WJC ANALYSIS – Pinhas Inbari: Mahmoud Abbas’ exit strategy

WJC ANALYSIS – Pinhas Inbari: Mahmoud Abbas’ exit strategy



Prior to departing on his latest Arab tour, PLO leader Mahmud Abbas told Fatah leadership in Ramallah to take the elections project seriously and start choosing a candidate for the presidency. Two senior Fatah officials, Abbas Zaki and Mahmud al-Alul, were quick to declare Abbas as Fatah’s only candidate for president. It looked like an expression of confidence in his leadership, but in fact, it was a hint at disagreements between the president and his faction.

Not only did Abbas urge his fellow Fatah leaders to name his heir, but he also insisted on a serious preparation for the general elections, scheduled to take place in May 2012. However, Fatah openly rejected his call to name a candidate for the presidency and has yet to show any attempts at embarking on an election campaign process.

Is Fatah skeptical about the possibility of the elections taking place? Or did the organization not want them in the first place?

Mahmoud Abbas has yet to publish a decree calling for elections, as no agreement on the matter has been reached with Hamas’ government in Gaza. There are several reasons for the stalemate with Hamas. The Islamic movement’s prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, has refused to leave office. As a result, the Palestinians have found themselves with an electoral formula that would put two governments in place – one in Ramallah and another in Gaza. Nobody seriously believes that this scenario is workable or realistic.

Regardless of the objective impediments to the electoral process, it is likely that Abbas will make a ‘leadership decision’ and announce a date for new elections, allowing his need for an exit strategy to prevail. It is less important for Abbas to hold the elections than to fix an exit date and name his successor as leader of Fatah. Election day will be Abbas’ ‘expiration date’ as Fatah’s leader. If, however, elections do not take place – and they are most likely not to – he will blame Israel for the failure and exit as a popular hero.

Officials within Fatah are exceedingly concerned that Abbas’ plan will lead to a succession crisis for which the organization is utterly unprepared. Several groups inside Fatah are expected to vie for the supremacy that signifies the national legitimacy of the Palestinians, despite the organization’s de facto diminution in power over the past few years. Fatah’s last Congress in Bethlehem two years ago was beset by violent internal conflicts that included physical assaults between various delegates.

The main fault line rests within the historical split between the ‘Tunisians’ (the PLO leadership that arrived from Tunis as result of the Oslo agreements) and the local insiders, the cadres of the West Bank and Gaza.

The Tunisian leadership owed its predominance to the fact that the local Fatah cadres were unable to agree on a leader and to the Tunisian leadership’s representation of the refugees’ problem – a core issue for Palestinian nationalism. The moment the veteran Tunisian leadership disappears along with its historical legitimacy, the magnitude of the refugee problem will decrease in favor of local concerns and priorities. In that case, the West Bank will shift from an internationally recognized ‘leadership’ to local ‘dignitaries’.

Despite the PLO’s relocation to the Palestinian Authority’s territories, local cadres failed to assume power and move up the ladder to overshadow the newcomers. The regional distinctions prevailed: Nablus never accepted the leadership of Ramallah or Hebron, and vice versa.

Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti is an example of this trend. Barghouti was not included in the Gilad Shalit prisoner’ exchange because the Tunisian leadership did not campaign for his release, as it did for a Hamuri prisoner of the Popular Front. There was also no popular drive to release Barghouti as Fatah’s main districts in Nablus and Hebron did not perceive him as someone who should be defended. He is perceived as a ‘Ramallah figure’, not as a ‘Palestinian’.

Yet another testament to these internal PA considerations is Muhammad Dahlan. Further to his expulsion from Gaza, and the failure of the West Bank Fatah to absorb him, the Tunisians went as far as expelling Dahlan from Fatah altogether. While the details of the Dahlan and Barghouti cases are different, in essence they are the symptoms of a common disease within Fatah: its leadership is not in sync with Fatah cadres, and the regions cannot find a common ground.