Palestinian politics today is undergoing a change as President Mahmoud Abbas’ health condition deteriorates. With no clear heir to ensure a landslide victory, the question over who will replace Abbas remains unanswered. The possible successors are a source of argument among the Palestinians and the international community. Currently, speculation centers around four names.
Among them is Mahmoud al-Aloul, the first vice president of Fatah. Abbas himself supports Aloul to be his successor to lead the Palestinian Authority (PA). However, Aloul is not a welcome choice for some Arab countries because he is hawkish and opposes the two-state solution. Sources have stated that Fatah’s General Council decided in March to change the party’s internal constitution in order to appoint Aloul as the acting leader for three months if Abbas’ health affects his ability to rule. Israel is also concerned about the succession, as a PA power vacuum could lead to further violence.
The second candidate in the race is Jibril Rajoub, a former West Bank security chief and a senior Fatah figure. He served as head of the Preventive Security Force in the West Bank until 2002, after which then-PA President Yasser Arafat appointed Rajoub as his national security adviser in 2003. Rajoub believes he is the most suitable candidate to lead the PA after Abbas.
The third candidate is Mohammed Dahlan, a former Gaza security mastermind who was forced to flee Ramallah in 2011 following allegations of corruption and an attempted coup against Abbas. It is said that Elliot Abrams, a National Security Council adviser during the George W. Bush administration, nominated Dahlan to lead the PA mission against Hamas in Gaza in 2007, which earned him the warlord moniker. While in exile in the United Arab Emirates, Dahlan was accused of sending money to some Fatah members in Gaza to undermine Abbas’ authority in Ramallah, the headquarters of the PA. Dahlan had always opposed Islamist movements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, including Hamas, and is waiting for the right moment to return to the West Bank as president.
The fourth candidate is Nasser al-Kidwa, the nephew of Yasser Arafat and senior Fatah official. Kidwa has served as the Palestinian foreign minister and envoy to the United Nations. He is the most likely candidate to win the presidential race as he is supported by the Arab Quartet that includes Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
There are three possible scenarios in the coming months to replace the aging Abbas, as per NPR. The first option, if Abbas is no longer able to uphold his office, is that the speaker of the Palestinian National Council, Aziz Dweik (who is a member of Hamas but is based in the West Bank) would replace Abbas for 60 days until elections are held. The second is for Abbas himself to select a temporary replacement until the elections. The third is to set a date for elections where the four candidates would nominate themselves, unless a tectonic change takes place at the very last moment, such as a new intifada in Gaza and the West Bank.
The first option is unlikely to happen because Dweik is a member of Hamas. Abbas will not cede power to a rival organization due to internal and regional complications and ramifications. Thus, Dweik could not take over the Palestinian leadership unless the US, Israel and other regional powers suddenly back Hamas, which Washington, Tel Aviv and the European Union classify as a terrorist organization.
As for the second alternative, Abbas would select a person close to the PA leadership to rule for a transition period before the election date is set. The selected leader will also have a chance to nominate himself as leader of the PA in the presidential elections. This would be Arafat’s nephew, as he was backed by regional and international powers, including the US and Israel, when he served as foreign minister. This can lead to the third scenario in which the temporary president of the PA could become a candidate and winner in the presidential elections.
Since 2016, Arab leaders have looked for an alternative to Abbas. That same year, they spoke to Abbas personally on his 81st birthday when they congratulated him and wished him good health. At the time, Jordanian King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi were in charge of an Arab initiative to seek out a successor. The UAE and Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, had sent their representatives to Ramallah to discuss the issue directly with Abbas, as the leaders of both nations did not want to see a power vacuum in the political arena of the PA.
In December 2017, after US President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Kidwa said that any protests by Palestinians should be conducted “in a peaceful and an unarmed, sustainable way, so that would lead to serving the Palestinian national cause in this regard.” His moderate stance toward the American decision is one reason why he is favored by many countries, unlike his rivals who call for escalation.
The move of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on May 14 is deemed critical to the coming Palestinian leadership, whoever the candidate will be. However, the tough rivalry among the candidates, mainly between Rajoub and Dahlan, will only increase in the coming months, preventing both from heading the PA.
With the start of Ramadan, it is expected that Palestinians will try to raise the question of Jerusalem as a core issue not only for them, but for Muslims and Christians as well. Thus, we might witness a kick-off of a new uprising in Gaza and the West Bank, of which the violence against Palestinian protesters on the border with Gaza on May 14 could become a tragic preview. This could lead to either Aloul or Kidwa winning the race for the PA presidency based on their wide national support.
The PA presidential race is critical. The next president will be accountable for establishing an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, while ensuring its peoples’ right to self-determination. The president will be working with Arab and Muslim leaders to secure the status of the holy shrines in East Jerusalem as part of the capital of an independent Palestinian state, without offending Jewish holy sites in the city. That is why the best solution for the issue of Jerusalem is to divide it into West and East capitals, for Israel and Palestine respectively, to avoid any future regional war.