Now 11 years into what was supposed to be a four-year term, Mahmoud Abbas – who now rules by presidential decree – presides over three distinct Palestinian political institutions, each one with its own problems of legitimacy: the PA, the PLO, and the Fatah party. But what happens when he departs the scene? Examining the Palestinian National Movement in the post-Abbas era, Lauren Mellinger explains that the constitutional mechanism for succession is likely to be set aside and the odds strongly favour Abbas’s successor emerging from within the Fatah party’s ranks, absent elections. In any event, his successor is likely to reject the bilateral negotiation track towards establishing two states and may also feel compelled to suspend security cooperation.
Palestinian Politics after Abbas: The Succession Crisis
Mahmoud Abbas was elected President of the PA in January 2005. In the aftermath of the Second Intifada, Abbas came to power on a platform of working to secure a peace deal with Israel that would result in the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, while unifying the various factions within Palestinian domestic politics.
Now 11 years into what was supposed to be a four-year term, Abbas – who now rules by presidential decree – presides over three distinct Palestinian political institutions, each one with its own problems of legitimacy: the PA, the PLO, and the Fatah party. Since 2012, Abbas assumed a fourth role – President of the State of Palestine – a largely symbolic title, the result of his campaign to upgrade the status of Palestine at the United Nations.
Despite persistent rumours of Abbas’s failing health, the aging leader is unlikely to relinquish his presidential authority. In the years since his term expired Abbas has grown politically weaker. Given his repeated extensions of authority and refusal to name a successor, combined with the Palestinians’ increasing frustration with the Abbas government and the moribund peace process with Israel, a chaotic battle for succession is the most likely scenario for the post-Abbas era, one that is already underway.
The first part of this paper explores institutional and constitutional challenges related to Palestinian succession and identify some of the leading candidates; Part two examines strategic options for the Palestinians in the post-Abbas period, including the long term viability of the PA and the future of security coordination with Israel.
The declining state of Palestinian political institutions
The Palestinian political system has languished since 2007, when Hamas expelled Fatah from the Gaza Strip and assumed de facto control over the coastal enclave. Governing institutions are led by individuals whose terms have expired and parliament (the Palestinian Legislative Council or PLC) has not met in nine years. The status quo for those Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza is defined by institutional paralysis and stagnation, growing authoritarianism, and economic dependence, which to a large extent renders their policy-making options subject to the demands of their international donors.
A Weakened PLO: The PLO, while maintaining its legal status as the “sole representative of the Palestinian people”, has been hollowed out in the years since the establishment of the PA. Since the mid-1990’s, the overlapping roles of the PLO and PA has amounted to what one analyst claims is “political and institutional schizophrenia”. Most of the PLO’s political institutions have been dormant for years. The Executive Committee – the main PLO leadership body that remains active today – is currently chaired by Abbas. The Fatah-dominated PA, whose jurisdiction has been limited to Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank since the split with Hamas in 2007, now serves as the diplomatic address for many in the international community.
A Divided PA Government: The nine-year old schism between the Fatah-dominated PA and Hamas is a main driver of Palestinian domestic political dysfunction. Parliament has not met since 2007, and neither Fatah nor Hamas are willing to risk their grip on power in the West Bank and Gaza respectively by proceeding to national elections, despite calls for new elections enshrined in reconciliation agreements, including the Mecca Agreement of 2007, the 2011 and 2012 Cairo Agreements, the Doha Declaration of 2012, and the Gaza Agreement of April 2014.
Significant ideological and policy differences have precluded any of the aforementioned reconciliation attempts from coming to fruition. Israel, the US and many in the international community who regard Hamas as a terrorist organisation remain opposed to Palestinian unity, primarily as Hamas has rejected the Quartet Principles since their 2006 electoral win. They are unlikely to change their position regarding Palestinian unity so long as Hamas continues to disavow the PA’s security coordination with Israel. Divisions among regional allies, in particular Qatar and Egypt, who support Hamas and Fatah respectively, have also frustrated reconciliation efforts.
The Crisis within Fatah
In the years since his term as PA president expired, Abbas has often said that he has no plans to seek re-election. Despite his public pronouncements that he will not run in new elections, and periodic rumours that he is on the verge of announcing his retirement, Abbas has consistently acted to prevent the emergence of threats to his authority. His increasingly autocratic behaviour has recently included clamping down on political rivals, and suppressing critical journalists and demonstrations by Palestinian civil society.
