“The Day After” Abu Mazen Does Not Have to Be Different from the Day Before - and a Lot Depends on Israel
By Dr. Michael Milshtein | June 4, 2020
|Photos: kremlin.ru | CC BY 4.0|
Discourse in Israel on the question of 'the day after' Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) – The Palestinian Authority Chairman since 2005 - has been shrouded for a number of years in concern about what events can be expected with the departure of the Palestinian president, and what will be the ramifications for Israel.
At the hub resides two core arguments. The first holds that with the departure of Abu Mazen, the Judea and Samaria arena is liable to slip into a violent battle of succession that will erode the Palestinian regime and radiate negatively on Israel from a security perspective (primarily escalation of the terrorism threat). The second holds that Abu Mazen is the last and the only leader in the Palestinian system with whom one could hammer out a political settlement, and any future leaders will inevitably be more extreme in their positions, due to the need to establish the legitimacy of their regime in the Palestinian system (among other reasons). These fundamental assumptions seem to be set in stone in the Israeli discourse, but they require refreshing and critical reexamination from which recommendations can be drawn, how Israel should proceed in the face of the 'day after' Abu Mazen issue.
In the eyes of the Palestinian system in general and inhabitants of Judea and Samaria in particular, Abu Mazen's outlook is complex. On one hand, he is the leader who brought stability and economic prosperity for a decade and a half, a reality that cannot be taken for granted in an era of regional turmoil. Abu Mazen had the wisdom to give priority to dealing with the 'here and now' over adhering to ideological slogans, a choice that led to continuation of coordination with Israel despite a worsening diplomatic crisis in the past decade.
On the other hand, Abu Mazen is a leader who suffers from alienation at home: He is perceived as the guilty party behind the national division that split Judea and Samaria and the Gaza Strip; he is not popular (opinion polls in recent years show 60 percent of the respondents wanted him to leave office); he failed to achieve any significant diplomatic gains; and he is perceived as the one who led to ossification of the Palestinian political system, blocking any infusion of any 'new blood' into the political system. Thus, from the perspective of the Palestinian public and Israel, his strategic 'equity' is embodied in the fact that he remained devoted to preserving the status quo, and recoiled on principle from the path of armed struggled that his predecessors adhered to.
The departure of Abu Mazen can be expected to mark a transition from the Palestinian system from an 'historical era' of the founding generation who established the PLO and Fatah: Abu Mazen and his contemporaries experienced the expulsion of the Nakba of 1948 personally (a trauma that also shaped his worldview), and he lived a considerable period of his life in the Palestinian Diaspora. Abu Mazen's departure will open the door for transition to a new 'statehood era' led by younger people who grew up in the 'Territories' - a large proportion of whom prefer to pursue sovereignty as the goal, in lieu of adhering to the revolutionary slogans upon the modern Palestinian national movement was founded at the beginning of the 1950s.
The centrality of Abu Mazen in shaping Palestinian realities (he holds command of the three main centers of power in the Palestinian political system: the Palestinian Authority, the PLO, and the Fatah). Parallel to this, the current fragile state of the Palestinian political system has amplified apprehensions concerning the ramifications of Abu Mazen departure, particularly should this occurs suddenly without any peaceful and orderly transfer of power.
The fear is fed by a number of other fundamental problems in Palestinian politics: Abu Mazen has meticulously refrained from naming a successor (a common pattern in the Middle East designed to prevent the growth of challenges from home); the 'gallery' of potential heirs is perceived in the eyes of most Palestinians as rather 'pale'; and reports have increased that rival factions are taking shape within Fatah, preparing for a war of succession. All the above create a deep sense of uncertainty that raises heavy apprehensions that this will undermine the decade-long status quo in Judea and Samaria.
The range of scenarios of "the day after" span the following possibilities:
- Continuation of the existing order in the wake of the emergence of a coalition of leaders within the Fatah and PLO high echelons who will join forces, driven by understanding that for the present, not one of them can defeat the rest, until a prominent-dominant leader emerges among the contenders (akin to the model that developed in the USSR after the death of Stalin in 1953).
- Development of a power struggle within the Palestinian national camp (PLO affiliated) that in an extreme scenario will deteriorate into anarchy and the collapse of the centralized governance.
- Emergence of public protest, particularly within the leadership of the young generation in the face of what was perceived as an attempt by the Old Guard to preserve the old order (following the model that developed in Lebanon in the past year).
- General elections will quickly be held - with Hamas participating, where Hamas is liable to view the departure of Abu Mazen as an opportunity for a power grab in Judea and Samaria (in which Hamas can be expected to seize on to the clause in Palestinian law that stipulates the chair of the Parliament (who is a member of Hamas) will serve as acting President until elections can be are held, with Hamas using this fact to generate a constitutional crisis within the Palestinian Authority).
Israel can't afford to relate to the question of "the day after" Abu Mazen as an internal Palestinian issue, adopting the stance of an uninvolved observer claiming it should refrain from intervention in Palestinian internal matters and respect whatever the outcome will be in the Palestinian arena.
The issue radiates directly on Israel's national security and it must examine and formulate policy regarding "day after" scenarios. This is different from other 'inheritance issues' brewing in the Middle East where Israel's influence is limited or non-existent. In respect to such a contingency, Israel needs to maneuver between two poles with great caution: On one hand to refrain from over-involvement in the Palestinian system - all the more so from trying to directly shape them or 'crown a successor'. On the other hand, Israel needs to be prepared to prevent the emergence of strategic risks that are liable to emerge within this arena.
