The hospitalisation of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas rekindled speculation about his health and raised questions over who will succeed the 82-year-old leader in a period of political turbulence in the Israeli-occupied territories.
Abbas was admitted to a hospital in the West Bank city of Ramallah on May 20 for a lung infection. He had ear surgery five days earlier and was hospitalised in February in the United States for medical checks.
Palestinian Authority officials released numerous statements indicating that Abbas’s health was improving and reassured the public that he would soon be discharged from the hospital. Concerns over the president’s general health, however, remain high.
Israel is already thinking of the post-Abbas period.
“Israeli security officials see this as the beginning of the end of Abbas’s rule, although it is not clear how long the whole process will take,” wrote Haaretz defence analyst Amos Harel.
“Leading security officials say that… security coordination with Abbas and his people is a strategic asset that must be carefully maintained with Abbas’s successor (or successors).
“The Israeli intelligence community believes it is more likely that Abbas will be replaced, at least temporarily, by a group that could include senior Fatah leaders, officials with diplomatic experience and representatives of the security agencies.”
Israel may also be considering agreeing to a Hamas offer for a long-term truce, diplomatic officials told Channel 10 News.
The Times of Israel reported that Israeli officials said that, with Abbas’s health apparently deteriorating, “the likelihood that his Ramallah-based government will regain control of Gaza is slim.”
President of the Palestinian Authority since 2005, Abbas has no official deputy or successor and members of his Fatah party appear divided on who will be their next leader.
The most prominent names touted in the media include Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, intelligence chief Majed Faraj, former intelligence chief Tawfiq Tirawi, Palestinian Football Association chief Jibril Rajoub, Fatah vice-chairman Mahmoud al-Aloul and former foreign minister Nasser al-Qudwa.
Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who reportedly enjoys the widest public support among the potential Abbas successors, is an unlikely candidate because he is serving multiple life-in-prison sentences in an Israeli jail for his role in the second Palestinian uprising.
Top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat could be ruled out due to his reportedly ill health and expelled Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan is unlikely to be allowed back from exile in the United Arab Emirates.
If the potential Fatah candidates do not agree on a successor, there could be infighting among Fatah members in the West Bank.
The website Middle East Eye cited sources as saying “some Fatah leaders were accumulating weapons and building alliances” because they are “wary of losing stature should a rival rise to prominence.”
In addition to consolidating its power in Gaza, Hamas might seek to strengthen its standing in the West Bank.
“Hamas is also not expected to be idle. It is likely to stir up its agents inside the West Bank and join in the struggle for the succession,” wrote Yoni Ben-Menachem, a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, an Israeli think-tank.
“Hamas’s main interest is to take power in the West Bank and torpedo President (Donald) Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’,” he added, referring to the reaching of a lasting peace agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
Alternatively, a new Palestinian president might be more open to restarting the reconciliation process with Hamas after recent Egyptian mediation efforts hit a dead end in March.
The diplomatic fallout with Washington over the Trump administration’s decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, however, is unlikely to be resolved easily regardless of who is the next Palestinian leader.
Part of the reason why Abbas is scoring poorly in opinion polls in the West Bank is the widely held perception that he is too accommodating to Israel and the United States — despite his recent fiery rhetoric — at the expense of Palestinian rights.
A new Palestinian leader is unlikely to wish to inherit that legacy.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.