No internal elections: The last meeting of the Fatah General Conference (FGC), where elections for Fatah’s Central Committee are held, was in July 2009, when elections named Abbas party chairman. The FGC was scheduled to meet again in August 2014, but this meeting was postponed due to the conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas. Subsequent efforts to convene another conference to hold internal party elections have failed as Abbas is reluctant to allow for elections that might result in the emergence of new leadership that would challenge his authority.
Refusal to a name a successor: Abbas could still designate a successor or name a vice president, though this option remains unlikely given his refusal to do so thus far. In recent years Fatah’s Central Committee has urged Abbas to consider the appointment of a vice president. Creating this new post, however, would require amending the Basic Law, which is problematic as the PLC has not met in years. The deep-seated political dysfunction within the PA precludes Abbas’s ability to circumvent the legislative process and name a vice presidential candidate whose appointment would not be subject to staunch opposition from within the ranks of Fatah.
The generational divide: In addition to internal power struggles among the movement’s top leadership, Fatah is currently in the midst of a conflict with its constituents, driven by a younger generation that feels increasingly alienated from the policies pursued by the traditional political elite.
The majority of members of Fatah’s Central Council are in their 60s and 70s, largely representing the former Tunis-based “old guard” political elite. The 2009 party election did not allow for the emergence of any members of the so-called “young guard” – comprised of those who spent the majority of their lives in the West Bank and Gaza and established their credibility by participating in the intifadas and serving time in Israeli prisons.
The alienation of these younger generations of Fatah activists has deepened the associated sense of stagnation and further weakened the movement’s general appeal and credibility. Many in this younger generation feel that Fatah has failed to achieve tangible results – particularly under Abbas’s leadership which has been largely focused on negotiations with Israel and gaining influence in international organisations. The generational rift is further evidenced by recent calls for reform by senior Fatah officials belonging to the Revolutionary Council, the other decision-making body within the party. Though long dominated by Abbas loyalists and representatives of the traditional political elite, the Revolutionary Council is now largely comprised of those representing the young guard faction, who are increasingly directing their anger at the status quo and their frustration over the lack of elections at Abbas.
Many young Fatah activists continue to see no path for political advancement outside of the Fatah movement, but to what extent Abbas’s successor will succumb to pressure from the public to end the Oslo process – security coordination with Israel in particular – remains an open question.
The Succession Crisis
2003 Amended Basic Law and the rules governing succession
The 2003 Amended Basic Law outlines the constitutional mechanism for succession. In the event of a sudden vacancy – such as death, resignation, or removal by the High Constitutional Court – Article 37 stipulates that the duties of the PA president will pass to the speaker of the parliament for a period of 60 days until national elections are held.
At the moment, there is a low-probability that the procedures governing succession will be implemented in the event of a sudden vacancy. Were a presidential vacancy to occur, the Amended Basic Law calls for presidential authority to pass – albeit temporarily – to the current speaker of parliament, Aziz Dweik, a member of Hamas who resides in the West Bank. Yet given the longstanding rivalry between Fatah and Hamas, it is unlikely that Fatah will allow for this transfer of authority, even on a temporary basis until new elections are held. Furthermore, were Hamas to assume control of the PA – even on an interim basis – this would likely result in an immediate cessation of funding from the US and others in the international community, and trigger a political crisis in the West Bank.
In April 2016, Abbas issued a presidential decree establishing a constitutional court, in another instance of growing authoritarianism and the centralisation of power. Thereafter, he selected all nine members who were promptly sworn in, and who it is anticipated will rubber stamp subsequent presidential decrees. Without an active parliament, the move was perceived by many Palestinians as an attempt by Abbas to circumvent the PLC, creating a means for bypassing the constitutional rules of succession, thereby avoiding the temporary transfer of power to Hamas.
Ruling out national elections
Holding national elections would pose significant financial and logistical challenges for the PA, especially given their current budget crisis. Moreover, in the absence of reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, proceeding to elections is nearly impossible. For the moment, neither Fatah nor Hamas are likely to allow for national elections to be held for fear of losing their control over the West Bank and Gaza, respectively.
