Although it appeared that the leadership transition inside the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), the Palestinian Authority (PA), and the Fatah movement was resolved smoothly with the January 2005 election of Mahmoud Abbas following the death of Yasser Arafat, many Palestinians continue to view this as only an interim solution. In the meantime, the struggle for succession inside Fatah continued behind closed doors and recently has emerged in the open due to Abbas’s waning legitimacy and popularity.
Many still assume that whoever leads Fatah will lead the PLO, and that the leader of the PLO will be elected president of the PA. Still, alternatives seem more possible than they once did. The new leader of Fatah might also lead the PLO, but it can no longer be taken for granted that he will also lead the PA. Technocratic leaders—if they enjoyed the backing of Fatah, the PLO, and above all their security apparatus—might also emerge as the new leaders of the PA.
The struggle for succession in Fatah played out at the August 2009 Fatah Conference held in Bethlehem, at which elections were held for the movement’s 21-member Central Council and 123-member Revolutionary Council, the first such elections in a generation. Abbas surprised many observers by his apparent ability to consolidate his leadership at the conference in vintage Arafat style, or, in political science terminology, as a neopatrimonial leader. He created a situation in which the various leadership-hopefuls would be forced to compete against one another while he would remain above the fray and safely in control.
Appearances can deceive, however, and the Goldstone Report affair—in which Abbas was widely condemned by Palestinians for agreeing to defer international action on a report about Israeli and Hamas war crimes in Gaza—only weeks after the conference showed instead that Abbas was a relatively weak leader. He lacks the charisma, mass popular base, and free access to external funds necessary to exercise control as Arafat once did.
Bearing in mind that Abbas’s time was going to run out sooner rather than later, competition to take over as the real and long-term successor to Arafat broke out in earnest. Ironically, the biggest vote getters at Bethlehem are not the real contenders. Elderly Fatah leader Abu Maher Ghneim, who lives in the diaspora, obtained 1,368 votes and former Nablus Governor Mahmud al-Alul obtained 1,102, but they are seen as having won on the basis of a well-prepared game by Abbas and his entourage.
Even imprisoned Marwan Barghouthi, the West Bank Fatah activist leader who placed third with 1,063 votes and consistently outpolls other Fatah leaders in public opinion in the West Bank and Gaza, is at a serious disadvantage inside the organization. The fact that none of Barghouthi’s supporters made it onto the Central Council—and that many of his rivals did—suggests that those inside Fatah waiting to take over are content to support his release publicly while agreeing privately with Israel that he remain behind bars.
Heading the list of active contenders is Mohammed Dahlan, former head of Preventive Security in Gaza. Although Dahlan only placed tenth in the Central Council race (853 votes), he was seen as the big winner of Bethlehem for rehabilitating himself inside Fatah after his failure to topple the elected Hamas government in Gaza in 2006/2007. Some observers considered his comeback impressive and were struck by his authoritative presence at the conference. Dahlan was among the first to issue a scathing criticism of Abbas’s handling of the Goldstone Report.
Accurately or not, Palestinians consider Dahlan the prime U.S. candidate inside Fatah due to the ties the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has developed with him since the 1990s. While no longer occupying an official position in one of the security branches, Dahlan still seems to be very much in charge and working from behind the scenes, apparently occupying an independent office in his former ministry (Civil Affairs) in Ramallah. Dahlan’s major drawback as a potential presidential candidate is his lack of popularity both inside and even more so outside Fatah, especially in the West Bank, but also in the Gaza Strip where there is little love lost for him. He never scores more than two percent–averaging his very low support in the West Bank with somewhat higher support in Gaza—in opinion polls.
Another contender is Jibril Rajub, Dahlan’s West Bank counterpart as head of the Preventive Security with equally close ties to the CIA. Like Dahlan, Rajub no longer occupies an official position in the security domain. Rajub enjoys some support in the West Bank, particularly in his native region of Hebron, and has been able to increase his popularity all over the West Bank in recent years by heading the Palestinian Olympic Committee and the Palestinian Football Association. He scored higher than Dahlan at the Bethlehem conference (908 votes), but his public opinion ratings are not much better than Dahlan’s.
Tawfiq al-Tirawi, the former head of General Intelligence in the West Bank, followed Rajub closely with 903 votes. Although no longer occupying an official position, Tirawi still seems to play an important role advising Abbas. Even so, he is probably even less popular with the public than Dahlan or Rajub, and draws strong objections from Israel and Hamas as well. The last leadership-hopeful from the security sector is Hussein al-Sheikh, Barghouthi’s long-time rival in the West Bank, who came out number 13 (out of 19 elected seats) with 726 votes.
Thus, in contrast to the view of many outside observers that Barghouthi is Abbas’s imprisoned heir-in-waiting, in reality he faces stiff competition from at least four others inside Fatah. Whichever eventually succeeds, the Bethlehem Conference underscored an interesting trend; it is the security figures in Fatah who probably will control the future of the movement. Skilled diplomat-politicians such as Nasser al-Qudwa (former PA foreign minister, PLO representative at the UN, and Arafat’s nephew), lead negotiator Saeb Erekat, and former Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei stand little chance next to those who hold sway over Fatah-affiliated security forces. Even a charismatic leader such as Marwan Barghouthi, who has a mass following but is unable to operate freely at present, probably cannot compete. The Fatah security leaders will give him lip service and use his name, without granting him a role in the decision-making process.
Another important trend is the dominance of U.S. influence on Palestinian politics, whether in the PA or inside Fatah. This influence is exercised primarily through the security sector, where, unlike in the rest of the PA, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has not been able to establish full transparency and civilian control of incoming funds. On the contrary, large cash payments continue to be made to the major Palestinian security agencies (Preventive Security and General Security). This undermines not only the role of civilian leadership, but also any chance for democratic transformation. It rather supports the continued functioning of a neopatrimonial system in Palestine, inside Fatah and inside the PA, but one even more dependent on political rents paid from outside than it was during Arafat’s time.
It is therefore likely to be the Fatah security leader with privileged access to the United States and to such rents—who must also possess the political skills to play the neopatrimonial game—who stands the best chance to take over as Arafat’s true successor. Yet another possible combination would be for such a Fatah security leader to align himself with a capable technocrat such as Fayyad (who is a political independent) in order to compensate for a lack of local and international popularity and to make a successful bid to lead the PA.
Helga Baumgarten is professor of political science at Birzeit University, Palestine and is completing a book on the conflict between Fatah and Hamas to be published in autumn 2010.