After Abbas

Two mean wearing masks depicting Ismail Haniyeh and Mahmoud Abbas wave from a black car

Repeated attempts at reconciling Fatah and Hamas have failed, leaving Palestinians despondent with their political leaders.

Wissam Nassar APA images

How long will it last? How long will he last? What happens next?

With ever greater urgency these questions are being asked of a Palestinian Authority at its weakest since its inception and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas.

Abbas was one of the driving forces behind the 1993 Oslo accords that created the PA, which was supposed to be a state-in-waiting but must now be acknowledged as a failed experiment at state building.

The chain-smoking octogenarian’s time in power would seem to be fizzling out, but what will happen after Abbas, both with the PA and overall Palestinian political strategy, remains very much in the air. Little planning, beyond positioning Hussein al-Sheikh, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, as Abbas’ successor-apparent, appears to have been made for what could be a pivotal moment in Palestinian history.

This has less to do with any impact Abbas has had and more with the toxic nature of the current situation, which has only served Israel.

Abbas marks 18 years in power this January after winning only one election. His leadership has been undermined by an Israeli polity intent on settling more occupied land while relieving themselves of as many indigenous Palestinians as possible, as well as by Abbas’ fatal insistence on clinging to power by hook or by crook.

On Abbas’ watch, the PA has become anti-democratic and repressive, and is now reduced to being little more than a disburser of international aid and a largely toothless Israeli security subcontractor.

A combination of Israel’s insistence on being the only sovereign in historic Palestine and the failure of international actors to put some muscle behind their stated support for a two-state outcome has been fatal to the Oslo project.

An entire strategy – the Oslo strategy, if you like – thus hangs in the balance here, one that relies on the US and Europe to enforce at least parts of international law to secure a two-state solution that would leave Palestinians with at most a fifth of historic Palestine for a state.

Israel was never serious about Oslo and responded by accelerating its settlement project. Any international political will to hold Israel accountable quickly evaporated when Israel dug in its heels. The Oslo strategy failed, long ago.

Need for change

The need for a change of both strategy and leadership has been obvious for a long time now.

Palestinians are divided. They are divided between the Hamas-led Gaza and the PA-controlled West Bank – a division brought on by the refusal of the US and other western countries to accept the results of the 2006 parliamentary elections in those territories and the refusal of Fatah to abide by them.

And they are divided between and among Palestinians in the diaspora – which run the whole gamut from impoverished refugees in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, to wealthy entrepreneurs and western or Gulf-based professionals – and Palestinians on the ground in their homeland.

Fatah itself is divided into several factions, some supporting the exiled Muhammad Dahlan, some supporting the imprisoned Marwan Barghouti. The latter remains, by some distance, the most popular Palestinian leader across factions.

In response to these divisions, Abbas has clawed ever more power to the presidency. He sidelined the parliament in 2007, ruling by presidential decree since. In 2022, he formed a High Judicial Council and appointed himself head, thus merging the legislative, judiciary and executive under his control.

Hamas has proven more cohesive than Fatah, both strategically and politically, in part because of its internal democratic processes that sees elections held every four years.

The movement operates a division of labor between the leadership inside occupied Palestine and those outside. Ismail Haniyeh remains the group’s overall leader from Qatar, while Yahya Sinwar is the movement’s leader in Palestine.

Nevertheless, isolated and besieged, and shunned by western governments, Hamas’ control of Gaza has proven something of a poisoned chalice. Reliant on a small number of foreign countries like Qatar for material assistance, its room for maneuver is limited.

The situation in Gaza, moreover – where some two-thirds live below the poverty line – is taking a psychological as well as material toll after more than 15 years of draconian Israeli blockade.

Hamas’ popularity fluctuates as a result, spiking after Israel’s assault on Gaza in May 2021, leveling off since and now, according to opinion polls, neck-and-neck with Fatah.

Smaller factions struggle to have any political impact at all.

The largest of these, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a progressive leftist faction inside the PLO, and Islamic Jihad, a conservative Islamist resistance movement outside the PLO, both have solid, loyal and dedicated cadres. But due to their size and the centralization of power under the PA presidency in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, those factions have little influence on overall strategy or even day-to-day policy.

The result is an internal political stalemate and a victory for Israel’s divide-and-conquer strategy. Fatah and Hamas have struck at least five different unity agreements since 2007, the latest one in October last year. None have held.

