Amidst clashes between Palestinians and Israeli policemen on the al-Aqsa compound last week, protests erupted across the West Bank in support of the Haram as-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, also known as the Temple Mount.
In Bethlehem, the Palestinian Authority dispersed crowds with brutal force. A video of security forces violently clubbing one of the protesters triggered more protests in nearby refugee camps. Two days after the video went public, Palestinians took to the streets in Bethlehem, chanting slogans against the PA and its president, Mahmoud Abbas.
This uptick in public outrage couldn’t come at a worse time for Abbas.
The aging Palestinian leader is six years past his term limit, without a clear successor or national strategy. His decade-long consolidation of control over the PA, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and his party, Fatah, has met staunch resistance in recent months. With a showdown awaiting him in Ramallah, Abbas appears set to deflect domestic criticisms by attacking Israel at the UN General Assembly meeting on September 30.
Chief among Abbas’s multi-front war is the feud between his party, Fatah, and its rivals in Gaza, Hamas. The armed conflict that started when both sides fought a civil war over the 2006 parliamentary elections has morphed into a low-intensity struggle masquerading under perennial reconciliation talks.
Despite the collapse of a nominal unity government in June, both sides are committed to paying lip service to Palestinian political reconciliation. Beyond that, both keep their attacks relatively limited: Hamas is willing to host anti-Abbas rallies in Gaza while the PA continues to conduct raids against Hamas cells in the West Bank.
Their true goals are not hard to discern: Hamas is looking to outlast the Abbas era in the West Bank while Abbas seeks to leverage the stalled reconstruction process in Gaza to squeeze the group into submission.
But this is not the only political battle waiting for Abbas. Over the summer, he attempted to consolidate his control over the PLO, the umbrella organization for Palestinian political participation. In July, he fired Yasser Abed Rabbo as Secretary General of the PLO’s highest body, the Executive Committee. The political independent was replaced by Saeb Erekat, a member of Abbas’s Fatah party, long-time negotiator, and political loyalist. A few weeks later, Abbas announced that he, Erekat, and several other members of the Executive Committee would resign their posts in order to force a meeting of the PLO’s parliamentary body, the Palestinian National Council (PNC).
Abbas’s critics blasted the move for what they perceived as a manipulation of the PLO’s bylaws in order to stack the Executive Committee with more loyalists. Abbas wanted to have the PNC meeting before the UN General Assembly so he could approach the UN with his domestic flank secure.
But that plan was quickly shot down by rivals within the PLO. In response, Erekat announced that their resignations were not actually implemented, and that they would be issued once the PNC convened later in the year, likely after the Fatah party conference in November.
Meanwhile, all is not well within Fatah. Members of the group’s own parliamentary body, the Revolutionary Council, have long been demanding that Abbas name a successor. The group is split on both a generational and an ideological level. Within Fatah’s highest decision-making body, the Central Committee, two classes are emerging: reformers and Abbas loyalists. And they are sparring over the most divisive figure in Fatah: Mohammad Dahlan.
Regular arguments have occurred over Abbas’s decision to unilaterally exile his rival from the West Bank and strip him of his position within Fatah, a violation of the group’s internal laws. Now, the self-styled reformers within Fatah, such as Central Committee member Tawfiq Tirawi, are reporting that the group is divided over who will be nominated to the PLO’s Executive Committee whenever the PNC meeting is held.
The debate over Dahlan and the contest over who gets nominated for the PLO executive committee will extend into Fatah’s conference in November. According to Fatah’s bylaws, the group is supposed to have a conference every five years in order to hold internal elections. However, the last conference was in 2009, and since the party’s founding in 1965 it has only managed five other conferences. With questions surrounding Abbas’s lack of a successor, his overall strategy, and the future of the party, the upcoming conference is potentially explosive.
In Abbas’s perfect world, the PLO would have buckled under the pressure of his “resignation” stunt and conformed itself to his liking. Then, with the PLO behind him, he could approach the UNGA and blast Israel in a way that would energize his base ahead of the November Fatah conference, where he would again stack the deck in his favor in the group’s internal elections.
Now, his work is cut out for him. One attendee noted at the last Fatah conference that members of the PA Presidential Guard roamed the hall during the internal elections, coercing delegates into voting for candidates Abbas preferred.
At the next conference, attendees might not be so easily influenced.
Grant Rumley is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @GrantRumley