Managing Palestine’s looming leadership transition

International Crisis Group  /  Februari 1, 2023

Executive Summary

More than a year after cancelled elections and a violent upheaval, Palestinians face the prospect of a destabilising leadership transition. President Mahmoud Abbas, 87, continues to exert a strong hold on power, but his reign is unavoidably nearing its end. A smooth succession will be challenging, as Abbas holds three leadership posts – he is president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and head of both the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Fatah, its largest faction. He has hollowed out or disabled the institutions and procedures that would otherwise decide who will take his place. Complicating matters, while Abbas is leader of Palestinians worldwide, the national movement’s centre of gravity has shifted to the territories Israel occupies; for all practical purposes, only the Palestinians living there will have a voice in choosing a successor. To avert the risk of chaos, any interim Palestinian leadership should ensure a stable transition, one that Palestinians recognise as legitimate, by allowing for a presidential election that would ratify an appointed successor or, better, allow Palestinians to freely choose among candidates.

As successor to PLO co-founder Yasser Arafat, Abbas assumed great responsibility when he became PLO leader upon the latter’s death in 2004 and president of the PA a year later. He was nominally the top political representative of Palestinians worldwide: in the occupied territories, in the diaspora and (in his capacity as head of the PLO) even inside Israel. No single mechanism exists for this broad but fragmented community to elect its leaders, and the PLO has thus developed different procedures for succession in its various institutions and organs. Since the 1993 Oslo accords, which led to the PA’s creation in the occupied territories, the 5.35 million Palestinians in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza have carried the political weight of what remains of the Palestinian national movement. Yet their leaders, with the help of Israel, have repeatedly thwarted them in their aspiration to vote in presidential and legislative elections as a way to bestow upon them popular legitimacy.

It is thus a conundrum when the person who combines all three main leadership posts, and who has ruled with an increasingly authoritarian hand, pushing aside procedures, weakening institutions and silencing critics, reaches the end of his tenure. The challenge is compounded by the fact that Abbas has given no clear indication of who he would like to succeed him, thereby sowing confusion and encouraging extra-institutional rivalry among would-be successors.

Three scenarios present themselves. The first would see Abbas or his interim successors ordering a return to the rulebook, reviving judicial oversight institutions he pushed to the side and reintroducing a degree of popular will into succession procedures. For now, nothing suggests Palestinian leaders will choose this path, though it would be the safest one. In the second scenario, either Abbas would anoint a successor before he passes from the scene or, if he fails to do so, then Fatah would select one afterward. Such a step could bring initial stability in a transition but is unlikely to be sustainable. Pressure is likely to build quickly among Palestinians for a popular vote. Moreover, a successor will not enjoy Abbas’s authority as a PLO co-founder or the grip on Palestinian institutions that has allowed him to put off elections. The third scenario, which is certainly plausible, would see the transition collapse into disarray and, potentially, violence between armed factions aligned with particular politicians and controlling different parts of the West Bank. This last eventuality could throw the PA’s survival into question.

What non-Palestinian actors want is far from immaterial. Israel sees the situation in the territories it occupies primarily as a security concern – the main reason for having turned the PA from the steward of a future Palestinian state into, in effect, an auxiliary in Israel’s exercise of control. To perpetuate the occupation and everything that comes with it, Israel prefers that existing leadership circles remain in charge post-Abbas. But it is wary of openly endorsing any single candidate, lest its endorsement be politically fatal for that person with the Palestinian public. More worryingly, Israel’s new far-right government is almost certain to introduce new destabilising elements into the military occupation – accelerated settlement expansion, moves toward full annexation, provocative actions at Jerusalem’s Muslim holy sites – that would undermine the Israeli security establishment’s apparent preference for maintaining the status quo.

Likewise, neighbouring states like Jordan and Egypt, though officials keep mum, would prefer a transition that changes nothing in the equation, if only because anything different might force them to act. As for external powers, such as the U.S. and Europe, they continue to utter words endorsing democracy even as they signal that they would be content with whatever Israel and its neighbours can accept or bring about.

There is no easy way to renew the Palestinian national movement’s leadership. The Oslo accords allowed the PLO’s upper echelons to return to the West Bank, and for all practical purposes it is now the Palestinians there who may or may not have the chance to weigh in on who comes next, at least as PA president. While Palestinians should keep seeking to refresh politics overall, the imminent transition in the occupied territories suggests that preparations for a succession should begin there at once if it is not to make an already tense situation even more so.

There are constitutional procedures to determine the succession, which the Palestinian leadership should take steps to reaffirm and re-establish after years of neglect. It is unlikely to do so, however. Nor does it appear international actors nominally invested in a just and durable solution to the conflict will do much to nudge Abbas in that direction. But even without restoring Palestinian institutions before Abbas leaves the scene, it is hard to envisage a scenario in which pressure does not mount for a vote soon afterward, even if the actual handover of power is seamless. It will be vital, then, that foreign actors do what they can to support – and certainly do not stand in the way of – a post-Abbas process that would see any successor’s legitimacy confirmed in an election, at a minimum a presidential vote, held throughout the occupied territories. That would fall far short of reinforcing faltering efforts to bring about a viable Palestinian state, but it would reduce the chances that a botched succession triggers further chaos or even the PA’s collapse.

Ramallah/Brussels, 1 February 2023


Managing Palestine’s Looming Leadership Transition (