Even if the two sides agreed to hold national elections, they would face the added hurdle of securing Israeli consent for elections in East Jerusalem. Ensuring a means for Palestinians in the diaspora to participate is also problematic, particularly as the current regional environment renders it impossible to conduct the vote in neighbouring Lebanon and Syria, both of which have large concentrations of Palestinian refugees.
A second Hamas electoral victory? Ismail Haniyeh became prime minister following Hamas’s victory in the 2006 PLC elections and since 2007, exercises de facto prime ministerial authority over Gaza. While Hamas has proven to be a formidable political opponent for Fatah since the organisation won the parliamentary elections, they are poorly positioned to replace Fatah’s hold on the PA presidency given their dismal record of governance and their role in perpetuating disunity. Still, public opinion polls indicate that should presidential elections be held, Abbas would lose to Haniyeh if the two were the only candidates. (Both Haniyeh and Abbas would lose in a race that included Marwan Barghouti.) The same polls suggest that were legislative elections called, Hamas would lose to Fatah by only a few percentage points, making it the second largest party in the Palestinian parliament. The strong opposition to Hamas by Fatah, Israel, the US and others in the international community including key Arab states makes it highly unlikely that Hamas would be allowed to assume control of the PA presidency, even if they were to win elections.
Internal Fatah elections: Though holding national elections remains problematic, these same obstacles do not hinder the prospect of holding internal Fatah elections. There is a strong likelihood that the next PA president will emerge from Fatah, yet absent a new conference where internal elections are held, it is difficult to accurately predict who currently holds power within the party leadership. Abbas’s efforts to prevent the emergence of anyone to challenge his authority – including from within Fatah and the PLO Executive Committee – have ensured that there is no single candidate with sufficient internal support to distinguish himself from the competition. The result will likely be a prolonged succession battle, wherein a number of scenarios could play out.
The Likely Scenarios
The Internal Ballot: A highly undemocratic means of choosing a successor, this option would entail a procedure similar to the way Abbas was elected PLO chairman by a secret ballot within the PLO’s Executive Committee in 2004, following the death of the former PA President and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat.
The most likely successor to emerge in this instance would be a current high-ranking member of the PLO or a senior Fatah official, likely a long-serving Abbas loyalist. Given their many years of serving in the top echelon of Palestinian politics – even prior to the formation of the PA – such individuals may perceive themselves (and may be perceived by some in the electorate) as natural successors to Abbas. Such individuals include Saeb Erekat, Jibril Rajoub, Nabil Sha’ath, and Tawfiq al-Tirawi. Erekat in particular likely considers himself to be heir-apparent, given his years spent serving as chief Palestinian negotiator with Israel, and his appointment to the post of Secretary General of the PLO in September 2015. Rajoub and Tirawi are both former security chiefs with considerable support among Fatah members in the West Bank.
An Unofficial Endorsement from Abbas: Though Abbas remains steadfast in his reluctance to designate a successor or appoint a deputy, some Palestinians have interpreted Abbas’s recent moves with respect to two long-time loyalists as an indication that he may regard one of them as his successor:
- Saeb Erekat: In July 2015 Abbas fired Yasser Abed Rabbo, the long-serving PLO secretary general, and appointed Erekat. The move was controversial in Palestinian political circles and was perceived by some as an indication that Abbas considers Erekat to be his successor. Though well-known on the international stage, Erekat’s years as a chief Palestinian negotiator with Israel may stymie his chances of gaining the support of the electorate, given the lack of progress on Palestinian statehood.
- Majed Faraj: Though not a member of the Central Committee, Faraj is a long-time Abbas loyalist. Born in the Dheisheh refugee camp just outside of Bethlehem, Faraj rose through the ranks of the security service, eventually assuming the role of PA intelligence chief. He gained diplomatic experience during the 2014 peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, when he was chosen by Abbas to replace Mohammad Shtayyeh following the latter’s resignation from the negotiating team. In the event of a power struggle within the Central Committee, it is possible that a veteran Fatah official from outside the committee such as Faraj might be selected.