Among all the possible scenarios, continuation of the existing order through governance by the broadest coalition possible of leaders among the Fatah and PLO is the most preferable from Israel's standpoint, particularly one where the two main factions in the upper echelons today will join forces: The one of Majed Faraj, chief of the General Intelligence Service that controls Palestinian security services, and Hussein al-Sheikh, Minister of Civil Affairs and that of Jibril Rajoub, a member of the inner circle of Fatah who embodies a combination of considerable public support and personal aspirations to serve as a future national leader.
This scenario would grant strategic stability and even harbors the potential for opening a dialogue for a future diplomatic arrangement. This is also the preferred scenario among the majority of the Palestinian public in Judea and Samaria, who at present give preference to building and strengthening the fabric of daily life, in lieu of struggle and conflict - internal or external. As a general rule, the public has shown limited interests in the contending factions being weaved together and the 'bursa of names' raised as possible heirs to Abu Mazen.
In order for Israel to realize its strategic goals without sliding into over-involvement in what's going on internally in the Palestinian arena, it should be recommended that Israel take a number of steps:
- A cautious maneuver between 'crowning a successor on the knife-edge of Israeli bayonets" (against the backdrop of bitter lessons learned in the past with Bashir Gemayel in Lebanon, and the Village Associations or "Agudot HaKfarim" (Associations of Villages) in Judea and Samaria inlate 1970`s, and preventing strategic threats, first and foremost, Hamas establishing itself in Judea and Samaria as a sovereign-governing entity, even if as a result of democratic elections - where Hamas continues to reject recognition of Israel, all the more so should Hamas aspire to take up armed struggle into the West Bank.
- Preservation and even significant improvement of civil realities in Judea and Samaria - a fundamental and essential foundation for preserving the existing order. Such an effort could help lower the level of collective anxiety in Palestinian society in the vacuum following the veteran president's departure, and preserve the stability of the fabric of life, even if dramatic political events unfold in Ramallah during this transition period.
- Preservation, even tightening the tie with future leadership in Ramallah - assuming that it continues to accept the principle of recognizing Israel, and maintaining of ties with Israel. It is reasonable to assume that in this context, every leader within Fatah or the PLO striving to serve as the leader of the Authority already understands that the tie with Israel is an existential foundation for the Authority. They know this is the key to preserving the stability of the government and providing for the needs of the public, while adopting a confrontational or violent line of action is liable to rapidly channel things towards a head-on clash with Israel that in the end would lead to loss of all Palestinian strategic assets, first and foremost -- the machinery of self-government.
- Laying the foundation for future diplomatic negotiations - while Abu Mazen embraced with all his might diplomatic discourse and refrained on principle from employing violent struggle, it is not clear whether Abu Mazen could or was interested in reaching a historical decision on the nitty-gritty of Palestinian politics - first and foremost, the refugees question and the Right of Return. The majority of candidates in line to take the helm after Abu Mazen grew up in Judea and Samaria, and it is possible that they suffer less from a "1948 Complex" (in contrast to Abu Mazen who experienced theNakba personally); consequently, they are likely to focus on realizing a vision in the 'Spirit of 1967', focusing on realization of the goal of a Palestinian state, prepared to demonstrate more flexibility on the refugee issue. It is not likely that future leaders will agree toadopt the 'Deal of the Century' in its present form, but it is possible that if the deal will contain significant changes (particularly on the question of the status of a Palestinian state, Jerusalem and borders), they will agree at least to carry out discussion about the draft proposal presented by Trump.
- Foiling the "Barghouti Option" - the Fatah leader Barghouti who has been behind bars for more than two decades, sentenced to life imprisonment by Israel due to his involvement in terrorism. Marwan Barghouti has demonstrated clear signs of aspirations to stand for the presidency from prison, and he enjoys widespread public support (for years ranking as the lead candidate in all public opinion polls of Palestinian sentiment). His election to the presidency is liable to create a tremendous political-constitutionalmess in the Palestinian political system and infuse it with a more nationalist and even combative form. For Israel, foiling Barghouti's candidacy will be a difficult objective to accomplish, however, it is possible that this can be accomplished by convincing the Palestinian leadership (since there are many among them who foresee the damage that would be created if Barghouti would be elected president).
- Cooperation with outside actors. Already today there are regional and international entities with clout and interest in the "day after" - first and foremost, the United States, Egypt and some of the Gulf States. It is recommended that ongoing discourse and coordination be maintained in order to realize the shared objective of preserving stability in Judea and Samaria. Among other things, this can be support with an economic safety net for the future Palestinian leadership that will provide stability and the stability to function smoothly on the ground.
The "day after" Abu-Mazen is liable to materialize at any given moment. Already, Israel needs to deepen its strategic analysis on this topic, integrating a combination of creative thinking and caution. It would be advisable for Israel to refrain at present from sending out signals regarding loss of Abu Mazen's relevance in Israeli eyes, or to hint that Israeli would like his removal or replacement. Such messages would make it difficult to open talks with a future Palestinian leadership.
Future scenarios indeed carry considerable threats and threatening circumstances are liable to materialize. However, cautious and sensitive conduct and willingness on the part of Israel to curtail potential threats, even to allow opportunities to develop, with the objective of formulating a better strategic reality in the future.
 The latter was an attempt by Israel in the 1970s to 'engineer' a local alternative to radical PLO leadership abroad that would be more moderate, open to a settlement with Israel or at least more 'manageable', by encouraging/permitting the network of local political organizations in towns and villages to engage in national politics, hopefully challenging the PLO's status as 'the sole representative of the Palestinian people".
Authored by Dr. Michael Milshtein, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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