Has the battle begun to succeed Palestinian President Abbas?

Has the battle begun to succeed Palestinian President Abbas?
In-depth: Mahmoud Abbas is starting to face open machinations from would-be successors. The New Arab takes a look at the possible candidates.
4 min read
07 January, 2016
Abbas is facing challenges to his authority [AFP]

Unpopular after 11 years in power, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is starting to face some open machinations from would-be successors, as his dream of negotiating Palestinian statehood lies in tatters.

One likely contender is believed to be behind recent claims - swiftly denied by Abbas' camp - that the 80-year-old's health is failing, while another has complained of a "real leadership crisis" in rare open criticism of Abbas from within his Fatah movement.

On Wednesday, Abbas made his first public appearance since the rumours of ill health circulated last week, in an apparent attempt to show he remains in rude health.

In a 40-minute televised speech, he hit familiar themes, berating Israel for settlement expansion and dismissing concerns that his self-rule government might collapse under mounting tensions with Israel's hawkish leadership.

Despite attempts to reassure the Palestinian public, claims of Abbas' purported health problems have drawn attention to the lack of a designated successor or a process for picking one.

Abbas holds key jobs as the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and president of the Palestinian Authority, but the rift between Fatah in the West Bank and its main rival, Hamas in Gaza, has prevented timely leadership elections.

Behind the scenes, the battle for succession - likely to be chaotic when the time comes - is intensifying.

"The whole situation is extremely complex because we have a situation of instability, we have a situation where there are lots of wannabes," said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior PLO member who is believed not a contender for the top job.

"The war of succession has started," said West Bank analyst Jihad Harb. "Fatah leaders see Abbas as an old man. Each of the potential successors is mobilising."

Here is a look at a gallery of aspirants.

Saeb Erekat

Saeb Erekat [Anadolu]

The veteran Palestinian negotiator with Israel is seen as Abbas' closest aide and favoured successor, having displayed unwavering loyalty to the Palestinian leader.

Late last year, Abbas appointed Erekat to the post of secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation - the same position Abbas once used as a springboard to become the main candidate in presidential elections following the death of Yasser Arafat in November 2004.

Some in Fatah see Erekat as an outsider, and polls indicate he would do poorly in elections for president of the Palestinian Authority, the self-rule government set up in the 1990s.

Mohammed Dahlan

Mohammed Dahlan [AFP]

Born in a Gaza refugee camp, the charismatic and pragmatic Dahlan was once seen as a promising future leader.

He lost political standing in Fatah after the loss of his native Gaza to Hamas in a 2007 takeover and his falling-out with Abbas in 2010.

In exile, Dahlan expanded his business interests and forged close ties with the leaders of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. He has used money and political clout to shore up support in Gaza, though his influence is weaker in the West Bank.

Abbas aides have accused Dahlan of being behind recent claims of Abbas' ill health, first made on websites linked to the exiled politician.

Jibril Rajoub

Jibril Rajoub [AFP]

The gravelly voiced former West Bank security chief is known for his bluntness and mercurial temper.

Rajoub was one of the most powerful men in the West Bank until Israeli troops trashed his security compound during the second Palestinian uprising in 2002.

But Rajoub has made something of a comeback, serving as head of the Palestinian Football Federation and rising to the top ranks of Fatah.

In comments last week, Rajoub complained of a "real leadership crisis", though he didn't refer to Abbas by name. Rajoub said bad decisions had been taken on a series of crucial issues, including the relationship with Hamas and with regional leaders.

Salam Fayyad

Salam Fayyad [Getty]

Serving as an Abbas-appointed Palestinian prime minister in the West Bank from 2007-2013, the economist won praise from the international community for cleaning up the Palestinian Authority's finances.

At the same time, the political independent failed to build broad political support at home.

Fayyad, who resigned two years ago amid growing disagreements with Abbas and Fatah, made overtures in recent weeks to former nemesis Hamas, an odd alliance that could help him in a leadership bid.

In a recent lecture at a Hamas-affiliated think tank in Gaza, Fayyad called for rebuilding Gaza and ending the political split quickly, creating a new leadership body to include Hamas.

Marwan Barghouti

Marwan Barghouti [AFP]

The Palestinian uprising leader, who is serving multiple life terms in an Israeli prison, is expected to run for president from his cell once Abbas is out of the picture, according to his inner circle.

Opinion polls have consistently shown Barghouti to be the most popular Palestinian politician among the public.

At a time when two-thirds of Palestinians want Abbas to resign, Barghouti would handily defeat a Hamas challenger, such as former Gaza-based Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, in presidential elections.

Ismail Haniyeh

Ismail Haniyeh [Anadolu]

Hamas might sit out presidential elections because of its past experience of being shunned by the international community, and might instead settle for serving as kingmaker.

If Hamas does compete, a likely candidate would be Haniyeh, a preacher turned politician, and one of the most powerful figures in the movement.