By Sean Savage
May 8 marked what many consider an unceremonious 10-year anniversary of Mahmoud Abbas becoming the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), though his official term has been expired for more than six of those years. Since Abbas took over for Yasser Arafat, who died in 2004, the political and economic situation in the West Bank has become as untenable as ever. With no clear successor to Abbas in the fold and reports of rampant corruption, nepotism, and cronyism, the PA faces an uncertain future.
“The state of affairs in the PA right now is paralysis,” Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) think tank, told JNS.org. “Abbas has a stranglehold on political power, and he appears to be intent on remaining in office for the foreseeable future. There is no vice presdent. There is no succession plan, and there is no oxygen for political challengers to articulate their vision for the future.”
Established by the Oslo Accords peace treaty in 1993 as an interim Palestinian government, the PA-which has been dominated by the Fatah political party and its parent organization, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), throughout its existence-has languished in political and economic limbo for the last several years under Abbas. Peace talks with Israel from 2013-14 crashed, and the Hamas terrorist group continues to grow its popularity among Palestinians.
Under Abbas, the PA has not held formal elections since 2006 and only maintains control in the West Bank after being ousted from Gaza by Hamas in 2007. Abbas has had a tenuous relationship with Israel, maintaining close security ties with the Jewish state out of a shared fear of Hamas, but also seeing Israel repeatedly cut off tax transfers to the PA, mostly recently due to Abbas’s moves to gain unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state in international agencies.
Many fear that if the Palestinians held an election, Hamas, which won the last election in 2006, would beat out the Fatah once again. Many Palestinians cite Fatah’s notorious legacy of financial and administrative corruption as their reason for supporting Hamas.
A recent poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research did find that Abbas has seen a rise in support-with 40 percent support among would-be Palestinian voters, up from 35 percent in the last such survey. Yet Abbas, according to the poll, would still lose in an election to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, who was supported by 47 percent of respondents. The same poll found that 77 percent of Palestinians believe that PA institutions are corrupt.
“The main concern is that the weakness of President Abbas in the West Bank could enable Hamas to gain more ground there,” Bassem Eid, co-founder of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group and a commentator on internal Palestinian politics, told JNS.org.
A recent sign of Hamas’s growing popularity in the West Bank may come from the group’s recent victory in the April 22 student council election at Birzeit University, which is located near the PA’s de facto capital of Ramallah. Hamas won 26 seats on the student council versus 16 for Fatah. Taking note of the growing threat of Hamas in the West Bank, Abbas and the PA’s security forces have launched a widespread crackdown on Hamas supporters on university campuses, with dozens of student supporters of the terror group being interrogated and detained, according to the Gatestone Institute think tank.
Meanwhile, accusations are swirling that the Abbas family has become wealthy at the expense of the Palestinian people-and even American taxpayers. On April 24, a U.S. appellate court upheld a decision to dismiss at $10 million libel suit from Yasser Abbas, one of the PA president’s sons.
Yasser Abbas filed the suit against the Foreign Policy magazine for a 2012 article by FDD’s Schanzer titled “The Brothers Abbas,” in which Schanzer questioned whether or not Mahmoud Abbas’s sons-Yasser and Tarek-are growing rich as a result of their father’s political position, and whether or not U.S. foreign aid to the PA was contributing to their wealth.
According to Schanzer’s 2012 article, Yasser Abbas chairs the Palestinian corporate conglomerate Falcon Holding Group, which received $1.89 million from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to construct a sewage system in Hebron. Additionally, Yasser Abbas holds leadership positions in two other companies, Al-Mashreq Insurance Company and First Option Project Construction Management Company, which received roughly $300,000 in USAID funds from 2005-08.
The international community has also sounded the alarm on the Palestinian economy’s struggles, as the World Bank said in September 2014 that Palestinian unemployment is rising to “alarming levels,” citing the ongoing political uncertainty surrounding the PA as a contributing factor.
“The PA is a system where the rich get richer and the poor languish. The elite continue to benefit from the system while a rather educated lower and middle class struggle to cash in,” Schanzer told JNS.org.
At the same time, though Abbas recently turned 80, there has been little talk of who will succeed him.
“There is basically no plan for Abbas’s succession,” said Schanzer. “According to Palestinian basic law, the speaker of the Palestinian parliament would take over those duties temporarily. Currently, the speaker is Aziz Dweik of Hamas. Beyond that, it is unknown who would run from the Fatah faction or the PLO. Abbas has not tapped an heir apparent. Nor has he named a vice president.”
Bassem Eid said the failure to appoint a successor is largely a result of Arab cultural bias against that concept.
“The Arab culture does not allow the concept of a ‘vice president,’ the president is the only supreme ruler,” he said. “No one talks about President Abbas’s possible demise since all the Palestinians tend to say that even the prophet Muhammad died and the world survived, hence all others.”
Schanzer blames Washington for the current impasse in the West Bank, saying that U.S. peace negotiators have “failed to push the Palestinians to create a functioning system.”
One person being widely promoted as a successor to Abbas is Mohammad Dahlan, a longtime rival of the PA president.
“Mohammad Dahlan is one of the leaders of the young generation,” Eid said. “He is corrupt, but I prefer a young corrupt to the old corrupt like Abbas. I believe that the younger generation [of Palestinian leaders] will be more moderate than the older ones, who speak more about the past and history without mentioning the future.”
Dahlan, 53, represents that so-called “younger generation.” As a rising star in the PLO in the 1990s, he was promoted to head of security in Gaza. In 2006, he won a seat in the PA’s legislative body. But in 2007, when Hamas ousted Fatah and the PA from Gaza, many inside the PA blamed Dahlan for Hamas’s emergence. His fall from grace continued in 2011 when he was charged with corruption and embezzlement by Abbas, and stripped of his legislative seat. Dahlan fled the West Bank that year, and currently resides in both the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.
Nevertheless, Dahlan still enjoys popular support among some Palestinians and in recent years has worked with businesses and charities in the Arab Gulf states to support the Palestinian people, including providing funds to Gazan Palestinians who were affected by last summer’s Israel-Hamas war. In December 2014, thousands in Gaza turned out for a rally in support of Dahlan, despite Hamas’s firm grip on the coastal enclave.
According to the Financial Times, Dahlan has become a close adviser to Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, helping the prince crack down on Muslim Brotherhood Islamists. Dahlan also supported Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s ouster of former president Mohammed Morsi (a Muslim Brotherhood leader) in 2013. The Muslim Brotherhood is Hamas’s parent group.
“Abbas will leave only ruins, and who would be interested to be a president or vice president on these ruins?” Dahlan told the Associated Press in 2014. “What I am interested in is a way out of our political situation, not a political position.”
Dahlan has criticized Abbas’s unilateral moves at the United Nations, telling Sky News Arabic in January that an eventually-defeated PA resolution in the U.N. Security Council resolution, which called for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, was a “hasty and reckless decision that wasn’t made with the unified consensus of the Palestinians.”
To many observers, the political situation in the West Bank may seem like a mild crisis compared with the chaos in nearby Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya. But while Abbas’s stagnant rule continues, Schanzer views the PA as a “powder keg” that could ignite at any moment.
“The PA may not look benign for much longer,” he told JNS.org.