March 12, 2018 | The American Interest

The Next Palestinian President?

If there is any dynamism within Palestinian politics today, it’s in the discussion about who will eventually replace the aging Mahmoud Abbas, the octogenarian President who has reigned for over a decade. That discussion reached a fever pitch recently after Abbas stayed overnight at Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore, a visit his advisers attempted to portray as routine. Yet nothing is routine in predicting what will happen once Abbas departs the stage, and behind the scenes, the various aspirants to the Palestinian presidency jockey to replace their 82-year-old leader in a constantly changing arena.

The dynamic in the West Bank is one of intense palace politics. Public speculation vacillates between those figures who are popular (the imprisoned Marwan Barghouti), those who have loyal security forces (Fatah leader Jibril Rajoub and Abbas’s intelligence chief Majed Faraj), and those who have money and regional favor (the exiled Muhammad Dahlan). Amid this political maneuvering—or perhaps because of it—Abbas introduced another name to the succession discussion earlier last year by making Mahmoud al-Aloul the first-ever vice president of his Fatah party.

Aloul, 68, was an interesting selection. For one, he doesn’t have much of a national profile. Modest and unassuming, he lacks the outsized personality that many of the other would-be heirs possess. At our meeting in his Fatah offices in December, he downplayed his appointment as vice president, a position he insists was always there but never filled: “The people gave it a lot of importance when it was assigned, but there is a precedent [for the position].”

Yet no one should doubt his ability to eventually lead the Palestinians. Mahmoud Abbas, too, was a virtual unknown to many Palestinians when the Palestinian Authority was created in 1994. By the time Yasser Arafat died a decade later, he was the clear heir apparent. Aloul has risen from peripheral figure to number two within the most dominant West Bank party. Perhaps his ceiling is higher.

Born in Nablus in 1950, Aloul was arrested by the Israeli army after the Six Day War and sent to Jordan. There he quickly joined Fatah and rose within the organization, relocating to Lebanon in the 1970s and commanding a military brigade that in 1983 kidnapped several Israeli soldiers and ransomed them for the release of nearly a thousand Palestinian prisoners. As one of Fatah’s foot-soldiers, he was attached to Khalil al-Wazir, Arafat’s famous deputy and head of military operations who was assassinated by Israeli commandos in the late 1980s.

When the Palestinians signed the Oslo Accords, many PLO officials returned from exile to the West Bank and Gaza. However, Israel refused to allow Aloul to return for a year due to his past militant activity. When he did return in 1995, he quickly ascended the ranks of the newly created Palestinian Authority, becoming Governor of Nablus in 1996. But for many Palestinians, their first introduction to Aloul was during the second intifada, when one of his sons was killed in the clashes. He gave a national address that garnered sympathy from everyday Palestinians, before retreating from politics for a while.

“I saw the reality of the intifada for the way it was, so I stepped back to mourn. I know that my objective is to reach independence for the Palestinian people, and I concluded the only way to do that is to create peace,” Aloul told me. Still, he admits his public rhetoric can be confrontational: “When I talk to the people I talk about the importance of holding on to our land, of sticking up to the occupation, but peace is what we believe in.”

In 2006 Aloul was elected to the PA’s parliament, the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), as Labor Minister. Three years later, he was elected to Fatah’s highest body, the Central Committee, where he was put in charge of mobilization. As head of that portfolio, Aloul was frequently spotted at rallies and protests. After an arson attack by Israeli extremists killed several members of the Dawabsheh family in Duma, Aloul led protests against the attack and set up local committees to guard other “friction points” with Israel.

In November of 2016, Mahmoud Abbas held a party conference to solidify his grip on power. Ahead of the summit, he purged rival factions within Fatah and rewarded loyalists, including Aloul, who was re-elected to the Central Committee. A few months later, Abbas and the Central Committee named him vice president. His appointment was widely seen as another safeguard for Abbas: By creating a nominal number two, Abbas was diluting the impact of the other centers of power in the Palestinian body politic—from the PLO to his rivals in Hamas—that seek to influence whoever comes after him. Yet Aloul is not just another yes-man loyalist; he has aspirations of his own.

