January 26, 2012 | The Weekly Standard

When Palestinian Politics Get Personal

Mohammed Dahlan, the former security official for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the Gaza Strip, is in a lot of trouble. On January 9, at the behest of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, Jordan’s Central Bank reportedly seized Dahlan’s assets, only days after Palestinian Authority anti-corruption commission head Rafiq al-Natsheh announced he would pursue corruption suspects living abroad. Reports suggest that Dahlan’s assets in Jordan could amount to 10 million Jordanian dinars ($14.1 million) or more.

All things considered, Dahlan’s fate is inconsequential. His star fell long ago. More noteworthy is the ruthlessness Abbas has employed in pursuing him. With Washington’s full support to fend off Hamas’s challengers, Abbas has become relentless against anyone who dares challenge him.

The allegations of Dahlan’s corruption are not easily refuted. During the heyday of the Oslo process in the 1990s, he and a small cadre of Arafat loyalists controlled Gaza’s border with Israel, extracting anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 per truck that entered. One former Palestinian Authority official confirms that Dahlan and his border officers skimmed funds, and kept most of their finances off the books until Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad implemented transparency measures in 2003 and 2004.

But this is not why Abbas is going after him.

The feud between Dahlan and the Palestinian leader dates back to the mid-1990s, when Dahlan, a young PLO member, was named head of preventive security in Gaza, making him one of the more powerful figures in the Palestinian Authority. Abbas, who helped Arafat launch the dominant Fatah faction in Kuwait in the 1950s, reportedly felt that someone of better pedigree would be more suitable for the position. Dahlan, in his view, was little more than a thug from Gaza.

Under Arafat’s “divide and rule” regime, such spats were par for the course. As was the case during the Arafat era, the two men ultimately reached a modus vivendi that lasted until Arafat’s death in November 2004.

When Abbas became president in 2005, he reportedly viewed Dahlan as a political threat, but kept him on as national security advisor. Like many other senior officials, Dahlan knew too much about the Palestinian Authority’s corruption and finances, so it was safer to keep him on the inside. Dahlan further ensured his political survival when he was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006.

The unraveling occurred in the summer of 2007, when Hamas overran the Gaza Strip and picked apart the Palestinian Authority’s forces there. Someone needed to be blamed. Although Dahlan had been out of the country for medical treatment, Fatah figures began calling for his removal. Dahlan resigned, but affirmed his loyalty to Abbas.

At the time, amid fears of a similar Hamas takeover in the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority was in complete disarray. Bush administration officials moved quickly to stabilize the situation, and sought people they could trust in Ramallah. By October, Washington was actively pushing Dahlan, who maintained strong ties with U.S. intelligence and the Israeli defense establishment, to serve as Abbas’s deputy in the newly formed emergency government. Abbas rejected this suggestion, and the feud went public.

By 2008, Dahlan spent most of his time in Cairo. But his popularity had not waned within Fatah. In 2009, the party named him to the Fatah central committee, a group responsible for many key Palestinian decisions. Emboldened, Dahlan began brazenly challenging Abbas over the Palestinian leader’s lack of transparency and increasingly tight grip on power. He even went as far as to call for Fatah elections to select new leadership—a direct affront to Abbas.

Dahlan opened a TV station, Falastin al-Ghad (or Palestine Tomorrow), in the West Bank that year. By 2010, however, Abbas had shut it down. Amid allegations that Dahlan was maneuvering to succeed him, Abbas ordered an investigation into allegations that Dahlan had embezzled public funds. Palestinian Authority security forces also questioned Fatah members over reports that Dahlan was forming a militia. By December 2010, Abbas had Dahlan’s membership in Fatah’s central committee suspended.

In January 2011, Dahlan bravely traveled to Ramallah to face a commission investigating his alleged embezzlement and attempted coup. Predictably, Dahlan denied all the claims against him, and as one Abbas aide confided, the spat could be distilled down to “a personal or business dispute… many of the reports that talked about a coup are exaggerated.”

But the probe did not end. In April 2011, Fatah announced a new investigation alleging that Dahlan provided Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi with weapons to repel the uprising that soon spiraled into the Libyan civil war.

By June 2011, Abbas had shuttered a number of Dahlan’s political websites, and expelled Dahlan from Fatah. In response, Dahlan boldly stated on Al-Hayat TV that, “Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] can shove it.” The following month, Abbas arrested 15 of Dahlan’s supporters, and Palestinian security forces raided Dahlan’s villa in Ramallah, arresting more than 20 security guards, and confiscating two cars and more than a dozen weapons. This was widely viewed as illegal, since it ignored Dahlan's immunity as a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Irate, Dahlan fired back, alleging that Abbas stole over $1 billion from the Palestine Investment fund, a sovereign wealth vehicle. The Abbas camp responded with a 118-page report alleging that Dahlan had stolen $300 million in aid from the United States, and poisoned Arafat.

While Dahlan remained a popular figure in Fatah, it soon became clear that Abbas had gained the upper hand. In August 2011, an official noted that Dahlan’s expulsion from Fatah “is now final. It can’t be appealed or canceled.”

For now, Dahlan has reportedly found refuge in the UAE, where the ruling elites have reportedly grown tired with the Palestinian president’s personal vendettas. Abbas’s tenacious pursuit of him makes it hard for Dahlan to return to Ramallah, Amman, or Cairo—the other places he calls home. New reports also suggest that other Middle East states may soon move on Dahlan’s assets.

While Dahlan will probably not pose a political threat from exile, Abbas will likely keep after him. But it won’t end there, either. The Palestinian president has also picked fights with other potential political threats, including Prime Minister Fayyad, and Yasser Abbed Rabbo of the PLO. All three share a belief that the Palestinian Authority under Abbas has become less transparent and strayed from its original goal: a viable and transparent state that coexists with its neighbors, including Israel.

The Dahlan affair can best be understood as a witch hunt. It underscores the fact that Abbas has consolidated power, and that he will abide no challenges. Abbas’s whims bode poorly for the Palestinian Authority, which may now expend more energy settling scores than resolving the long-standing conflict with Israel.

Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and author of Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine (Palgrave 2008).

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