June 11, 2018 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1401

Calls In Palestinian Authority For Arranging Mechanism For Transfer Of Power Following Palestinian Authority President 'Abbas's Hospitalization

June 11, 2018 | By S. Schneidmann*
Palestinians | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1401


On May 20, 2018, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud 'Abbas, who is 83, was rushed to a Ramallah hospital following complications from middle ear surgery five days previously. The international Arab press reported that he had pneumonitis and a high fever, and that he was intubated; these reports were confirmed later in an announcement by Fatah Central Committee secretary Jibril Al-Rajoub.[1]

'Abbas's nine-day hospitalization, and his general health status, prompted a broad discussion in the Palestinian media with regard to how he would be replaced in the event that he becomes incapacitated, in light of his advanced age, the concentration of power in his hands, and the absence of a clear and agreed mechanism for choosing his successor.

The possibility that 'Abbas will become unable to carry out his many roles, in the absence of an agreed-upon successor, sparked expressions in the Palestinian media of fears of chaos and civil war within Fatah, which 'Abbas heads, and also between Fatah and Hamas, along with calls to urgently and legally arrange a legitimate mechanism for succeeding 'Abbas while he is still in office so as to avoid a sudden crisis. At the same time, the official PA and Fatah spokesmen are preferring to deny rumors about 'Abbas's hospitalization and with delegitimizing discussions of possible future scenarios, instead of focusing on who will take his place.

This report will present the public discussion in the PA about scenarios of crises of leadership in the Palestinian arena in the event that 'Abbas becomes incapacitated.

Leadership Crisis In The PA: Ambiguity Regarding Transfer Of Power If 'Abbas Is Unable To Carry Out His Duties

Mahmoud 'Abbas heads three bodies: the PA, the PLO, and Fatah. There is uncertainty regarding who would replace him in each of these positions, as well as regarding how these three roles are connected, because electing or appointing someone to head one of them does not mean that this person is elected or appointed to head any of the others. Each body has its own institutions and laws for selecting its leadership.

Abbas's successor as PA president is meant to be chosen according to the Palestinian Basic Law, which states that when the president is unable to perform his duties, the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council will become acting president for 60 days, at the end of which general elections are held. The current Legislative Council speaker is Hamas member Dr. 'Aziz Dweik, who is intermittently in prison in Israel.[2] A Hamas member as PA president is unacceptable to 'Abbas's supporters, due to the ongoing Hamas-Fatah schism, and to the fact that reconciliation has reached a dead end.[3] Hamas is aware of this, and its spokesmen warn that the PA is going to violate its own Basic Law with regard to the process of succession to the PA presidency.

At this time, due to the Hamas-Fatah schism, relations are completely severed between the PA's executive authority, which is held by Fatah by virtue of 'Abbas's 2005 election to the presidency, and the PA's legislative authority, which is held by Hamas by virtue of Hamas's 2006 win of a majority in the Legislative Council. Both Fatah and Hamas see the 2007 events of the schism as a coup carried out by one of the authorities against the other. The institutions of the presidency and of the Legislative Council do not recognize each other's legitimacy due to the fact that their terms of office have ended. The PA does not in effect control the Gaza Strip, and has been unsuccessful in forcing Hamas to hand over power in the Gaza Strip to it; therefore, it is unable to hold general elections in the Strip, as demanded by the Basic Law 60 days after the PA president becomes incapacitated.

As a solution to this impasse, 'Abbas's associates are considering  the Palestinian National Council (PNC) a source of authority similar to the Legislative Council, because, in their view, the PNC is the PLO's legislative authority, and members of the Legislative Council are also members of the PNC by virtue of their role. Recently, 'Abbas convened the PNC to authorize the PLO Central Council – an intermediate body between the PNC plenum and the Executive Committee – to act as the legislative authority of the PLO. This move was interpreted by the Dubai-based Al-Hayat daily as circumvention of the PA Legislative Council, which is controlled by Hamas.[4]

