Will there be changes under new Hamas and Fatah leaders?
The coming months could see the selection of new leaders for the rival Palestinian movements of Hamas and Fatah.
There have been discussions behind closed doors regarding which Hamas figure would head the Islamist movement that governs Gaza once Khaled Meshaal steps down from the leadership of the group’s political bureau.
Meshaal announced in September that he would not stand in the next internal elections, which are expected to be by early December.
Three people — former prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, senior Hamas member Moussa Abu Marzouk and prominent Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar — are reportedly being considered for the leadership position.
“The next leader of Hamas, whoever he may be, is not likely to change the movement’s direction,” said Iyad Barakat, a Palestinian writer based in London. “Picking Haniyeh could indicate that the Qatar-Turkey axis would have a greater influence. Zahar is more vocally pro- Iran but the general direction would more or less remain the same.”
Pressure is growing on Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, 81, to set a path for a successor for the leadership of his Fatah movement, which is bitterly divided.
Fatah is the dominant party in the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which dominates the PA in the West Bank. Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, that traditionally prefer Fatah to Hamas, have expressed concern about the lack of planning for a transition of power.
Abbas announced that Fatah would have its seventh general conference on November 29th in Ramallah but it remains unclear whether the question of succession will come up. Abbas, whose mandate has expired, has been in power since 2005 but does not have a deputy.
“There is a serious risk of instability, even an armed conflict among Fatah factions after the death of Abbas if there isn’t an agreement on the transition of power,” said Kamel Hawwash, a British-based Palestinian university professor and writer. “The best time to reach an agreement is while Abbas is still alive.”
There is more at stake in deciding the new face of the leadership of the PA, as it would represent Palestinians in most international platforms or when negotiating a deal with the Israelis.
Opinion polls indicate that Palestinians have little confidence in Abbas but the most popular Fatah leader, Marwan Barghouti, remains in an Israeli prison. There have been attempts to name him as Abbas’s vice-president but such a move would be merely symbolic, if not problematic, with the PA’s international backers the United States and the European Union.
Within Fatah, former security chief Mohammed Dahlan is the most vocal opponent of Abbas but has frequently stressed that he does not seek the leadership for himself. Dahlan is viewed as a possible kingmaker despite Abbas’s attempts to sideline his followers within the movement.
Other options touted for the Fatah leadership are veteran politician Nasser al-Qudwa, head of the Palestine Football Association Jibril Rajoub and head of Palestinian intelligence Majid Faraj. Those three are not expected to make a U-turn in PA policies but they would be under pressure to make some changes.
“Any leader who comes after Abbas will be required to do something to change the status quo with regards to relations with Israel,” said Barakat. “Many people gave up on having any policy changes while Abbas is at the helm of Fatah.”
It also remains unclear how future leaders of Hamas and Fatah would deal with each other. Opinion polls indicate that Palestinians wish to see a better relationship between the two major factions but Israeli leaders, backed by the United States, would like Fatah to distance itself from Hamas, which does not recognise the state of Israel.
There have been reconciliatory moves from key Hamas and Fatah figures. Meshaal admitted in September that Hamas made a mistake when it decided to rule Gaza without Fatah. In Gaza, Hamas released from prison Zaki al-Sakani, a leader of the Fatah-linked Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.
Numerous positive statements were made by Dahlan and Hamas towards each other, although officials from both camps insist these are not part of new rapprochement efforts but fall under the continual discussions on serving the interest of Palestinians.
Abbas recently met with Meshaal and Haniyeh in Qatar, reportedly to discuss national reconciliation and the possibility of having national elections, although the Doha-sponsored initiative has yet to yield any positive results.
Some observers remain unconvinced that progress would be made. “If the Fatah-Hamas rift was once considered the major obstacle to Palestinian statehood, today it has become obvious that divisions among Fatah pose an even bigger threat to Palestinian aspirations,” wrote Jerusalem-based Khaled Abu Toameh in an article for the Gatestone Institute, a New York think-tank.
Mamoon Alabbasi is an Arab Weekly contributing editor based in London.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.