On two occasions, a Palestinian political entity has had its leader die in office. The first time, in 1963, the event attracted little attention because the entity in question had all but disappeared. By sharp contrast, the second time, in 2004, Palestine had a variety of political structures with some viability and clear succession mechanisms, all of which were followed. When a third succession occurs, the likely outcome will be somewhere between those two experiences.
In 1963, Ahmad Hilmi, prime minister of the All-Palestine Government, passed away in Lebanon. A dimly remembered figure, he headed a body that was supposed to administer a state of Palestine declared ineffectually in Gaza in August 1948. That state did achieve some diplomatic recognition at its birth, but ultimately had no effective presence in any part of Palestine and quickly relocated to Cairo, where it survived as a paper structure only.
By the time of Hilmi’s death, Palestine had virtually no institutional or political expression except for a set of diaspora associations and movements with no unifying body. Palestinians themselves lived under a variety of regimes and political systems, none of them headed by a Palestinian. Hilmi therefore left no successor, though his death did add some impetus to the effort to establish a new body to represent Palestinians, one that finally led to the creation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) by the Arab League the following year. But only when the PLO was taken over by Palestinian political factions and Yasser Arafat was chosen as its chairman in 1969 did Palestinian national institutions begin to coalesce around the PLO. This process later led to the PLO’s declaration of a Palestinian state in 1988 and the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) in 1994 to administer the affairs of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. In the eyes of its leaders it formed the basis for a real (and not merely juridical) state after an anticipated peace agreement with Israel.
Mahmud Abbas, the current president of the state of Palestine, chairman of the executive committee of the PLO, president of the PNA, and head of Fatah (the acronym for the Movement of Palestinian National Liberation), is 81 years old. He took on all these titles following Arafat’s death in 2004, in a series of elections in the various bodies concerned—a process that culminated in his election as president of the PNA in January 2005. In Abbas’ assumption of all these roles, governing bodies were convened, elections were held, and written procedures were followed.
What will happen when Mahmoud Abbas passes from the scene?
The procedures for his successor as president of the PNA are clear. However, they are unlikely to be followed. His interim replacement, according to the PNA’s Basic Law, is the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, a body that has not met (unless the rump sessions held by Hamas deputies in Gaza are counted) since 2007. It has no recognized speaker, and the last occupant of the post was a Hamas member. A new, widely-accepted Palestine Legislative Council speaker is likely to require a new general election, one nearly impossible under current political circumstances (with the PNA unable even to hold municipal elections in the West Bank and Gaza).
Perhaps to give some legalistic veneer to an ad hoc solution, Abbas recently took the controversial step of forming a constitutional court. Such a body might ratify a procedure in which the PLO (in Palestinian eyes, the source of the PNA’s authority) selected a successor. And the court has already loyally given Abbas a couple of politically convenient rulings, so it might oblige. But any such move would likely be contested by Hamas and thus would not be effective in Gaza. That said, the PNA’s administrative presence and legitimacy has decayed seriously even in the West Bank.
What then of the PLO and the state of Palestine it declared in 1988? The PLO chairman is selected by the PLO Executive Committee, the organization’s daily decision-making body that consists of 18 members, including the chairman, who has also used the title “president of the state of Palestine” since 1988. The Executive Committee has always been dominated by its chairman, and by Fatah since 1969, but seven smaller factions are represented as well (with Hamas conspicuously absent from its composition). It operates by majority rule. While theoretically it is elected by the Palestinian National Council, the oversight body for the entire PLO, that body has not met since 1999. And the PLO itself has decayed so that it is run as a set of offices attached to the PNA presidency. It retains some historical cachet but much less institutional viability. In effect, its moldy structures, such as they are, would likely simply be used to ratify the choice of the Fatah movement.
Fatah itself has some viability, especially on the local level in the West Bank. But its leadership is aging, badly divided, and somewhat estranged from the base of the movement. The Fatah chairman is selected from among the 20 members of Fatah’s Central Committee (who range from 55 to 82 years of age), according to a simple majority vote. Once a candidate has been selected, he must be approved by Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, which consists of 81 members elected during Fatah’s sixth conference in 2012. While the seventh conference has been promised and postponed several times in the last few years, it is now scheduled for November 29. Its sudden reappearance on the political calendar is likely tied to Abbas’ efforts to sideline rivals. If it is indeed held, the conference will not only select the members of the Revolutionary Council and Central Committee, but also the leader of the movement. Abiding by this process, the next chairman must be a current member of the Central Committee, not simply any Fatah activist, thus narrowing the choice.
When discussing the succession question, Palestinians speculate about various developments (power struggles among leading figures at the top or clumsy attempts by Abbas to purge opponents and install favorites in key positions) and possible scenarios (such as a period of internal strife within Fatah or the splitting of various posts among different figures and moving toward collective leadership). However, such talk actually attracts less attention than it did during the last succession. The various structures involved are seriously weakened, and the current cast of possible successors appears to many to be feckless surviving members of a generation that has simply failed to realize Palestinian national aspirations.