A perfect storm

The failure to reconcile has angered a public that is growing ever more impatient with its leadership options.

Both Fatah and Hamas are distrusted as bureaucrats. A staggering 81 percent of Palestinians polled in the West Bank and Gaza believe PA institutions are corrupt. Sixty-nine percent of respondents to the latest Palestinian Center for Policy Survey Research poll in December believe the same about Hamas institutions.

It is no surprise then that efforts for change are coming from the grassroots. Calls to reconstitute the PLO away from PA control are growing and coming from several quarters.

The emergence of the Lions’ Den and Jenin Brigades resistance groups, meanwhile, is transforming traditional factional divisions and defying the PA’s security services. Drawing their members from different factions, the groups – localized in Nablus and Jenin, respectively – have simply ignored PA security diktats and fought out prolonged battles with the Israeli military.

The reemergence of organized if localized armed resistance in the West Bank is a direct challenge to Abbas’ efforts to manage the status quo via the PA’s inordinately large security forces and the deeply unpopular security coordination with Israel.

With the security sector consuming about a third of the PA’s overall budget, it is little surprise that a clear majority wants mooted budget cuts to manage a growing fiscal deficit – that has already seen the slashing of public sector wages – to come from there.

The newly rekindled West Bank resistance is also a challenge to western attempts at managing Israel’s occupation by buying Palestinian acquiescence.

Throw into this mix a Netanyahu-led coalition that includes Jewish supremacists intent on further consolidating Israeli apartheid rule and a perfect storm is gathering.

But for that storm to sweep away the old, it needs direction. So far, Palestinian discontent with their leaders has not thrown up any clear alternative strategy behind which parties and new political forces can agree to unite.

Any such strategy needs to answer several crucial questions, notably what outcome to seek and how best to get there, how to unite the main factions behind a new vision for Palestinian liberation and how to ensure that Palestinians in occupied territory can endure under different political conditions.

It will also need to find a way to incorporate Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other factions considered “terror groups” in the west into the PLO while managing the diplomatic and financial fallout.

Clinging on

Absent any clear alternative vision, the PA has clung on like a bad cold.

This is likely to continue until Abbas bows out and a while longer. Hussein al-Sheikh and Majed Faraj, head of the PA’s military intelligence – the two names most regularly mentioned as possible successors to Abbas – are loyalists. Neither has offered any suggestion that they are preparing a change of strategy.

On the contrary, both seem to have risen to their present positions in part because of their good offices with Israel, not in spite of them.

Faraj has even boasted of the efficiency of the PA’s security coordination with Israel, reviled amongst Palestinians.

The problem for both, whatever their intentions, is that Israel and international donors will look to Abbas’ successor to continue to ensure “stability.” But such a crisis management approach is harming efforts to secure Palestinian liberation and serves only to make occupation permanent.

And growing discontent can only be managed with growing repression, a road the PA has already gone down.

That in turn will make the public backlash worse and place the PA squarely between the demands of Israel and international donors and the demands of its own people. It will increase the likelihood of an internal intifada against the PA.

It will also prevent any serious planning for the moment that has to come after. Some people, particularly from within the PA, privately express the fear that the absence of a central Palestinian authority will leave Israel free to empower local strongmen and complete the fragmentation of the Palestinian polity. The truth is this has already happened and it is the PA that has been thus empowered.

That is not to say that the PA does not perform important functions that are worth preserving, from education and healthcare to civil policing and planning and other such governance activities.

And it is not to say the PA has to be completely dismantled. It may well be worth holding on to some of its functions, perhaps even all functions outside security coordination and diplomacy.

But it is high time the PLO is revived and reformed, root and branch, to take back overall control. Having attained international recognition as the legitimate Palestinian representative, there seems little reason to create a body very much like it to replace it.

The PLO must be reformed to house the full spectrum of political forces, inside and out, under some democratic formula that will give all Palestinians – in Israel, in the occupied territories, as well as in the diaspora – a real voice. More than ever, Palestinains need unity of purpose and strategy and a leadership that people can rally behind.

The logic of the situation dictates that substantial change has to come. Planning for that moment must start now. And the PA and its leadership will need to decide whether it will stand with this change, or against and risk being swept aside.

Omar Karmi is associate editor of The Electronic Intifada and a former Jerusalem and Washington, DC, correspondent for The National newspaper.

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