It seems that the era of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is coming to the end. In two weeks the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the most senior representative body of the Palestinian people, representing Palestinians in Palestine and in the diaspora, will convene in Ramallah to elect a new Executive Committee – the government of the PLO.
Abbas told the Fatah leadership Monday evening that he would not be running in the elections.
Yasser Arafat and Abbas both served as the chairmen of the Executive Committee of the PLO and in that position negotiated and signed six agreements with Israel. It is the PNC that created the Palestinian Authority, and Abbas was elected by the Palestinian people in Palestine to serve as president of the PA. The PA, by the decision of the Executive Committee, was converted into the State of Palestine, which gained recognition by the United Nations as a non-member state but nonetheless a recognized state in the community of nations.
Abbas told his Fatah colleagues that he wished to bring to an end all of the positions that he holds and would not run for reelection as president of Palestine, nor as the chairman of the Fatah party.
This is definitely the end of an era in the Middle East.
Despite what is perhaps the belief of a majority of Israelis, I believe deeply that Abbas is a man of peace and that he has dedicated the last decades of his life to achieving peace, liberation and independence for his people. He has failed and it is his failure which has led him to make the decision that it is time to step down. I believe that his absence will be a great loss for Israel and for those who seek true peace.
Whoever takes over the PLO and leads the state of Palestine in the post-Abbas era is going to face a growing call among the Palestinian people to close the chapter on Oslo. For some that means ending the security cooperation with Israel but keeping the PA intact, marching forward through the intervention of the international community to bring an end to Israel’s occupation. There are others who call for ending the Oslo paradigm and returning the keys to Israel – essentially closing up shop, ceasing the call for the two-state solution and demanding full and equal rights in Israel, which would in the not-too-distant future become a state with a Palestinian majority. There are those who want the next leader to continue the program of Abbas in gaining international recognition and hoping that negotiations with Israel can be renewed.
It is difficult to measure how many Palestinians support each position. It is clear though that all Palestinians are against the status quo of the continuing occupation and settlement building.
While many people, especially young Palestinians, are trying to be part of the global community and are busy advancing themselves and their own economic welfare, everyone supports resistance against the Israeli occupation. It is not clear how many support the use of violence and armed struggle that Abbas has worked so hard to remove from the Palestinian political toolbox.
For the next generation of leaders, the whole field of possibilities is open and it is impossible to predict what will be the political agenda of the next leader.
Who are the possible contenders? In no particular order:
General Jabril Rajoub A strong leader in Fatah, originally from Dura village in Mount Hebron. Rajoub was one of Arafat’s “princes.” He had been deported by Israel and was in Arafat’s inner circle in Tunis. After the creation of the PA, Rajoub became head of the powerful Preventive Security Forces in the West Bank. He developed strong relations with the Israeli security people, both the army and Israel Security Agency (who referred to him as “Gabriel Regev”). In past years Rajoub has headed the Palestinian football association and the Palestinian Olympic Committee. He has used sports to build cadres of young followers and supporters all over the West Bank. Rajoub told me two weeks ago that he was planning to run for president.
General Majed el Faraj
Faraj grew up in the Dheishe refugee camp. As a Fatah activist and fighter for Palestine in the largest refugee camp in the West Bank, he rose to positions of leadership. With the establishment of the Palestinian Intelligence Force, one of the most important arms of the Palestinian security forces, he rose to positions of command. Over the past years he has served as head of intelligence. He is thought to be one of the most powerful people in the PA. He also has very good relations with the Israeli and Jordanian security forces. Faraj told me two weeks ago that he had no ambitions to run for president and was looking forward to ending his public career as the head of intelligence.
Dr. Saeb Erekat As chief Palestinian negotiator he has more experience and hours negotiating the two-state solution than anyone else in the world. He has run the Negotiations Affairs Department of the PLO since after the second intifada and has created a data bank that surpasses anything that has ever existed in Israel concerning negotiations.
