in late April in Ramallah, but it was a missed opportunity. The PNC sessions, which Hamas boycotted, could have defined a constitutional mechanism that regulates the Palestinian political scene should the president disappear for whatever reason, but Abbas refused to form this mechanism.”

Masri added, “It is even more serious that there is no agreed-upon successor within the Palestinian arena, and perhaps Abbas believes that not showing support for a candidate to succeed him allows him to come off as more powerful. All candidates are trying to get on his good side, and this is why I expect rivalries to break out should Abbas leave the picture without prior arrangements. However, they would only be temporary conflicts, after which rivals will soon sit together to distribute powers and positions.”

Abbas fills three positions all at once. He is the head of the PA, head of the PLO and head of Fatah. So it seems more likely that three different Fatah leaders could occupy these three positions, if Hamas shows no presence in the West Bank and no other faction is formed to compete against Fatah. Some of these candidates include Erekat, Aloul, Majid Faraj and Jibril Rajoub.

Should Palestinians agree on holding presidential elections, Hamas may participate by nominating one of its leaders or supporting one of its associates.

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