Increasingly lonely and authoritarian, Mahmud Abbas struggles to name his successor | International

On the 19th, while the Palestinian president, Mahmud Abbas, made a surprise landing in Qatar, the social networks were on fire over some leaked papers from the Palestinian Embassy in Doha according to which some twenty relatives and advisers accompanied him to the opening ceremony of the World Cup. football, with VIP tickets and almost 80,000 dollars or euros in hotel bills. Although the veracity of the documents has not been confirmed, the indignant response reveals the deep loss of prestige -after 17 years in power without submitting to the polls- of an increasingly authoritarian leader, isolated and questioned in his own ranks and on the street .

According to the latest poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Surveys, released last month, 74% of those consulted want him to resign and 57% consider that the Palestinian Authority, which he heads, has become a hindrance. The leak also shows the internal struggle to succeed him. The focus is no longer on replacing an 87-year-old leader with heart problems and a tendency to chain cigarettes, but on what will happen the day after his death.

Nasser Al Qudwa was briefly his Foreign Minister in 2005. Al Fatah continues to be defined “to the marrow”, the faction founded by his uncle (the historic rais Palestinian Yasir Arafat), in which he has been a member since 1969 and which Abbas currently presides over. However, when he decided to return definitively to Palestine from the United States last September, he did not settle – as would have been expected – in the West Bank, but in Gaza, the isolated and impoverished strip where he was born in 1954 and which is governed by the rival movement Hamas. “I started to feel that you cannot trust the situation in Ramallah, because you cannot trust the man […] that he is capable of anything”, he explains in a humble office in the capital Gaza.

Nasser al Qudwa, in his office in the capital Gaza, last October / ANTONIO PITA

With decades of international positions behind him, as Palestinian representative to the UN or special envoy to Syria, Al Qudwa chooses his words to talk about Abbas without naming him. He assures that he feared for his life in the West Bank, that Al Fatah has been “kidnapped by a group” and that “it takes a change of person or that person miraculously changes his policies.” He ran in the 2021 legislative elections with a split from Al Fatah. Aware of his low popular weight, he allied himself with Palestine’s greatest living icon, Marwan Barguti, who is serving five life sentences in Israel for organizing attacks in the Second Intifada. The elections were not held, but Al Qudwa saw his dissent punished with the expulsion of the Central Committee of Al Fatah, the withdrawal of the diplomatic passport and the dismissal of the direction of the Yasir Arafat Foundation, technically independent.

“Institutions have been destroyed, the rule of law has disappeared, there are no human rights and the dignity of the average Palestinian has been violated, to the point of Nizar Banat’s death,” he lists. The death of Banat, a well-known critical activist, marked a turning point in the image of the president in June 2021. He died under arrest by the Palestinian security forces, after being beaten. Protests in Ramallah over his death were harshly suppressed.

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“This is the worst legitimacy crisis in the history of the Palestinian Authority,” Tahani Mustafa, a Palestine analyst for the Palestinian Authority, said by phone. think tank International Crisis Group. “Abbas has dismantled the system around him that could give him legitimacy,” he notes before criticizing the international community for looking the other way. With his mandate exhausted since 2009 and Parliament dissolved, Abbas governs by decree. He has signed 350 presidential orders. The last, last October, the creation of a Supreme Council that will supervise the judicial system and that he will lead.

The president has the firm support of the West for his commitment to moderation and dialogue to resolve the conflict in the Middle East. For many Palestinians, he is instead the man who never bangs his fist on the table. Actually, he did do it recently, on the 11th, when he managed to get the UN to ask the International Court of Justice to give an opinion on the legal status of the occupation of Palestine, to the outrage of Israel. But his discredit is such that the news was clouded two days later by his resigned statements about Benjamin Netanyahu’s electoral victory: “He is a man who does not believe in peace.” […] but I have to deal with it.” Something similar happened with his speech at the United Nations General Assembly last September. The tone was sour, but a parody of the moment in which he asked the international community: “Protect us!” was circulating on the Palestinian WhatsApp groups. Quite a blow to the ingrained feeling of Palestinian dignity.

circle of trust

His circle of trust is getting narrower. According to Mustafa, he barely consults decisions with two people anymore. Prominent figures such as Hanan Ashrawi, spokesman for the Palestinian delegation at the Madrid Conference, or Yaser Abed Rabo, Minister of Culture for 10 years under Arafat, have been marginalized and criticize Abbas’s drift. Even Tawfik Tirawi, until recently one of his closest associates, has fallen out of favor after feeling left behind in the succession. Many now see his hand behind another leak, the one that exposed earlier this month part of the investigation he led into Arafat’s 2004 death in a French hospital, which has never been made public. One of the documents indicates that Arafat (still a respected figure beyond ideological divisions) asked Abbas, then his prime minister and with whom he had a tense relationship, to convince Israel to lift the siege on the muqata. He replied: “Those who get into trouble know how to get out of it,” apparently alluding to his support for the Second Intifada.

The departure or dismissal of historical leaders has gone hand in hand with the meteoric rise of Hussein to the Sheikh. Last February he entered the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, in a meeting boycotted by various factions and independent personalities and in which the live broadcast of Abbas’s inaugural speech was canceled by surprise. Three months later, he was promoted to secretary general and head of the negotiations department, positions held by veteran Saeb Erekat until his death from covid in 2020. Considered the Dolphin of Abbas, is at every diplomatic meeting of the president, and last October he traveled to Washington to meet with members of the US government.

Hussein al Sheikh, left, with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukry in 2021 in Ramallah.
Hussein al Sheikh, left, with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukry in 2021 in Ramallah.Anadolu Agency (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Al Sheikh, 61, embodies what a majority of Palestinians hate as much as they need: coordination with the Israeli military authorities, sealed in the Oslo Accords of 1993. Since 2007 he has been in charge of the General Authority for Civil Affairs, which coordinates with Israel work permits, the transport of the sick or the census in the occupied territories. He is the example of a successor that Israel or the United States would like, but that only 3% of Palestinians want as the next leader, according to a poll last June, despite coming from a refugee family and having spent 11 years in prison in Israel. . Several analysts predict, in fact, a violent revolt if he is crowned the famous day after of Abbas’s death.

Israel, an ambivalent relationship

Israeli soldiers search two Palestinians, last Saturday in Hebron.
Israeli soldiers search two Palestinians, last Saturday in Hebron.Mussa Qawasma (REUTERS)

Israel’s relationship with Abbas is ambivalent. On the one hand, his leaders accuse him of turning a blind eye to armed groups and are outraged when he trivializes the Holocaust, like last August in Berlin, when he accused Israel of having committed “50 holocausts” with the Palestinians. On the other, they need it, aware that it is hard to find Palestinians who are so supportive of dialogue and security coordination with Israel. When he presided over Israel, Simon Peres called him “the best possible partner for peace.”

In recent years, Israel has contributed to its discredit by not offering it any more horizon (the peace dialogue has been frozen since 2014) than to continue acting as a “subcontractor of the occupation”, as a large part of the population perceives the Palestinian Authority. “He is the child who puts his finger on a dike leak”, defined him on the 17th Avi Issajarof, commentator on Palestinian affairs for the daily Haaretz, using as a simile the Dutch tale of Hans Brinker, who saved the city of Haarlem from a flood. “The security situation on the ground is the anticipation of a much bigger outbreak. And the Palestinian Authority and its president are the ones that are delaying the big eruption,” he noted.

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