The  London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi daily reported that the PNC has decided to define the Central Council as "the parliament of the State of Palestine," and noted that the Central Council is expected to meet at the end of Ramadan in order to choose 'Abbas's successor.[5] On June 6, 2018, the newspaper reported that the Central Council was expected to create a new role of vice-president. The London-based Al-Sharq Al-Awsat daily reported, citing Palestinian sources, that PNC head Salim Al-Za'noun is expected to take 'Abbas's place as PLO chairman if 'Abbas is unable to carry out his duties.[6]

Within Fatah too there is an attempt to appoint a successor to 'Abbas. The Lebanese Al-Akhbar daily reported that at its last session, the Fatah Revolutionary Council had ratified the appointment of Mahmoud Al-'Aloul as deputy chairman.[7] The online Gaza daily Dunya Al-Watan also reported that the Fatah Revolutionary Council had authorized the Fatah Central Committee to choose a new deputy chairman in case the current deputy should become incapable of carrying out his duties. Also according to the report, the Revolutionary Council amended Fatah's laws regarding succession: In the event that the chairman is incapacitated, the deputy will now serve as acting Fatah chairman for three months, and will represent Fatah in the PLO institutions. After three months, the Fatah General Congress will convene to elect a new chairman; in the event that this is not possible, there will be an emergency meeting of the Revolutionary Council in order to authorize the deputy to fully take on the role of chairman.[8]

Despite these decisions by the Fatah institutions, Palestinian sources identified with the opposition to 'Abbas, as well as Arab sources, reported recently on preparations for rivalry to succeed him, and for dividing up his roles among the senior Fatah officials, recruiting domestic, Arab, and international support. Also, the Arab press has recently published a number of commentaries that included lists of the Fatah officials and their associates who were the leading candidates to succeed 'Abbas. Most frequently mentioned were Mahmoud Al-'Aloul, Saeb Erekat, Jibril Al-Rajoub, Majid Faraj, Muhammad Ashtiya, Nasser Al-Qidwa, Marwan Barghouti, and Rami Al-Hamdallah. Several of the articles included independent candidates such as Prof. 'Adnan Majali, or even former Hamas political bureau head Khaled Mash'al.[9]

Likewise, no deputy to 'Abbas has been appointed in the PA or the PLO, and this is likely to lead to a war of succession within them.

'Abbas in hospital, on the front page of the PA daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, May 22, 2018.

Palestinian Journalists: It Is Vital To Quickly And Legally Arrange A Mechanism For Transfer Of Power

As noted, most of the focus in the PA media was on 'Abbas's health, not on scenarios of a transfer of power in the event that he becomes incapacitated. At the same time, a few articles discussed fears of unexpected developments in the matter of his successor, and called for quickly arranging a mechanism for the transfer of power to the next president in an orderly and legal fashion.

Ashraf Al-'Ajrami, former PA minister for prisoners' affairs, called for arranging the transfer of power by means of new legislation. In his view, the extraordinary situation created in the PA following the intra-Palestinian rift makes it impossible to transfer power according to the Basic Law, and requires special legislation that will create an interim stage on the way to general elections. He wrote: "Following reassurances about the health of the president, who will return, Allah willing, to fulfill his duties in the near future, it is essential to alleviate the concerns of the Palestinian people regarding its future, and not leave matters up to predictions, scenarios, or unplanned developments… The time has come to regulate the matter of transfer of power in a legal manner, within a consensus and with the approval of the PLO. The continued lack of clarity [regarding the post-Abbas era] does nobody any good, especially since the Basic Law specifies that in the event of the president's office becoming vacant, the Legislative Council speaker will serve as [interim] president for 60 days. Since the Legislative Council speaker is supposed to be elected at the beginning of every [parliamentary] term – something that has not actually happened since the Hamas coup in 2007 and in light of the [Fatah-Hamas] rift – this scenario does not appear to be realistic.

