We must not forget that the Palestinian president – no matter who he might be – is an important figure not just for the West Bank, but for the entire Arab world. This is because the Palestinian President is the guardian of the most important cause – the Palestinian Cause – and therefore possesses exceptional [political] legitimacy in the Middle East’s political arena. Therefore the issue that we are facing is one that concerns everybody. Mahmoud Abbas has thrown everybody into a state of confusion after announcing that he does not intend to stand for re-election in the forthcoming Palestinian presidential elections that are scheduled to take place in 9 weeks.
Everyone involved now finds themselves facing a real dilemma as a result of this announcement. Hamas, who called Abbas a traitor and attempted to have him removed from office, and once even tried to assassinate him, do not know whether to rejoice or be worried [for the future]. The Palestinian Authority leadership did not seem surprised by Abbas’s decision, and nobody has yet dared to announce their candidacy to succeed him. Despite their implicit criticism of Mahmoud Abbas, the Americans have said that they will engage with him regardless of his [official] position, giving the impression that they will insist upon his presidency. The Arab governments – who each have a different position towards President Mahmoud Abbas – have remained silent, but they do not want him to leave office, at least not until he has put the Palestinian house in order.
And so will Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas truly leave office next January?
Yes, but without the presence of Mahmoud Abbas the government – which almost spilt during the last Fatah elections – will be defenseless.
It has been made clear that the issue of political succession is a serious one in a society that has become accustomed to having leadership imposed, rather than the people being asked which leader they would prefer. In a society where culture and the practice of democracy has failed to take root must suffer an electoral climate where rule is imposed from above. This is what happened during the previous Palestinian elections, and the dispute with Hamas allowed Fatah to gain access to everything.
Fatah floundering in its search for an alternative to Mahmoud Abbas in itself can be considered a positive. This is to say that – despite its internal division – Fatah has matured and maintained disciple in the post-Arafat era with none of the Fatah leaders challenging Mahmoud Abbas’s leadership after he assumed the presidency in 2004. This is a rare example of discipline, especially as several of the Fatah leaders consider themselves to be Arafat’s rightful successful, however they accepted Mahmoud Abbas’s presidency even though he won only 62 percent of the Palestinian vote.
Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to leave the game of politics has placed everybody in an awkward position as they had already made plans based upon the assumption that Fatah would win at the forthcoming elections, Hamas would boycott the elections, and Mahmoud Abbas would be re-elected. However Mahmoud Abbas has now decided to quit, and he seems to mean what he says. Abbas has required that the terrifying question “who will be the next Palestinian president?” be raised. There is no consensus over a leader other than the consensus that there are no decisive leaders in the Palestinian arena, and there is no ready alternative [to Mahmoud Abbas] to lead the Palestinian people. The single name being put forward is that of Marwan Barghouti, the commander who raised his profile by leading the First Intifada 22 years ago. The Israelis attempted to extinguish his popularity by imprisoning him on a number of different occasions, finally sentencing him to life imprisonment. Barghouti was an important field commander, but is untried as a political leader. Ultimately he is the only figure that Fatah can put forward that would cancel out Hamas’s claims of martyrdom and championing [of the Palestinian Cause], but there are several obstacles to him being named leader.