Perpetual intra-Palestinian rift helps Israel to postpone peace deal indefinitely
More than the crucial issues like freedom and UN full membership, the issue concerning succession of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has become more important as Palestinians seek continuity in PLO (PA) leadership for pursuing the sovereignty issue. Since the historic day of obtaining infacto membership of UN, Palestinian (Fatah) officials had made a number of changes, including the creation of a constitutional court in April 2016, to ensure that Erekat would be interim president if Abbas is unable to continue his presidential duties. It is expected that the constitutional court would rule in favor of the PLO’s secretary-general, rather than others, including the speaker of the parliament, to act as interim president in the 60 days leading up to new elections.
Palestinian sources and Israeli media have confirmed that the PLO's secretary-general and the head of the Palestinian negotiating team will have a lung transplant later this month. While Erekat has been taking drugs for his lung ailment for nearly 10 years, the situation has recently deteriorated to the point that a transplant is required. His ability to work well has been affected and his lungs are now operating at 35% capacity, according to sources. Erekat is likely to travel to the United States for surgery, and if the right donor is found he might undergo surgery in the region.
Public opinion polls show Marwan Barghouti — currently serving multiple life sentences in Israeli prison — as the most popular Palestinian to replace Abbas. According to a poll published July 5 by the Ramallah-based Palestine Center for Policy and Survey Research, if elections were held at this time, Barghouti would receive 41% of the vote and Abbas 22%.
Former Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan — pushed for by the Arab quartet (Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) — was rejected by the ruling Fatah movement during its seventh congress held in Ramallah in November 2016.
In the absence of any clear replacement candidate, most of the current attention has now shifted to the mechanism of the transition.
Palestinian movement is not strong as the Fatah-Hamas fight each other as their worst enemy – even worse than Israel or Egypt that terrorize them through terror blockades and terror attacks or USA that supports Israeli crimes against Palestinians. One of negative outcomes of this foolishness is that the elected Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) or parliament has not been in session for seven years. The Palestinian Basic Law states in Article 37 that the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) will assume the role of president for 60 days if the presidential office is vacant. And, currently, there is no speaker of the PLC who would have assumed as interim President until new President takes office.
The last speaker after the Hamas 2007 victory in the parliamentary elections was Abdel Aziz Dweik. While he served for about a year, the PLC has been dormant ever since the split between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. With the PLC not in session and with the speaker having to be elected anew every session, the position of PLC speaker has been vacant.
Therefore, several Palestinian officials close to the president have argue that a new mechanism must be introduced since the PLC is defunct. They also suggested that one way to overcome this problem would be to create the position of vice president.
Some supporters of Abbas call for reverting to the PLO, which had signed the Oslo Accord in 1993 and had approved the setting up of the Palestinian National Authority. In this case, the secretary-general of the PLO could become the interim president. To boost this argument, Abbas set up a constitutional court in April 2016 in the hope that it would agree to this argument if and when such a constitutional decision is needed. The ailment of Erekat complicates this situation.
In addition to his position within the PLO, Erekat holds the important portfolio as the head of the Palestinian negotiating team. The PLO’s negotiating department has been working for years under Erekat’s leadership to prepare for peace talks. Senior Palestinian officials agreed that the only person who currently could step in the shoes of Erekat in terms of the negotiations is Maj. Gen. Majid Faraj, the head of the Palestinian intelligence. The Palestinian officials contacted by Al-Monitor argued that since Faraj has been present at all meetings taking place in Palestine and Washington, he carries with him the institutional memory that is needed for successful negotiations and in order not to loose on issues that might have been agreed to in past talks.
Faraj is also Abbas’ handpicked leader to succeed him. Faraj was born in the Palestinian refugee camp of Dheisheh near Bethlehem and spent years in Israeli prisons. He is generally well-liked by Palestinians but lacks the needed experience to become the next president.
Members of the Executive Committee are elected by the Palestine National Council or the Palestine Central Council. The different PLO factions that have a quota in the Executive Committee are allowed to replace their representatives in the PLO’s Executive Committee if the seat becomes vacant, according to PLO bylaws. For Fatah, it has been customary that their representative in the PLO’s Executive Committee should come from the Fatah Central Committee. Faraj is not a member of that prestigious committee either.
Abbas is allowed to appoint members at large and, according to Abbas Zaki, a senior member of Fatah’s Central Committee, this could happen — although it will need two-thirds support of the current members. Zaki recalled that Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala), a former Palestinian prime minister and head of the Oslo negotiating team, was appointed to the PLO’s Executive Committee in 2006, even though he had failed to be elected to the Fatah Central Committee.
Erekat’s ailment has again refocused attention on the difficult Palestinian political landscape. Although he appears to be in good shape, Abbas is in his early 80s and will need to pass the baton to a younger, more energetic leader. It is still unclear whether he will maneuver things so that the head of his intelligence service, Faraj, will be in line for his position or whether it will be a free fall.
The legal and political succession issues could be solved if there is a Fatah-Hamas agreement that would usher in legislative and presidential elections. Abbas and his team expected Hamas to surrender to this issue after the Ramallah government stopped subsidizing the electricity costs to the Gaza Strip. But a recent Hamas-Egyptian agreement and the rapprochement between Hamas and their archrival renegade Fatah leader Dahlan have dashed the hopes many had of reconciliation and elections.