"We are in need of new legislation [to regulate] the transfer of power. Such essential legislation will not harm the regime or the powers of the [current] president, may Allah grant him long life. On the contrary, it will protect the Palestinian regime and will alleviate the fears of our people, our friends, and anybody concerned about the Palestinian cause and the situation in this region. It will also put an end to the idea of intervention in Palestinian affairs and to attempts by regional or international powers to impose what they believe would serve their interests – even to the point of conspiring against the president and the leadership. After we get through the interim stage successfully, we will reach [the stage of holding] fair elections, which will lead to the election of a leadership that the Palestinian people want…"[10]

Al-Ayyam columnist Tallal 'Awkal also maintained that transferring power to the Legislative Council speaker before the intra-Palestinian schism is resolved would be unreasonable, and called on 'Abbas to launch an initiative to resolve this. He stressed that it was vital to discuss the question of 'Abbas's successor, and that the Palestinian leadership must present clear solutions. He wrote: "The question about the health of the homeland and of the political system arises from time to time, sometimes in the context of ['Abbas's] health and sometimes... [simply because of his] age, and reflects concern about the future of the Palestinian political system in the [post-Abbas] era. It is a completely justified question that should have been answered some time ago, in light of the failure of the Palestinian reconciliation and the absence of suitable conditions for holding elections... People loyal [to the homeland] should lay out their vision of the future, as a basis for a helpful national discussion or in order to give people a clear picture of the future of their political system...

"Given the current situation, there are fears that chaos and struggle [may ensue]. The president is elected directly by the Palestinian people, [so] can the issue be resolved [simply by] holding presidential and parliamentary elections? The answer is clearly [no], unless anyone thinks that it is possible to hold elections only in the West Bank, because the situation as it is [today], and as it will apparently remain in the coming days, does not enable to hold fair and democratic elections in light of the ongoing schism. The scenario of appointing Legislative Council Speaker Dr. 'Aziz Dweik as president – as specified by the Basic Law – seems equally unfeasible, for reasons I see no need to discuss. In short, President 'Abbas and the other national [forces] must hurry up and present clear legal answers [to this question]."[11]

In an article in Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, Bassem Barhoum wrote: "In the shadow of the schism, the Basic Law is not suited to be [a source of] authority, and proof of this is the stagnation of the Palestinian political system since the 2007 Hamas coup against the legitimate Palestinian [rule]. This political system, that is anchored in the Basic Law, is inoperable, and is not being implemented, and therefore it is vital and urgent to tell the Palestinian citizen that the PLO law, apparatuses, and institutions are responsible for approving every future president..."

He added: "The Palestinian citizen's concern stems also from his lack of knowledge about the apparatuses and systems for electing the [PA] president... Perhaps the reality of the Palestinian schism is what most intensifies the Palestinians' fears, since this schism is liable to become, overnight, a situation of war and blood feud if there are no clear apparatuses for electing a president [after 'Abbas dies]."[12]

Articles On Anti-'Abbas Website: We Expect Cutthroat Rivalry Within Fatah To Succeed 'Abbas; Foreign Intervention To Resolve The Crisis Is Not Inconceivable

The media affiliated with the opposition to 'Abbas, such as the website, which is close Muhammad Dahlan's camp, dealt extensively with the leadership crisis in the PA, the PLO and Fatah, and with the expected rivalry among Palestinian officials to succeed 'Abbas.

Gaza-based journalist Tallal Al-Sharif, an associate of Dahlan, addressed the struggle that is likely to ensue among Fatah leaders following 'Abbas's departure, claiming that Nasser Al-Qidwa and Muhammad Dahlan have the best chances of defeating Hamas candidates in future presidential elections. He wrote: "The hierarchy in the PA and the PLO continues to be unclear... and therefore any sudden change in the health of President 'Abbas, who is over 80 years old, triggers speculation about the governing mechanisms in Palestine and about [who will be] the acting [president] until elections are held. Since elections will remain impossible due to the [intra-Palestinian] schism, the interim president will probably become permanent, or will at least remain in office for an extended period, no shorter than an ordinary term in office. And this is assuming that an understanding can be reached among the Palestinians about holding presidential elections within five years after President ['Abbas's] death. In any case, nobody has a legal solution to this tangled problem, which comes up every time something suddenly happens to President 'Abbas.

"In my opinion, with the controversial [changes] he recently made to the makeup of the PNC, the Central [Council] and the [PLO] Executive Committee, the President imposed a situation where two Fatah members who follow in his footsteps have been brought to fore [as his most likely successors], even though the President issued no [official] statement to this effect.