He has a PhD in peace studies from England. I first met him in 1988 when he was the editorial writer for Al Quds newspaper and one of the leading intellectuals in Fatah. Erekat has clear ambitions to be the next palestinian leader, but little grassroots support.
Dr. Mohammed Shteyeh
Shteyeh is one of the leading economic figures in the Fatah movement. When donor money began pouring into the PA during the era of Arafat, the international community demanded the creation of an oversight body that would supervise all large economic development projects funded by the international community.
PECDAR, the Palestinian Economic Center for Development and Reconstruction, was created and Shteyeh appointed to head it. He has been in that position since. PECDAR signs appear all over the West Bank on projects that directly impact the lives of Palestinians.
During periods of great corruption and the pocketing of millions of public money, Shteyeh was thought to be clean and careful to protect the public’s interest. He has support inside the Fatah movement, but not much grassroots support.
Dr. Salam Fayyad
Fayyad was the prime minister that Palestine needed to take it from the lows of the second intifada to the successful building of state institutions. Fayyad was the representative of the IMF to Palestine and as a native Palestinian from Jerusalem, Fayyad impressed all with his knowledge, modesty and determination to see Palestine be a success. He fell out of favor with Abbas over issues concerning Abbas’s plans to go to the UN. Since leaving the office of the prime minister he has worked on economic development projects aimed at helping the poorest people in the West Bank. He has gained a lot of grassroots support, and has maintained the support he had from Israel and the West. Fayyad is not a member of Fatah and has no real political camp behind him. He has also become an enemy of Abbas, something that could actually help him.
General Mohammed Dahlan
Dahlan was one of Arafat’s closest allies. With the establishment of the PA he headed the Preventive Security Force in Gaza which put him into a position of rivalry with his counterpart Jabril Rajoub. Dahlan is often blamed for the failure of Fatah to stay in Gaza and for the success of Hamas in taking over there in June 2007. He has been living in exile in the UAE and has challenged the leadership of Abbas from outside with money, websites and the building of political forces on the ground in the West Bank and in Gaza, where he comes from. He was convicted of crimes and then exonerated by a higher court. For Abbas and his supporters, Dahlan is public enemy number one. Many Palestinians I know think Dahlan is too corrupt to be their leader.
Barghouti is without doubt the number one choice of the Palestinian public. He was a student leader of Fatah in his days at Birzeit University. He was one of Arafat’s “boys” and rose to leadership in Fatah with the support of outsiders and insiders. He was the elected head of the Fatah party faction in the parliament in 1996. After the tunnel violence of 1996 in Jerusalem and the West Bank, Barghouti began organizing the Fatah Tanzim (organization), holding hundreds of town hall meetings throughout the West Bank and Gaza, building a new leadership of Fatah activists that would eventually lead the second intifada and constitute the Aksa Brigades.
I met Barghouti in the mid-1990s and spent hundreds of hours with him in joint meetings with leading Israeli politicians, including MKs from Likud and Shas.
He always impressed those people. He is a man of principle and a tough negotiator. As a field leader of the second intifada he was convicted by an Israeli court to five life sentences plus 60 years. He was not convicted of killing anyone himself.
He refused to recognize the legitimacy of the court and did not provide any defense. In his final statement that the court allowed him to make he read a long and detailed indictment against the State of Israel.
Barghouti would probably win popular elections in Palestine. It is not clear that he would win elections in the PNC where he will not be able to conduct politics, being far away in an Israeli prison. As president of Palestine he would focus on negotiations or on whatever new Palestinian strategy is developed. He is not the kind of leader who would know how to run the day-today business of a state. If he were to be elected, Israel would come under immense pressure from the international community to release him from prison. They will use Nelson Mandella as the example. Barghouthi is no Mandella, but then again, Benjamin Netanayhu is no DeKlerk.
The author is co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His book Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew and in English as The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas by The Toby Press.