An “Outsider” Candidate: A recent survey of Palestinian public opinion found that 95.5 per cent of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza believe that corruption is endemic in Abbas’s government. The growing public discontent with the current state of affairs may preclude the presidency from being handed to a current member of Fatah or the PLO’s inner circle, especially if the successor is chosen in the absence of an election.
In the event of a sudden vacancy, and in particular if there is a drawn-out power struggle within Fatah’s Central Committee and no one from the traditional Palestinian political elite emerges as a clear front-runner, the possibility of an “outsider” emerging to succeed Abbas cannot be ruled out. Among such contenders are:
- Mohammed Dahlan: A former head of the Palestinian security service in Gaza, Abbas expelled him from Fatah in 2011. Currently based in the UAE, Dahlan has spent his years in exile mounting a campaign to succeed Abbas. With the financial backing of the UAE, his strategy consists of gaining support of regional actors while increasing his popularity among Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and among those residing in Palestinian refugee camps. Though his name is often included on a short list of contenders to succeed Abbas, recent public opinion polls show him getting only 5 per cent of the vote. Yet, while Dahlan may lack sufficient grassroots support to succeed Abbas as the next Palestinian leader, he has the potential to emerge as a strong “power behind the throne” – an influential second-in-command to whomever succeeds Abbas.
- Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala): A former PA prime minister, Qurei’s name has increasingly been touted as a possible interim appointee to replace Abbas. A long-time member of the PLO Executive Committee, Qurei was removed from Fatah’s leadership during the last round of internal elections in 2009. His removal was reportedly at the hands of Abbas, who viewed Qurei as a potential rival. As the two are close in age (Qurei will turn 80 next spring with Abbas currently 81) his appointment would be temporary, while the succession battle among the Fatah elite to determine the next PA leader continues.
- Salam Fayyad; Rami Hamdallah: Fayyad and Hamdallah, the former and current prime minister respectively, at present lack both sufficient grassroots support as well as support within Fatah. (Fayyad was never a member of Fatah while Hamdallah is a party member but never rose to the ranks of the party elite). Though well-respected by many in the international community, Palestinians were disappointed with Fayyad during his term as prime minister. Recent public opinion polls rank Fayyad at two per cent if national elections were called. In July 2016, Fayyad proposed a plan calling for national unity and statehood, though his announcement was immediately criticised by Abbas and those loyal to him. Yet, amid the chaos that will likely follow Abbas’s departure from Palestinian political life, Fayyad’s years of experience in both Palestinian domestic and foreign affairs could result in his return to the post of prime minister. Meanwhile, should the Fatah-dominated PA hope to bypass the constitutional succession rules to prevent power from temporarily transferring to Hamas, Hamdallah’s role as the current prime minister may mean that Fatah leaders turn to him, at least on an interim basis.
The People’s Choice: A seemingly unifying figure, Marwan Barghouti’s name often appears on a list of candidates to succeed Abbas. Barghouti is currently in prison in Israel serving multiple life sentences for his involvement in orchestrating terrorist attacks during the Second Intifada. He has remained active in Palestinian politics from prison, where he regularly challenges Abbas’s decisions, and has liaised with Palestinian students and with members of Hamas to discuss national reconciliation. Public opinion polls over the last few years consistently show that in a race including candidates other than Abbas and Haniyeh, Barghouti – who has the support of members of Fatah, Hamas, and independents – would win.
Though Barghouti’s life sentences renders his ability to assume the presidency a long shot, his sustained levels of popular support in recent years makes his endorsement of Abbas’s successor critical, at the very least.
Conclusion: Institutional and Constitutional Challenges
The likely prospect that the succession process will occur without a free and fair election for the Palestinians is highly problematic, particularly in light of the popular unrest that has swept the region since the start of the Arab Spring in 2011. The legitimacy crisis of Palestinian political institutions makes it difficult to accurately predict a successor to Abbas. As the absence of reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas renders holding new elections moot, the most likely scenario is that the Amended Basic Law’s succession rules will be set aside and Abbas’s successor will emerge from the ranks of Fatah. This individual would then need to be confirmed by the PLO Executive Committee in an effort to compensate for his legitimacy deficit. However, especially in the absence of elections, both the PA and the PLO must implement reforms in order for the PA (and the next PLO) leader to have any semblance of legitimacy. One step toward restoring the legitimacy of Palestinian political institutions is ensuring that after Abbas’s departure from political life, a single person is not tasked with leadership of both the PA and the PLO.