"We know the following [facts]: 1. Mahmoud Al-'Aloul has been appointed Fatah deputy chairman; 2. Dr. Saeb Erekat, of Fatah, is the secretary of the Executive Committee; 3. 'Azzam Al-Ahmad, of Fatah, is a member of the Executive Committee; 4. Ahmad Abu Houli, of Fatah, is a member of the Executive Committee. He is the youngest of the members, which is considered an advantage.

"After ['Abbas's] death, Fatah is likely to put forward one of its members in the Executive Committee as a candidate for the presidency, [and it is likely to be] one of the four mentioned above... But if things do not take their natural course, there will be conflicts [within Fatah]... That said, given that Dr. Saeb Erekat and Mr. 'Azzam Al-Ahmad are very active in the Fatah movement, and are members of the [PLO] Executive Committee, and one of them is the committee secretary, it is likely that one of them will be put forward as [PLO] head and the other as PA president. Considering that President ['Abbas] promoted Saeb Erekat [to the position of]  Executive Committee secretary, the candidate for president is likely to be 'Azzam Al-Ahmad.

"If [Fatah] members support Mahmoud Al-'Aloul, who will become Fatah chairman if 'Abbas dies, there will be rivalry within the movement, especially for positions. There are other members of Fatah's Central Committee who have supporters in broad sectors of the movement, chief among them Jibril Al-Rajoub and Tawfiq Al-Tirawi. Both are influential figures in Fatah, but the latter enjoys greater support among the public, the security apparatuses and the broad national current, and he is not affiliated with any country. If he runs, his chances will be close to those of Dr. Saeb Erekat and 'Azzam Al-Ahmad...

"We hope that legal solutions will be discussed before President 'Abbas's [health] takes a sudden turn for the worse, and we hope that Fatah will not slip into graver conflicts once President 'Abbas passes away. We hope that his death will be followed by rapid reconciliation and unity in Fatah, and [that Fatah officials] agree on a presidential candidate.

"One last point: Nasser Al-Qidwa and Muhammad Dahlan were meant to be Executive Committee members and presidential candidates, but the President himself and other presidential contenders managed to remove Nasser Al-Qidwa from the Executive Committee, just as they had [previously] managed to remove the strongest and most charismatic figure in Fatah, who had the greatest chances of [winning] the presidency: Legislative Council member Muhammad Dahlan. If Nasser Al-Qidwa or Muhammad Dahlan run in the next presidential elections, either on behalf of Fatah or as independents – assuming that a reconciliation is achieved within Fatah and [the movement] agrees on one of them as [its] candidate – they are sure to win against a Hamas candidate."[13] 

Another article on, by Sami Al-Akhras, who likewise resides in Gaza, stressed that the Palestinian institutions do not enjoy full legitimacy and that there is a severe constitutional crisis in the PA. He wrote: "Today, 14 years after Oslo [sic], and following numerous changes and developments, we are once again asking the same question: what will happen in the post-'Abbas period? We might also ask ourselves why we are speaking specifically about 'Abbas, and not about a [new] political phase in general? The reasons are several:

"A. The Palestinian political system is suffering a dangerous schism like no other, and as a result, Mahmoud 'Abbas and his legal position have become the sole component of the Palestinian political system...

"B. All [other] authorities and elements in the Palestinian political system are tinged with legal illegitimacy... especially the legislative bodies, both the PLO's (i.e., the PNC and Central Council) and the PA's (i.e., the Legislative Council).

"C. The absence of the constitutional legislative authority, which was dissolved by the presidency after the schism with Gaza.... has transformed the [Palestinian] regime into two incompatible and conflicted authorities that are waging a long and bitter struggle, each of them trying to prove its legitimacy...

