Uncertainty over Abbas succession rises as Fatah prisoner seeks release

Aziza Nofal

Middle East Eye  /  August 19, 2023

Top officials vie for presidency, but the lack of unanimously agreed replacements and a clear legal path stand in the way.

A recent lobbying effort by the wife of a senior Fatah leader to release him from Israeli jail has reignited the debate about who will succeed Mahmoud Abbas as president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), which rules Palestine

Fadwa Barghouti, wife of Marwan Barghouti, has recently met officials from Jordan, Egypt, the Arab League, Russia, the US and Europe. 

She is campaigning for the release of her husband, who has been serving a life sentence since 2002 in an Israeli prison over his involvement in armed resistance during the Second Intifada. 

Marwan Barghouti, who ran in the now-scrapped 2021 elections, is one of the most popular Palestinian figures, and recent polls predict he would win in any electoral race.

Some reports say Fadwa’s lobbying effort is aimed not just at releasing her husband but also at gathering support for him to become Abbas’s successor. 

Sources close to the family told Middle East Eye that the only purpose of the campaign is to get Marwan out of jail. 

But her efforts have coincided with leaks to Palestinian media outlets saying that Abbas has withdrawn his support for the man who was, at least until recently, widely expected to be the next Palestinian president, Hussein al-Sheikh.

The reports, which MEE could not independently verify, cite Fatah members as saying that Barghouti’s name has been brought up as a potential successor instead. 

Experts say that, despite his popularity with the public, Barghouti still faces significant obstacles to becoming the next Palestinian president, not least his imprisonment and the rivalry he faces within Fatah. 

Because of this, Sheikh is still viewed as the top candidate, although many Palestinians have reservations about his credentials. 

Other potential successors to Abbas include Majed Faraj, the chief of Palestinian intelligence; Mahmoud al-Aloul, a senior Fatah leader; and Mohammed Dahlan, a UAE-based former Fatah senior leader. 

Top candidates 

In the past few years, Sheikh has developed a reputation as being one of two key confidantes to Abbas. 

Both he and Faraj are seen as the president’s gatekeepers and integral members of his tight-knit inner circle. 

In 2022, Abbas appointed Sheikh as the secretary-general of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) executive committee, the second-top position in the organization. 

This decision was seen then as a strategic move to position the 62-year-old as successor.

Historically, numerous leaders within Fatah have aspired to this role, which involves serving as a stand-in for the president in his absence.

The role added to Sheikh’s already significant responsibilities as the minister of the PA’s General Authority of Civil Affairs, which coordinates security and civilian matters in the occupied West Bank with Israeli authorities.

As a result, he enjoys close ties with Israeli security officials and maintains good relations with American diplomats. 

Despite his high standing in the PA and with Israeli and American officials, Sheikh enjoys little popular support among Palestinians. 

He would have received only three percent of the votes if a presidential election had been held last year, according to a survey conducted by Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. 

His reputation has also been dented by an allegation he sexually harassed a female employee in 2012.

Foreign Policy magazine recently revealed that $100,000 in hush money had been paid to get the claim against him withdrawn. 

Shaikh has refused to address questions put to him about the allegations. 

However, controversies surrounding Shaikh remain insignificant compared to the endorsements he receives from Israeli, American and Arab circles, according to political analyst Hani al-Masri.

“Entities remain indifferent to one’s past if he demonstrates adeptness in political maneuvering that aligns with their agenda, a feat the Sheikh has notably achieved of late,” Masri said in an interview with MEE

Despite all this, it is still difficult to pinpoint a definitive successor to Abbas, Masri said, mainly due to the lack of a single unanimously agreeable candidate who would satisfy regional and international actors as well Palestinian factions.

Legal complications 

This is why Jamal Huweil, a senior Fatah member closely aligned with Barghouti, believes the imprisoned leader would make the most suitable candidate to unify Palestinians. 

“The general public invariably gravitates towards those who shoulder burdens alongside them, not those dictating from the luxury of five-star accommodation,” Huweil told MEE.

He pointed to Barghouti’s “untarnished record”, free from allegations of financial, administrative, or ethical improprieties.

“Barghouti will only embrace the presidency if it’s conferred by the electorate’s vote,” he said.

Significantly, Marsi points out that any optimism about Barghouti’s political future still has to be weighed against the fact that Israel has not yet shown any signs of releasing him from prison. 

All this uncertainty around the succession leaves a growing concern among Palestinians that there could be potential upheaval once the president is no longer in the picture.

Abbas, 87, has been the PA president since 2005, and has already served 14 years in the post past his term, which ended in 2009, and there have been no recent elections.

Should the presidency become vacant, the path forward is riddled with challenges: an absence of a unanimously agreed successor, a suspended legislative council, a diminished PLO, and the looming shadow of sustained political division, exacerbated by the apparent lack of intent to hold elections any time soon.

This climate of uncertainty is further complicated by the lack of a clear legal path for a power transition in the event of a presidential vacancy. 

Under the quasi-constitutional Palestinian Basic Law, the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) would become the temporary president if there is a sudden vacancy in the position, such as death or resignation. 

But Abbas dissolved the PLC in 2018 and has not held legislative elections since. 

Critics say this move, among other steps taken by the president in recent years, indicates that the Constitutional Court is being empowered to have the authority to announce exceptional measures in which a president could be appointed without an election. 

One likely scenario is that the position of vice president could be introduced and constitutionally made second in the line of succession. 

“The president, along with those around him, has undertaken several legal alterations aiming to exert control over the prevailing situation,” Ghandi al-Ruba’i, a legal counsel told MEE.

“Particularly with the dissolution of the legislative council and the unlawful establishment of the Constitutional Court.”

Aziza Nofal is an independent Palestinian journalist