Though predicting who will succeed Abbas remains an open question, it is evident that the post-Abbas era likely marks the end of the traditional “Tunis-based” political elite assuming the mantle of Palestinian leadership. Those who assume the leadership of the PA, PLO and Fatah will face the difficult task of leading a constituency that has growing increasingly disenchanted with the Oslo process and with a Palestinian leadership that has failed to deliver, whilst managing the demands of the international community that the Israelis and Palestinians negotiate a two-state solution.
The next Palestinian strategic direction
The fear that the PA will collapse
The PA, established in 1994 following the Oslo Accords, was intended to serve as an interim government, allowing for Palestinian self-rule in Gaza and parts of the West Bank. The Accords were supposed to have expired after five years, during which the negotiators would conclude a final-status agreement. Yet over 20 years later, the PA is still there, and the prospect of resuming negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians has grown increasingly remote.
The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office is reportedly developing contingency plans for four possible scenarios for the day after Abbas leaves the Palestinian political scene. These scenarios range from the least likely option – an orderly succession of power – to the more likely scenario, a prolonged competition for succession amongst Fatah elite (although in both instances, a “subcontractor” for Israeli security – the PA security forces – would continue to exist.) However, of increasing concern to the Israelis is the prospect of fragmentation, which to a degree is already occurring on the ground in the West Bank.
In early January 2016, amid growing speculation that the PA was on the brink of collapse, the Israeli security cabinet held two meetings to discuss the issue. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed the cabinet to take necessary steps to prevent the dissolution of the PA, while at the same time preparing for the worst case scenario – the collapse of the PA and destabilisation of the West Bank. The assessment of the Israeli security establishment is that the collapse of the PA would place instantaneous and fiscally strenuous demands on Israel, requiring the government to reassert control over both security and civilian affairs in areas of the West Bank which, pursuant to the Oslo II agreement of September 1995, are currently under PA control. Israel would also incur additional financial costs and responsibilities associated with development-related assistance, as US Secretary of State John Kerry warned in December 2015.
Israel, Jordan and Egypt remain wary of the looming succession crisis and its potential ramifications: Both Israel and Jordan are worried that in the wake of Abbas’s departure, a leadership vacuum and a prolonged succession battle could undermine stability in the West Bank and cripple the already weak PA, if not result in its collapse. Jordan is frustrated that Abbas has poorly coordinated with the Jordanian government, especially on matters related to his diplomatic strategy. Already grappling with the burden of Syrian refugees, the threat of ISIS and ongoing instability in neighbouring Iraq, Jordan fears a drawn-out succession battle will destabilise the West Bank, and is concerned the ensuing chaos could spill over into Jordan. Egypt meanwhile has since 2007 worked to broker a reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas, though these efforts have failed to achieve unity. Egypt’s primary concern is ensuring a robust PA that can curb the Hamas and jihadist threat in Gaza – which Mohammad Dahlan has reportedly pledged to both the Egyptian government and Israel he will manage were he to replace Abbas. Though President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government has been reluctant to become mired in the succession crisis, with Abbas and Dahlan unable to reconcile despite the latest round of Egyptian-brokered mediation efforts in 2015, Egypt has maintained close contact with Dahlan, and rumours persist that it considers Dahlan the preferred candidate to succeed Abbas.
The future of Israeli-PA security coordination
Ensuring the survival of the PA and continuing cooperation with Palestinian security services is of immediate concern to the Israeli security establishment in the post-Abbas era.. Since the latest wave of violence began in September 2015, intelligence and security coordination between the PA and Israel has continued. The Israeli security establishment has corroborated reports that Abbas and the PA security forces have increased their efforts since the outbreak of violence, including stepping up efforts to arrest Hamas operatives in the West Bank.
In March 2015, the PLO Central Committee resolved to end security coordination with Israel. This was followed by an announcement by the PLO’s Executive Committee in May 2016 to immediately begin implementation of that ruling. Thus far, despite staunch domestic pressure, the PA has not complied. Abbas relies on the robust PA security apparatus to maintain his own authority and prevent a Hamas take-over in the West Bank. As the security situation continues to deteriorate, both he and Netanyahu are concerned that mounting frustrations in the West Bank may lead Palestinians to take to the streets – against the PA.