As intra-Palestinian rift keeps widening with no end in sight, the Hamas is not showing any credible interest in a unity government or a joint fight against Israeli fascism in order to regain sovereignty and freedom from Israel. Palestinians are not going to anything from Israel so long as they remain disunited and fight each other. Meanwhile, President Mahmoud Abbas has been sending local and international mediators to Gaza to discuss a range of issues that would achieve reconciliation, Abbas’ efforts come following the rapprochement that began taking shape between Hamas and Egypt, and seem to be aimed at undermining the understandings the movement reached with dismissed Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan.
The international parties, including UN’s Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov, who visited Gaza at the end of June and early July, and Fatah leaders in Gaza offered their mediation and transferred messages between Hamas and Abbas to settle their differences and revive the Palestinian reconciliation. The Fatah delegation discussed during its June visit to Gaza ways to end the growing rift between Hamas and the PA, but their efforts have failed so far because each party is insisting on its demands- just like Israel and PLO.
Fatah functions as a US-Israeli tool
The internal crisis between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Fatah on the one hand and Hamas on the other has worsened since Hamas formed the administrative committee to manage the Gaza Strip instead of the national consensus government, amid bleak reconciliation prospects. Consequently, the PA took a series of measures against Gaza, including cutting off the Gaza employees’ salaries and forcing them to retire early. The PA also stopped covering the bills for electricity supplied by Israel to the Gaza Strip. This pushed Hamas in June to conclude deals with Dahlan, under Egyptian sponsorship, to alleviate Gaza’s crises.
The mediators communicated Abbas’ conditions for reconciliation, which include Hamas disbanding the administrative committee, empowering the consensus government to work in Gaza without any restrictions and holding presidential and legislative elections within six months. Hamas told the mediators it would not discuss any conditions or details before the PA lifts all its measures against the Gaza Strip.
UN envoy Mladenov visited the Gaza Strip twice in less than a week: on June 29, when he carried suggestions and messages to Hamas from Palestinian officials, and on July 3, to get answers about the suggestions related to the reconciliation and the PA’s measures in Gaza. A possibility that Abbas’ mediation aiming at “disrupting the openness between Hamas and Egypt and blocking the road to understandings with the Dahlan-led reformist current in Fatah - cannot not be ruled out.
Abbas is worried about the rapprochement and wants to foil it. Several Fatah leaders showed resentment and criticized Egypt after loosening its blockade and allowing entry of industrial diesel to the Gaza Strip. The understandings between Hamas and Dahlan’s current are putting off Abbas and Fatah, and he is doing his best to stand in the way. Abbas thought that such understandings would never happen and he was shocked to see otherwise, and started taking action to foil them.
In a July 13 press statement, member of Hamas’ political bureau Mahmoud al-Zahar said that Abbas wants to impede Hamas’ understandings with Cairo through maneuvering. The understandings between Hamas and Dahlan focus on three issues, namely activating the Palestinian Legislative Council, settling the social reconciliation issue by giving compensations to families of those killed in the 2007 clashes and activating the National Islamic Committee for Social Solidarity and the projects for the poor. The committee, established by Dahlan’s reformist current in 2014, aims at proposing small projects to poor families to provide them with a constant source of income that they can live off through sums of money donated from several Arab countries.
Yet Azzam al-Ahmad, a member of Fatah’s Central Committee who is in charge of the reconciliation file with Hamas, disputed this, saying “It's not true that mediators have been sent to Hamas. During his visit to Tunisia on July 6, Abbas denied this and said that there is no mediation with Hamas and that he would never accept it
Hamas asked Mladenov to step in. Abbas and Maldenov met on June 22, a week before he went to Gaza, and Abbas talked about his vision for the Palestinian reconciliation. In April, the PA sent a written document to Hamas with clear demands to end the rift. The demands included disbanding the administrative committee, allowing the national consensus government to operate in Gaza and holding elections.
The Hamas-Dahlan understandings have raised the ire of Fatah. In a July 1 press statement, official Fatah spokesman Osama al-Qawasmi said, “The understandings are illegitimate and are paving the way for separating the Gaza Strip, which is in line with Israel’s goals.” Still, the PA and Fatah are steering clear of criticizing Egypt, which brokered the understandings. In a July 12 press statement, Qawasmi said that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi told Abbas during their meeting July 9 in Cairo that “Egypt prioritizes the legitimate Palestinian government, that its loose grip in Gaza is motivated by humanitarian reasons only and that it will not allow the Gaza Strip to separate from the rest of the Palestinian territories.”
Abbas’ adviser Mahmoud al-Habbash said that the PA did not and will not shut the door in the face of any party willing to mediate to end the rift. But Hamas must abide by the pillars of ending the rift. Our demands are clear, and Abbas’ initiative represents them.” Habbash commented on the recent Hamas-Egypt rapprochement, saying, “The only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people is the PLO. We trust the Egyptian stance, and we are not worried about Egypt’s policies toward Gaza. Our relations with Egypt are tight.” Habbash noted that the Palestinian leadership is not interested in the Hamas-Dahlan understandings. “We do not care about that, and this point is not even on the PA’s agenda of discussions.”
Amid the PA’s insistence on its demands to end the rift as per Abbas’ initiative and Hamas’ calls for the PA to lift all sanctions on the Gaza Strip as a prelude to discussing the reconciliation conditions and measures, it seems all mediations will have been in vain. The rift seems to be widening between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with each passing day.