After Mahmoud Abbas took over the Palestinian presidency on Jan. 15, 2005, journalists in Ramallah noticed something different. The new resident of the presidential compound, known as Al-Muqata, followed normal business hours. He would arrive in the morning, go home for lunch and leave at 5 p.m.
The business-like atmosphere indicated a new kind of leader. Gone was Yasser Arafat, the revolutionary who dressed in fatigues and often worked through the night before his death in 2004.
Here was a suit-and-tie leader who wanted to show he was a civilian leader ready for negotiations, not a Che Guevara-style guerrilla.
But Abbas, who turned 83 recently, has little to show for his efforts, with peace talks moribund and US President Donald Trump’s administration taking a hard line on issues such as Jerusalem, which Washington has recognized as the Israeli capital.
Abbas has been outraged by the change in American policy, railing against the decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv. But while his angry words have garnered sympathy from sections of the international community, he has failed to gather support for a new strategy that rejects Washington as the main broker in peace talks.
A series of health scares has further focused minds on who might succeed Abbas and the future priorities of the Fatah party that he leads.
Salam Fayyad, the former Palestinian prime minister, told Arab News that the need for political direction was more important than any change in personnel.
“We need to have a clear strategy that can help us deal with the huge challenges ahead,” said Fayyad, now a visiting professor at the Woodrow Wilson School for public and international affairs at Princeton University.
“The number one priority must be to find ways to unify the splintering Palestinian population and leadership.”
A recent opinion poll found that 68 percent of Palestinians want Abbas to resign, while just 33 percent said they were satisfied with his performance, according to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.
Fatah candidates tipped to succeed Abbas include Jibril Rajoub, a former security chief, and Mahmoud Aloul, a veteran party leader, both members of the decision-making central committee. Analysts see these men as the main contenders.
Majed Farraj, Abbas’ security chief, is another possibility. Marwan Barghouti, a former leader of the second intifada or uprising, is still popular among Palestinians, but is serving multiple life sentences in an Israeli prison.
Meanwhile, Mohammed Dahlan, who lives in exile in the UAE, has the support of Gulf countries, but is bitterly opposed by the local leadership in Ramallah.
Concern over Abbas’s future has led to the Israeli authorities preparing for the possibility of a prolonged succession struggle that could threaten the relative calm in the West Bank, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.
Fatah is the dominant party in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and leads the Palestinian National Authority, controlling its budget and security forces. The party remains in bitter dispute with Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in 2007 after winning the last legislative elections for the PNA in 2006 when Abbas won the presidency.
The Palestine National Council (PNC), the main legislative body of the PLO, is set to elect a new executive committee at a meeting likely to take place in Ramallah on April 30. The PNC includes Palestinians from the diaspora, but does not include Hamas or Islamic Jihad.
Hani Almasri, general manager of Masarat, a Palestinian think tank in Ramallah, told Arab News he would like to see the PNC unify the Palestinians. “What we badly need at the PNC meeting is a meeting of minds so that we can all agree on the new direction of the Palestinian national movement.”
The presidency is decided by a national vote, which should take place after a 60-day period following the death or resignation of the previous incumbent. Palestinian residents of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza aged over 18 can vote, but not Palestinians outside those areas.