Abbas has often threatened to suspend security coordination with Israel (according to one journalist, as of 2015 he made this pronouncement on 58 separate occasions), though he has also referred to it as “sacred”. A formal (or even informal) move to end security cooperation could have a serious impact on the stability of the West Bank. In an interview with Israeli TV in April 2016, Abbas warned that continuing security coordination was the only thing preventing the outbreak of a third intifada.
However, as peace talks remain at a standstill, and as Israeli incursions into Area A in order to thwart Palestinian violence have continued, the debate within the PA regarding continuing security cooperation with Israel has increased. Many view the PA as acting as a collaborator or subcontractor for Israel and are opposed to the government making further concessions. Hamas continues to oppose the PA’s security cooperation with Israel, arguing that it is harming Palestinian interests.
As Palestinians prepare for the post-Abbas era, given how unpopular security coordination with Israel is for many of them, whoever replaces Abbas may ultimately suspend security coordination as a means of bolstering his hardliner credentials.
The end of the bilateral negotiations track
Even before the failure of the Kerry peace talks in 2014, Abbas had chosen to de-emphasise the bilateral negotiations paradigm and any successor is unlikely to return to it in the short term. Since 2011, Abbas has placed tremendous effort on his internationalisation strategy, known as “Palestine 194”, the PA’s diplomatic campaign to gain entry for the State of Palestine at the UN (as the 194th member state), amongst other things. Thus far, this campaign has proven a diplomatic challenge for Israel, though for Palestinians it has resulted in little more than symbolic victories.
For the Israeli government, Abbas’s diplomatic strategy is problematic, particularly in light of the Palestinians’ campaign to accede to the Rome Statute of the ICC, which they did in April 2015. Israel maintains that the road to a two-state solution lies with resuming bilateral negotiations. If Abbas’s successor were to continue this diplomatic strategy, it could lead to greater problems for Israel diplomatically, especially as the strategy is now focused on a new objective – convening an international conference that would result in a timetable for negotiations and a set of parameters that would bind Israel. The June 2016 summit in Paris, is but one example of the incremental progress this strategy of “internationalising” the conflict has had thus far.
The next Palestinian long-term strategy
A moderate who embraced peace talks and eschewed violence, Abbas was welcomed by many in the international community when he first came to power in 2005. Given the results of the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections which brought Hamas to power, many in the international community, who at one time advocated for transparency and democratic governance in Palestinian politics, are now disinclined to push for reconciliation, and have largely looked the other way with respect to Abbas’s increasing autocratic tendencies. Abbas’s meagre returns on his approach may mean his successor will likely be subject to considerable domestic pressure to abandon the Oslo framework – or at the very least the ever-unpopular security cooperation with Israel. While predicting the next Palestinian long-term strategy is as fraught with complications as predicting Abbas’s successor, a number of strategies have been proposed, including:
Doubling down on Abbas’s internationalisation strategy: Despite having had only marginal success thus far, Abbas’s successor may continue this approach, by seeking to shift international intervention away from pressing for renewed bilateral negotiations toward a multilateral forum, with an international conference modelled loosely on the P5+1 negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program. This approach, which was called for in 2015 by Abbas and recommended by the Palestine Strategy Group, would in turn de-emphasise the role of the US as the primary mediator, while drawing up a firm timetable for the conclusion of negotiations and the establishment of a state, and holding the parties accountable to their prior commitments in the interim. While some in the international community, particularly in Europe, may support this approach, Abbas’s successor will still be subject to the Palestinian public, who have expressed frustration with Abbas’s diplomatic approach for years. A recent public opinion poll showed that while 50 per cent of Palestinians supported the recent French initiative, only 29 per cent were optimistic it would succeed (59 per cent expected it would fail).
