The 85-year-old Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas walks on a shaky tightrope and strives forwards with the skills he learned from Yasser Arafat – but little of the charisma of his clever mentor. In his 17th year as undeclared president for life, Abbas is once again on the verge of either being crushed by one of his younger rivals or precariously holding out.
Abbas is reluctantly tolerated among the Palestinians in the West Bank. He is ignored and ridiculed in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. And in diaspora communities around the world – once the stronghold of Palestinian political power – the grim, white-haired president creates frustration and despair.
But Abbas' longstanding rivals are gathering strength in the Palestinian diaspora. Possible successors include Qatar-based Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, United Arab Emirates-protected Mohammed Dahlan, and long-time Washington favorite Salam Fayyad, a former Palestinian prime minister. When Abbas eventually stops, falls or dies in a coup, these outsiders will be strong. In the meantime, they are rubbing their shoulders with force and building grassroots support.
The only thing they don't wait for is a normal democratic succession. Abbas is unlikely to be voted out of office as he has firm control over the mechanisms of the Palestinian Authority (PA) government. In 2005 he was elected President; When his term in office expired four years later, he canceled the elections and stood by because Hamas – which took over Gaza in a violent coup in 2007 – would not accept Abbas' electoral rules. Since then he has governed as an unelected strong man and most recently canceled the presidential election planned for July 31. If elections were held now, Abbas and his secular Fatah party would overwhelmingly be swept from power by the Palestinian Center for Political and Poll Research, according to a recent poll.
As if Abbas' holdings were not low enough, the Palestinians were appalled at the June death of Nizar Banat, a staunch critic of the PA leadership who was beaten by police after his arrest and died in custody. Since then, thousands have taken to the streets of Ramallah to protest the assassination of Banat, some drawing parallels with the gruesome murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 by a Saudi killer squad in Istanbul. The US State Department has requested an investigation.
For the Palestinian diaspora, Abbas & # 39; political failure and the perception that it is constantly being dubbed by Israel creates a sense of alienation instead of the pride and solidarity felt by previous generations. In a recently published report, Al-Shabaka, a Palestinian political center, attributed the development to the rule of the Palestine Liberation Organization by the Palestine Liberation Organization, which was created in 1993 by the Oslo Accords as a temporary mechanism for self-government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (PLO) , the once revolutionary body established by Arafat to represent both the 5.1 million Palestinians in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 and the estimated 6 million others worldwide.
The PA "sees the diaspora more as emigrants than Palestinians with the fundamental right to return," the report said. Both the PA and the PLO "are aware of the alienation and the need to reverse it".
Amid disappointment with PA leaders, hopes for change were fueled by the limited successes of boycotts, divestments and sanctions movements around the world that persuaded Ben & Jerry & # 39; s to start selling ice cream in the West Bank this month adjust. A small group of public figures such as US MP Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat whose grandmother lives outside of Ramallah, has put Palestinian concerns on the US national agenda.
What has waned dramatically in recent years, according to the June poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Polling Research, is support for the two-state solution, which has been the basis for more than two decades of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. All Palestinian hopes that the removal of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israeli Prime Minister would revive the peace process collide with the fact that the new coalition is unlikely to be much more flexible about the status of the West Bank. After all, the new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is the former director general of the Yesha Council, which represents and advocates the 500,000 Israelis living in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
When the time comes to replace Abbas, prominent Palestinians from the diaspora will top the list of contenders. The June poll, conducted by veteran pollster Khalil Shikaki, shows that Haniyeh – a former PA prime minister who now directs Hamas' international operations from Qatar – would receive more than twice as much support in the presidential election as Abbas . The fact that Hamas is described as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union, and most recently the United Arab Emirates, does little to detract from Haniyeh's current popularity.
Among the Palestinian diaspora Palestinians, Hamas is seeing a resurgence in popularity after being viewed as an obstacle to Palestinian dreams of statehood due to the group's refusal to renounce violence and not reconcile with Abbas and the PA government. The Islamist group is leaving the 11-day Gaza conflict in May, in which Palestinian fighters fired around 4,500 rockets and mortars while being hit by Israeli air strikes. Hamas was admired for daring to use its weapons against panicked Israelis crawling into bomb shelters on television or crouching in their Tel Aviv stairs. Hamas leaders have been hailed across the Arab world for designing their attacks as a fight in defense of Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third holiest site, from Israeli incursions.
Hamas also owes its credit for fueling international opposition to Israel's displacement of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood from the homes in which they lived for decades. The properties are the subject of a property dispute between Jews and Arabs prior to the founding of Israel in 1948. The Israeli Supreme Court postponed the ruling on the evictions in May after protests on the matter became violent. Hamas also appears to have overcome the stigma that led many countries to withhold their pledges for a $ 5.4 billion reconstruction fund in Gaza after the devastating seven-week war with Israel in 2014.
