What lies ahead for the Palestinian Authority?

What lies ahead for the Palestinian Authority?

The Palestinian Authority is facing a leadership crisis. Is Mohammed Dahlan positioned to become the next leader of the Palestinians?

The issue of leadership succession in the Middle East is not limited to Arab Gulf monarchies such as Oman and Saudi Arabia. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who turned 80 this past March, has held the position since January 2005. Palestinian legislative elections, scheduled for 2014, have been cancelled and none are currently planned.

Palestinians in the West Bank are becoming increasingly disgruntled with President Abbas’ leadership. President Abbas burned a tremendous amount of political capital by participating in the failed peace talks led by John Kerry. This, along with the failure to hold together a meaningful unity government with Hamas, and the increasingly authoritarian style rule are driving Fatah’s growing unpopularity.

A crackdown followed the Hamas-aligned Wafaa’ Bloc victory in the student-held election at Birzeit University in Ramallah. President Jimmy Carter, visiting President Abbas this May, urged him to hold elections. Other voices have argued that institutional reform should take precedence over elections.

The reputation of corruption in the Fatah leadership runs deep. This April, a US court threw out a libel claim against Foreign Policy Magazine made by Yasser Abbas, the President’s son.

Mohammed Dahlan is a top intelligence official who was exiled from Fatah after a falling out with President Abbas, and still has local and regional financial and political support.

Abbas has been active in undermining pro-Dahlan factions of Fatah in the West Bank. Dahlan was recently spared of corruption charges by a Palestinian court, much to President Abbas’ chagrin. The PA had alleged that Dahlan embezzled $20 million in public funds.

However, Dahlan is a shrewd diplomat and he was essential in the mediation of a deal for the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project between President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and PM Hailemariam Desalegn. It is also clear that Dahlan is highly favored by Egypt’s ruling establishment.

This personal relationship could be crucial to Hamas and Egypt finding a way forward over the blockade of the Gaza Strip, where Dahlan is from. Dahlan’s Fatah loyalist are still permitted to operate in Gaza and the relationship between Dahlan and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh appears to be close.

Dahlan has been dividing his time in exile between the UAE and Serbia, and he was recently granted citizenship in the latter. It is widely speculated that this was a reward for arranging a generous UAE investment package for the Balkan nation.

Economic development in the West Bank has been stop and go. The right-wing Israeli government has preferred the “economic peace” policy over the two-state solution agenda.

The level of distrust between President Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government was recently reflected in the water issues surrounding economic development. Rabawi, a new Palestinian city under construction in the West Bank, lost nearly $25 million in potential earnings due to water delays. The Israeli Ministry ultimately ordered water lines to be connected prior to the Israeli election.

Economic hardship continues to plague average Palestinians in West Bank cities such as Nablus. The rising tension is why Israel appears to be backtracking over recent moves to punish the PA for its diplomatic maneuverers at the UN and ICC.

The situation on the ground is changing. Recently, vehicles (men over 55 years old only showing an ID) belonging to Palestinians have been allowed to cross into East Jerusalem with little harassment. This had led some to conclude that there are back channels opened between Israel and the PA.

The Israelis recently agreed to release $470 million in tax revenue in full to the Palestinian Authority. The money had been held up since the PA successfully joined the International Criminal Court last January. Public servants are expected to be paid this April. Qatar lent $100 million to help pay salaries.

In the Gaza Strip, Fatah’s arch-rival Hamas still hangs on. Ismail Haniyeh has sought to repair Hamas’ strained relationship with Egypt. His influence with Egypt is apparent from his arranging an increase in the traffic of commodities through Gaza’s Rafah crossing.

Fatah and Hamas relations are still extremely troubled despite a pledge of unity after the Gaza conflict. A Palestinian Authority delegation just abruptly cut short a visit to the Gaza Strip. On the other hand, Israel may finally be accepting Hamas as a source of political stability in Gaza after last summer’s devastating war. Israel has begun permitting the flow of goods and people to and from the beleaguered territory.

Israeli leaders are preparing for a post-Abbas presidency by meeting with Dahlan. Jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti is another option. He won broad support at the last Fatah party congress held in August 2009 and is popular among the reformist-minded young generation of the party.

The Obama Administration may yet attempt to make a final drive for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal before the 2016 election. President Abbas’ health issues may trigger a power vacuum in the Fatah leadership at any moment. Mohammed Dahlan will be waiting to return and the Arab Gulf States will be ready to support him.

It is looking more likely that Dahlan will be accepted by Palestinians of all political stripes at home.

About Author

Chris Solomon

Chris Solomon is a Middle East Analyst and works for a U.S. defense consultancy in the Washington DC Metro Area. He has presented at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, on the U.S. strategy to combat ISIL. Chris’ writing has also appeared on NATO's Atlantic Treaty Association, Raddington Report, Small Wars Journal, and Syria Comment. He holds an MA in International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA). You can follow Chris on Twitter @Solomon_Chris