Helga Baumgarten
The Daily Star (Opinion)
February 15, 2010 - 1:00am

Although it appeared that the leadership transition inside the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), the Palestinian Authority, 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 Abbas’ election as only an interim solution to Palestinian problems. In the meantime, the struggle for succession inside Fatah has continued behind closed doors and recently has come out into the open due to Abbas’ waning legitimacy and popularity.

Many observers still assume that whoever leads Fatah will also lead the PLO, and that the leader of the PLO will be elected president of the Palestinian Authority. Still, alternatives do seem more possible than they once did. For example, the new leader of Fatah might also lead the PLO, however it can no longer be taken for granted that he will also lead the Palestinian Authority. So-called “technocratic” leaders – if they enjoyed the backing of Fatah, the PLO, and above all that of their security apparatus – might also emerge as the new leaders of the Palestinian Authority.

The struggle for succession in Fatah played out at the Fatah Conference held in Bethlehem in August of last year. At the conference, elections were held for the movement’s 21-member Central Council and its 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, to use the terminology of political science, in the style of 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 of the entire process.

Appearances can deceive, however. 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 the Gaza Strip) only weeks after the Fatah conference was held, only showed, instead, that the Palestinian president was a relatively weak leader. He lacks the charisma, a mass popular base, and free access to external funds necessary to exercise control in the same way as Arafat once did.

Bearing in mind that Abbas’ time was always going to run out sooner rather than later, competition to take over as the real and long-term successor to Yasser Arafat has broken out in earnest. Ironically, the biggest vote-getters at the Bethlehem conference were not the real contenders. Elderly Fatah leader Abu Maher Ghneim, who lives in the diaspora, obtained 1,368 votes and the former Nablus governor, Mahmud al-Alul, obtained 1,102 votes. However, they were seen as having won on the basis of a well-prepared game by Abbas and his entourage.

Even the imprisoned Marwan Barghouti, the West Bank Fatah activist leader who placed third with 1,063 votes and who consistently does better than other Fatah leaders in public opinion polls in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, is at a serious disadvantage inside the organization. The fact that none of Barghouti’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 Mohammad Dahlan, the former head of Preventive Security in the Gaza Strip. Although Dahlan only placed 10th in the Central Council race (with 853 votes), he was seen as the big winner of Bethlehem for having rehabilitated himself inside Fatah after his failure to topple the elected Hamas government in Gaza in 2006 and 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’ handling of the Goldstone Report.

Accurately or not, Palestinians consider Dahlan the favorite candidate of the United States inside Fatah, due to the ties the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has developed with him since the 1990s. While he no longer occupies an official position in one of the Palestinian 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 (that of 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 2 percent in opinion polls – averaging his very low support in the West Bank with somewhat higher support in Gaza.

Another contender is Jibril Rajub, Dahlan’s West Bank counterpart as head of the Preventive Security who has equally close ties with the CIA. Like Dahlan, Rajub no longer occupies an official position in the security domain. He 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 (with 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 he no longer occupies an official position either, Tirawi still seems to be playing an important role advising Mahmoud Abbas. Even so, he is probably even less popular with the public than is Dahlan or Rajub, and draws strong objections from both Israel and Hamas as well.

The last leadership-hopeful from the security sector is Hussein al-Sheikh, Barghouti’s long-time rival in the West Bank, who came out in 13th place (out of 19 elected seats) with 726 votes.

Thus, in contrast to the view of many outside observers that Barghouti is Abbas’ imprisoned heir-in-waiting, in reality he faces stiff competition from at least four other individuals inside Fatah. Whoever eventually succeeds in taking over power, 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 (the former Palestinian Authority foreign minister, the PLO representative at the United Nations, and the late Arafat’s nephew), lead negotiator Saeb Erekat, and the former Palestinian prime minister, Ahmad Qorei, stand little chance next to those who hold sway over the Fatah-affiliated security forces. Even a charismatic leader such as Marwan Barghouti, who has a mass following but is unable to operate freely due to his incarceration, probably cannot compete. The Fatah security leaders will pay him lip service and use his name, without granting him a role in the decision-making process.

Another important trend is the dominance of the influence of the United States over Palestinian politics, whether in the Palestinian Authority or inside Fatah. This influence has been exercised, primarily, through the security sector, where, unlike in the rest of the Palestinian Authority, 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 has undermined not only the role of the civilian leadership, but also any chance for democratic transformation. It also reinforces the continued functioning of a neopatrimonial system in Palestine, inside Fatah and inside the Palestinian Authority, but one even more dependent on political rents paid from outside than during the time when Yasser Arafat was in power.

It is therefore likely to be a Fatah security leader with privileged access to the United States and to such rents – someone who must also possess the political skills required to play the neopatrimonial game effectively – 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 Salam 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 Palestinian Authority.

Helga Baumgarten is a professor of political science at Bir Zeit University, Palestine, and is completing a book on the conflict between Fatah and Hamas to be published in autumn 2010. This commentary is reprinted with permission from the Arab Reform Bulletin. It can be accessed online at: www.carnegieendowment.org/arb, © 2009, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.


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