Donald Trump is hopeful that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas will be a partner as the U.S. president tries to advance his ambition of negotiating an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict. After the two met in Washington in early May, Trump said of a peace agreement, "We will get this done," and Abbas praised the president’s "great negotiating ability." Among the many obstacles to resolving the conflict are uncertainties over Abbas’ longevity as the Palestinian leader, who might replace him, and the extent to which a successor could legitimately claim to represent all Palestinians. Abbas is 82 and has repeatedly threatened to quit the job. He’s scheduled to meet with Trump in the West Bank city of Bethlehem May 23.
1. When does Abbas’s term expire?
Technically speaking it already did, eight years ago. A longtime leader of the political organization known as Fatah, Abbas was popularly elected in January 2005 to a four-year term as president of the Palestinian Authority. Under existing agreements with Israel, the authority administers self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Abbas’s election 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 a political stalemate that continues today. The 2006 vote was the last Palestinian election held, except for votes for municipal leaders.
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’s 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 are the stakes?
If the PLO were to appoint a successor, it could avoid the potential embarrassment of an election loss to, say, the head of the Hamas politburo ruling Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh. On the other hand, because the PLO doesn’t include Hamas, a PLO-appointed president could be depicted as having lost the claim of 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, reducing the chances of progress in any peace talks. A more temperate successor could have the opposite effect. The leanings of the next Palestinian leader will also influence relations with the donor countries that provide 37 percent of the Palestinian Authority’s budget.
The Reference Shelf
- A QuickTake explainer on the rise and fall of the two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians.
- Bloomberg View’s Eli Lake on the obstacles to Mideast peace, and Trump’s opportunities.
- Hamas zapped some life into the peace process, writes Bloomberg View columnist Noah Feldman.
- A Washington Institute paper on the succession and the risk of a leadership vacuum.
- An analysis by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.