The Palestinian national project is at a crossroads. Mahmoud Abbas—the aging president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and leader of Fatah—is 10 years into a four-year term as PA president and shows no signs of stepping down. Not only has he consolidated his grip on power in Ramallah, he has made no clear move toward naming a successor or preparing for elections. A crisis is looming.
Policymakers know what is legally stipulated in the event of a sudden vacation of Abbas’s post. According to Palestinian Basic Law, the duties of the president will pass to the speaker of the PA’s parliament for a period of 60 days while national elections are prepared. The trouble is that parliament has been defunct since the 2007 internecine conflict between Fatah and its Hamas rivals left the West Bank under the control of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority and the Gaza Strip under Hamas. Further complicating this issue is the fact that were the presidential duties to pass to the last elected speaker of parliament, that position is currently occupied by a member of Hamas. Such a scenario would likely trigger both a cut in U.S. funding and a political crisis in the West Bank.
Though PLO and Fatah officials may disagree over who should succeed Abbas, they will surely agree that power should not fall to Hamas. Thus, the West Bank leadership will likely do everything in its power to exclude Hamas from any access to the corridors of power in Ramallah.
The best-case scenario for a peaceful transition is a silent primary among the Palestinian political elite. The problem with this scenario is that it is decidedly undemocratic. The precedent for this was the succession following the death of Yasser Arafat, when the PLO’s highest decision-making body selected Abbas within hours. Abbas’s selection established him as the de facto leader of the Palestinian Authority before presidential elections were even held a year later. It is likely that the Palestinian aristocracy will hold such a conclave again in the event of another sudden vacancy.
Abbas’s rule has alienated the traditional Palestinian political leadership from its base. The elder aristocracy may assume the top spot is theirs, but a new cadre of leaders may also be eyeing the throne. These are the leaders actively antagonizing Abbas and rallying their respective bases in the Palestinian Territories. In the event of political gridlock or instability among the aristocracy, these challengers—including security officials, negotiators, and veteran technocrats—may emerge as potential contenders. Their path to the top is less clear, but their ambition is not.
However succession unfolds, it is likely to take place without a meaningful vote from the Palestinian people. This is troubling in light of the unrest across the Middle East and the aftershocks from the Arab Spring. U.S. policymakers have a clear interest in trying to guide the Palestinians toward a more representative leadership. Washington’s may lack the political will to implement reform, but effective methods exist to prevent an unstable transfer of power.
This report provides an overview of the players and challenges associated with Palestinian succession, and suggests a two-step approach to guide the Palestinians toward a relatively soft landing. The first phase aims to counter the autocratic trends under Abbas. This includes the designation of a vice president to Abbas to dilute his executive power and to ensure a peaceful transition. The second phase aims to rebuild Palestinian democratic institutions. By empowering the vice president over the speaker of parliament, policymakers can begin to bolster the technocratic ranks within the Palestinian political system. From here, the U.S. can boost its relations with the pro-democratic currents within the Palestinian political landscape and pressure the PA to set itself on a course for national elections.