Hamas' rise in status and popularity in the diaspora is a depressing development for tens of thousands of Palestinians who fled Gaza – many of them abroad – after Hamas overthrew the elected PA government and took control of the tiny stretch of coast in 2007 whose population had grown to about 2 million. As in Iran, women are forced to wear veils outside the home, LGBTQ people are persecuted and courts impose punishments under strict Islamic law. Gaza-born photojournalist Jehad al-Saftawi, seeking U.S. asylum in Berkeley, Calif., Said he was constantly amazed at the willingness of diaspora Palestinians to overlook the repressive way Hamas maintains control, including widespread human rights abuses.
"People outside don't understand the brutality," said Saftawi, 29, whose recent book My Gaza: A City in Photographs seeks to convey the complexities of his birthplace. His father, Imad al-Saftawi, was imprisoned by Israel for 18 years on terrorism charges and released three years ago to be welcomed by Hamas, which promoted him to Brigadier General in the Interior Ministry. Jehad al-Saftawi and his wife Lara Aburamadan – also a photojournalist – said they would have to pay thousands of dollars in bribes before they were allowed to leave Gaza in 2016. Now living freely in the United States, they feel pressured by other Palestinians to silence their criticism of Hamas for interfering with the larger struggle against Israel. Saftawi rejects this view. "We cannot surround ourselves with people who tell us what we cannot say," he said.
Columbia University historian Rashid Khalidi, author of The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood, says time is running out for both Abbas' Fatah and Hamas, even as they control the current discourse . “A new generation of young Palestinian activists has no time for the slogans, politics and leaders of the past,” Khalidi wrote recently. "These activists operate on the same wavelength throughout Palestine and in the diaspora."
Haniyeh isn't the only Palestinian expat pulling the strings in the Gulf in preparation for a post-Abbas era. Dahlan, who was born in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in Gaza and whose bare name reportedly infuriated Abbas, scored 7 percent in Shikaki's poll. The former PA security minister tweets frequently and leads his Democratic Reform share group from his exile in the United Arab Emirates after planning to run for parliament in the aborted general election in May. Dahlan, 59, was a young lieutenant when Arafat directed the PLO's global political, financial and terrorist activities from Tunisia and fled the West Bank in 2011 to avoid a police raid ordered by Abbas.
Today Dahlan works as an international management consultant and advises Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed on the gnarled Palestinian elements of the 2020 Abraham Agreement with Israel. While the Emiratis said they negotiated part of the peace deal to prevent Israel from annexing the West Bank and preserving the prospect of a Palestinian state, Abbas sees the deal as a "stab in the back". Dahlan's beachfront mansion in Abu Dhabi is a magnet for politicians, advisors and financiers who are betting on his return to Palestinian politics once Abbas leaves the stage.
Other dark horses who shifted their focus overseas after being sidelined by Abbas include Fayyad, a former International Monetary Fund economist who received his PhD from the University of Texas at Austin. Fayyad, who received 3 percent of the vote in Shikaki's poll, spent much of the past decade at the U.S. think tank, holding various fellowship positions at the Brookings Institution, Atlantic Council, Harvard Kennedy School, and Princeton's School of Public University University and International Affairs. While 70-year-old Fayyad's proximity to Washington’s money and power is Abbas & # 39; Having fueled suspicion, the PA president has reportedly recently warmed up with his former subordinate. Abbas even sent Fayyad on a mission to Gaza to explore prospects for a new round of reconciliation talks with Hamas.
Rounding out the list of Abbas rivals with international seats is Nasser al-Qudwa, a nephew of Arafat who was previously Palestinian Foreign Minister and Ambassador to the United Nations. Dividing his time between Ramallah and Paris, Qudwa has an undisguised ambition to challenge Abbas and lead his own faction within Fatah, which the party's Central Committee removed from membership in March. Qudwa has barely registered as a presidential candidate, but his Freedom Group would have won 9 percent in legislative competition, according to the Palestinian Center for Political and Survey Research.
Although Dahlan, Fayyad and Qudwa all stayed at or below 7 percent in the poll, it is noticeable that the Ramallah insiders, who are most often viewed as potential Abbas successors, rate even worse. These include Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh, the Secretary General of Fatah, Jibril Rajoub, and the head of the PA's intelligence agency, Majed Faraj. Diaspora numbers seem less affected by years of failed Palestinian politics and the PA's unpopular cooperation with Israel.
All in all, there is one Palestinian figure who has consistently surpassed both Abbas and Haniyeh. Marwan Barghouti, an underground leader of the two Intifada revolts against Israel, would clearly be the next Palestinian president – if he wasn't in an Israeli prison. He was arrested by Israel in 2002 and later sentenced to five life sentences for murder.
After rejecting repeated appeals for the appointment of a political heir, Abbas staggers on as the angry old man on the flying trapeze. He (and Israel) have the contenders to replace him, perhaps grounded in his backyard, but the winds of change are blowing from the diaspora.