A non-violent “intifada”: Marwan Barghouti, one of the relatively younger members of Fatah, offers a strategic approach to the pursuit of an independent Palestinian state that is radically different from that of Abbas and other members of the so-called “old guard”. From his prison cell, Barghouti advocates for a “pan-Palestinian” action plan predicated on nonviolent resistance. His plan calls for a series of steps beginning with a public declaration ending Palestinians’ adherence to the Oslo framework and security coordination with Israel, and culminating with a mass march to Jerusalem to be led by the new PLO chairman. The plan calls for utilising nonviolent resistance to disrupt the lives of Israeli settlers and soldiers in the West Bank, aimed at forcing Israel to withdraw to the 1967 lines. Barghouti does not shun further negotiations with Israel outright, but considers their prospects moot with Israel’s current right-wing leadership. Resuming negotiations would necessitate a short timetable for ending the negotiations and establishing a Palestinian state. In a recent interview outlining his plan, Barghouti clarified his vision for the future of the PA, stating: “I still unequivocally support the idea of two states for two nations. The PA can proceed in one of two directions today: to serve as an instrument of liberation from the occupation, or to be an instrument that validates the occupation. My task is to restore the PA to its role as an instrument of national liberation.”
The “National Alternative Strategy”: In June 2016, the Palestinian National Initiative, led by Mustafa Barghouti, proposed the National Alternative Strategy. The strategy is based on five pillars, with the aim of changing the balance of power on behalf of the Palestinians, thereby cancelling the asymmetry in the negotiations. The first pillar calls for peaceful, nonviolent protests and a local boycott, followed by a second pillar that calls for a campaign similar to the international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign. The third pillar of the proposed strategy urges “national resilience”, and includes calls for changing the current economic policies, allowing the Palestinians to develop and thrive. The fourth pillar mandates national unity and a unified national leadership, while the fifth pillar of the proposed strategy calls for the integration of all Palestinians – including those residing in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem, as well as those in the diaspora. According to a recent interview with its author, the strategy will be presented to the PLO factions as well as members of the PLO Executive Committee in the near future. Yet, as a number of Palestinian political analysts have noted, the strategy – which represents a significant change in the political strategy embodied by the Palestinian leadership – is unlikely to be adopted absent a change in PLO leadership.
The one-state option: A divided and dysfunctional Palestinian leadership, whose constituents question its very legitimacy, is not in a position to negotiate and ultimately implement a final-status agreement with Israel. In the absence of progress towards statehood, incoming Palestinian leaders and the Israeli government will have to contend with those Palestinians advocating a “one-state solution”– demanding civil rights in Israel rather than independence. With negotiations at a stalemate, support for a one-state option is increasing, particularly among younger generations of Palestinians.
While some members of the Israeli right-wing have proposed varying forms of a one-state solution, their proposals fall far short of the Palestinians’ demand for an inclusive single state in lieu of independent statehood. A widespread campaign for a one-state solution would effectively end efforts to reach a two-state solution and would force Israel to choose between existing as a binational state or face the erosion of its credibility as a democracy, while further subjecting Israelis to increasing international isolation.
Conclusion: The Next Palestinian Strategic Direction
Within Palestinian domestic political circles, the end of the Abbas era likely marks the end of the rule of the old guard, “Tunis-based” political leadership. Those who assume leadership of the PA and of the PLO after Abbas will be forced to contend with a domestic constituency that has grown disillusioned with the promises of the Oslo process. Many of the contenders to fill the leadership vacuum espouse policies at odds with Israeli interests and with those in the international community calling for Israelis and Palestinians to reach a negotiated final-status agreement establishing two states. In the post-Abbas era, Israel and the international community stand to lose a moderate interlocutor.
Among the different plans proposed for the next Palestinian strategic direction in the post-Abbas era, one aspect found in each plan is the call for changing the Palestinian position vis-à-vis Israel, thus removing as best as possible the current asymmetry in negotiations between the two sides. The challenge for the next PA president will be managing the expectations and investment of the international community in continuing security cooperation and negotiations with Israel with the demands of Palestinians, especially those of the young guard, to change course. Amid strong public pressure, the emergence of a weak leader may compel whoever succeeds Abbas toward a more rejectionist platform in order to compensate for his legitimacy deficit. There is a growing concern that if Fatah fails to integrate its younger activists and take steps to address their grievances, it may lose its role as the vanguard of the Palestinian national movement. Moreover, a weakened Fatah allows for an opening for Hamas to step in and fulfil a key goal of the organisation since its founding – assuming leadership of the Palestinian national movement.