QuickTake Q&A: Palestinians Grapple With a Succession Problem

  • Abbas, 81, continues in power seven years after his term ended
  • Most popular Palestinian contender languishes in Israeli jail

The Palestinian people have had just two leaders since they achieved a degree of autonomy from Israel in 1994. The current one, Mahmoud Abbas, is 81 and has repeatedly threatened to quit the job. Who the next one might be, and to what extent he could legitimately claim to represent all Palestinians, is the subject of increasing speculation. The credibility of the next leader has implications for relations among rival Palestinian factions, peacemaking with Israel and the significant foreign aid that flows to the Palestinian territories.

1. When does Abbas’s term expire?

Technically speaking it already did, seven years ago. A longtime leader of the political organization known as Fatah, Abbas was popularly elected to a four-year term as president of the Palestinian Authority, which administers self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in January 2005. That was two months after the death of long-time Palestinian leader and Fatah co-founder Yasser Arafat. A year later, the militant Islamic movement Hamas -- Fatah’s bitter rival -- won a commanding majority in elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council, which helped create the political stalemate that continues today. The 2006 vote was the last Palestinian election held, except for votes for municipal leaders. The next municipal vote is scheduled for Oct. 8.

2. What’s the procedure if Abbas steps down or dies?

Palestinian Basic Law specifies that a new president should be chosen by popular election. However, an agreement to hold presidential or legislative elections has eluded Hamas and Fatah since 2007, when Hamas gunmen seized control of the Gaza Strip, leaving Fatah in charge of the West Bank only. With each faction now ruling one Palestinian enclave, each has much to lose in the event of an election defeat -- meaning neither group may be disposed to go to elections.

3. How else might a successor arise?

The Palestine Liberation Organization, the umbrella group with which Israel signed the peace agreements establishing the Palestinian Authority, could argue that it has the status to override the Basic Law and name a successor. That would almost certainly mean someone from Fatah, the dominant PLO faction.

4. Who within Fatah is talked about as a successor?

Abbas has refused to designate an heir. But among the names that come up are:

  • Marwan Barghouti, a former deputy to Arafat, imprisoned in Israel for murder and sentenced to five life terms.
  • Mohammed Dahlan, once Abbas’ interior minister, purged in 2011 and living in exile in Abu Dhabi.
  • Saeb Erekat, chief negotiator with Israel, secretary-general of the PLO.
  • Jibril Rajoub, sports minister, former West Bank security chief.
  • Majid Faraj, chief of Palestinian intelligence.

5. What’s at stake?

Appointing a successor could help the PLO avoid the potential embarrassment of an election loss to, say, the head of the Hamas politburo ruling Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh. On the other hand, since it doesn’t include Hamas, the PLO could be depicted as no longer representing all Palestinians. As for the choice of successor, a Palestinian leader more militant than the mostly moderate Abbas could reduce friction between Hamas and Fatah but generate more conflict with Israel and the donor countries that provide 37 percent of the Palestinian Authority’s budget. A more temperate successor could have the opposite effect.

The Reference Shelf

  • A Washington Institute paper on the succession and the risk of a leadership vacuum.
  • An analysis by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies
  • A QuickTake explainer on the rise and fall of the two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians.
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