Aloul has flourished in the role of vice president of Fatah, increasing his profile diplomatically and spearheading the Palestinian response to crises on the ground, such as the protests that roiled Jerusalem this past summer. Meanwhile, he is distinguishing himself from the reigning President.

Days after we met in his office, Aloul went on television to declare all forms of resistance—both violent and non-violent—to be legitimate responses to President Trump’s speech recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He has since walked back those comments, insisting that his preferred methods are non-violent, but that rhetoric sets him apart from the other Palestinian politicians who have risen in the court of Abbas. Indeed, as a former mobilizer for Fatah, Aloul, who never participated in peace talks, is more connected to the people than many in Ramallah.

Aloul is not nearly as wedded as the President to diplomacy, nor is he afraid to embrace positions that Abbas typically avoids. Most noticeably, he has long been a skeptical of the peace process. “With the current course of action that the U.S. has adopted, it’s not possible to create peace,” Aloul told me, yet the U.S. still has to be involved: “How can you reach a point where Israel feels obligated to provide something if you don’t have the U.S.?” In response to this impasse, Aloul has advocated a pressure campaign against Israel, both at home and in the international community. “We have to look at our options—they’re attached to the power dynamics here. It’s about how much you can mobilize to put pressure on Israel and the status quo.”

To that end, Aloul has urged Palestinians to take to the streets. This resonates with a majority of Palestinians, who are increasingly dissatisfied with Abbas for his prioritization of the security relationship with Israel over popular protests. At least part of Abbas’s wariness about public unrest is due to his fear that the Palestinian street may turn against the Ramallah leadership, a fear Aloul acknowledges: “We’ve adopted a policy that we need to be in total control of any public movement in the street, otherwise other parties could lead it against us.”

It’s these other movements that Aloul still views through a zero-sum lens, most noticeably the rival Islamist faction, Hamas. “I’ve pressed them before, and to be honest, I don’t believe them,” Aloul says. “I think they want power, that’s their only objective. They want to take control of the Palestinian Authority.”

Aloul’s distrust of Hamas is consistent with the views of the broader hardline Fatah leadership, Abbas very much included, who still harbor grudges from the 2007 civil war, in which Hamas violently expelled Fatah and the PA from Gaza. That war was the result of the previous year’s legislative contest, which according to many Palestinians produced an irreparable ideological cleavage. “You have to understand that political Islam by its nature does not share interests with other movements,” remarks Aloul. “Hamas has little room for inclusion. They will take whatever shape they need to survive, but there are still ideological divides between us.”

Perhaps Aloul’s biggest break with his leader is in his willingness to entertain, and even support, the one-state movement. An increasing amount of young Palestinians have called on their leadership to abandon the traditional Oslo peace process in favor of a binational state—a euphemism for the demographic destruction of the Jewish majority state in Israel. Even Abbas’s own son has endorsed this strategy. As the idea gains popularity, the Palestinian leadership has increasingly accepted it. Abbas himself broadly threatened to propose this solution during his UN General Assembly speech this past year, and mere minutes after Trump’s speech his top negotiator called on all Palestinians to formally embrace the one-state concept.

Aloul is less afraid to voice his support for the one-state movement, though he is still carefully diplomatic in his endorsement of this incendiary plan. He sees the pressure for a binational state—something that could throw Israel into an existential crisis—as a possible jump-start for the peace process: “Perhaps, in struggling for the one-state solution we will actually gain two-states.” In other words, Aloul is keeping his preferences open in order to play to the broadest swath of the Palestinian electorate.

Mahmoud Abbas turns 83 this month. In his 13-plus years as President, he has grown increasingly paranoid. Reports surfaced in February that the he had been wiretapping thousands of Palestinians—rivals and allies alike—with the CIA’s help. Among those wiretapped was Mahmoud al-Aloul. Abbas clearly sees Aloul as someone who could one day succeed him. Perhaps international observers should, too.

Grant Rumley is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @GrantRumley.

Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.