Tobias Buck
The Financial Times
November 12, 2009 - 1:00am

Shaken by the prospect of losing their veteran leader, senior Palestinian officials have started debating fresh strategies in their long-running conflict with Israel in the hope of galvanising international support for their cause.

Mahmoud Abbas’s announcement last week that he would not seek re-election as president of the Palestinian Authority is seen by many Palestinians as the clearest sign yet that peace talks with Israel have hit an insurmountable obstacle, and that the immediate focus of the next Palestinian leadership should be on other strategies for ending the Israeli occupation.

“This is a serious juncture. The question is not whether Abu Mazen [Mr Abbas] is staying or leaving – it is what is happening with the peace process,” said Mohammed Shtayyeh, a member of the central committee of Mr Abbas’s Fatah party and the Palestinian minister for public works and housing.

One possibility gaining support among the officials is the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip – the territories occupied by Israel in 1967. The Palestinians would then ask the United Nations to endorse their declaration, a move they hope would increase pressure on Israel and strengthen the Palestinian position in any stand-off.

“One of the options [under discussion] is declaring a state on 1967 land and bringing it to the UN for a resolution. And then we will demand [for] the UN to come and drag the occupation forces from our land,” said Jamal Muheissen, another member of the Fatah central committee and a close aide to Mr Abbas.

Mr Muheissen and other Fatah officials believe Mr Abbas is serious about quitting, and that only a decisive change of policy in Israel and – most importantly – the US could persuade the president to stay on. “We are all waiting for Washington to move. The only party that is able to get us out of this mess and end the impasse is the US,” added Mr Shtayyeh.

Another step being discussed is putting into practice a long-debated plan to dismantle the Palestinian Authority. Supporters of this move argue that, by abolishing the main symbol of self-governance, the Palestinians would underline their loss of faith in a negotiated two-state solution and put pressure on Israel to either pull out of the West Bank or accept a bi-national state shared by Palestinians and Israelis.

“If there is no peace process then we do not need a Palestinian Authority that is only a service provider with no real power,” said Mr Shtayyeh.

Muheeb Awwad, a Fatah parliamentarian, struck a similar note, arguing that the PA under Mr Abbas had occasionally been too eager to fulfil the demands of Israel and the US. “Dismantling the Palestinian Authority is one option. We cannot afford to accept a PA that is only doing the work of the Israeli occupation,” he said.

Fatah leaders say there is no obvious successor to Mr Abbas, and no debate on who might eventually succeed him. “We refuse to deal with this issue and we are insisting that Abu Mazen is our leader,” said Mr Muheissen.

Independent analysts agree that there is currently no clamour among Fatah leaders to fill Mr Abbas's shoes, not least because it is far from clear whether and when the president will leave his posts – he currently heads not only the PA, but also the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Fatah party.

However, there are only a limited number of plausible successors. Marwan Barghouti, a hugely popular Fatah leader currently serving several life sentences in an Israeli jail; Mohammed Dahlan, the former head of the Palestinian security forces, who is seen as charismatic but is also blamed by some people for losing the Gaza Strip to Hamas, the Islamist group; Nasser al-Qudwa, the nephew of former Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat who served as the Palestinian representative at the UN in New York; and Mohammed Ghneim, who returned to the Palestinian territories only this year after decades in exile, but is formally the Fatah party second-in-command behind Mr Abbas.


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