"[Thus,] possible [future developments] have come to be embodied by individuals, rather than institutions. The implications of the latest developments may be a sign of the future, especially with regards to the makeup of the current PLO Executive Council. Various elements have gained strength [recently], such as Mr. Saeb Erekat, a strong figure meant to fill a temporary constitutional vacuum, and Fatah deputy-chairman Mahmoud Al-'Aloul, whose position was created by ]PLO] Chairman Mahmoud 'Abbas as one of the main ways to deal with the growing strength of [former] Fatah member Muhammad Dahlan who was dismissed [from the movement], among other Fatah figures. The most likely [successors to 'Abbas] are Saeb Erekat – the most prominent candidate – and Mahmoud Al-'Aloul, who will be a strong contender. This [will be the situation] until national reconciliation is achieved and strong institutions are formed [enabling non-Fatah candidates to run].

"The future of the Palestinian scene and the political system is therefore hazy, and cannot become stabilized in the current state of division... Ultimately, it is not inconceivable that there will be regional or international intervention to put the Palestinian affairs in order [i.e., select a successor to 'Abbas]. This will have grave implications for the entire Palestinian cause, which is the main victim of the current and future situation."[14]

Hamas: Heeding The Law And The Constitution Is The Last Thing Fatah Will Do; It Has Been Ignoring The Will Of The Palestinian Voter Since 2006

Hamas, which effectively controls the Legislative Council – whose speaker, Dr. 'Aziz Dweik, is 'Abbas's legal deputy according to the Palestinian Basic Law – stressed that any attempt by Fatah to unilaterally choose 'Abbas's successor would be illegitimate. A statement issued by the Legislative Council presidency warned against violating the Basic Law stipulating that the speaker must fill in for the president, and stressed that this would be tantamount to an illegal coup.[15]

Addressing the uncertainty regarding 'Abbas's successor and the possibility of internal struggles in Fatah, Hamas Political Bureau member Moussa Abu Marzouq tweeted: "In case of a sudden deterioration in the President's health, we must take the initiative and make calculated decisions, so as to prevent unexpected developments that will throw our [Palestinian] nation into turmoil and deepen the schism within Fatah and [its] popular base, which will also adversely affect our national cause."[16]

Moussa Abu Marzouq's tweet

In an interview with Hamas's mouthpiece Al-Risala, Abu Marzouq stressed that, "according to the Basic Law, the Legislative Council speaker fills in for the president if the position [of president] becomes vacant." He added: "The time when Fatah dominated the national cause is over. It must change its ways and be committed to the Basic Law."[17]

Al-Risala columnist Wisam Abu Shamala expressed doubt that Dweik will be allowed to fill in for 'Abbas, and suggested to hold a dialogue among all the Palestinian factions to reach a consensus on the issue of succession. He wrote: "Legally, current Legislative Council Speaker 'Aziz Dweik is supposed to act as president during the interim period of up to 60 days after the death of Abu Mazen, and this is one of the most reasonable scenarios. However, the possibility of following the law and the constitution is the last thing that will occur to Fatah, which controls the Palestinian political system in the West Bank. After all, Abu Mazen has [already] taken several illegal measures to keep Dweik from becoming the interim president, mainly [the measure of] forming a constitutional court and appointing one of his loyalists as its president. Therefore, one scenario is that the president of the constitutional court will act as [PA] president during the interim period until general elections are held.

"[The issue of] the president's [successor] is attracting regional and global attention, and the occupation has probably long since prepared for this moment. According to many assessments, current Prime Minister Rami Al-Hamdallah, who has demonstrated his skill at handling the civil ties with the occupation authorities and especially with the Civil Administration..., may be one of the suitable candidates for this position.

"Palestinian forces, especially Hamas, are likely to take advantage of 'Abbas's departure to re-raise the issue of legitimizing the Palestinian institutions by means of elections, and of agreeing on an interim president or on a council to govern the PA until elections are held – in case 'Aziz Dweik is unable to fulfill his constitutional duty. Hamas and the national forces could renew the dialogue about the post-'Abbas period right now, instead of waiting for 'Abbas's sudden departure... The best case scenario, in terms of our national [interest], would be for the major national forces to collaborate and agree on a governing mechanism for the interim period until general elections are held. But despite the advantages of this scenario, its implementation is constrained by the deep conflict between Fatah and Hamas and by Fatah's desire to continue controlling the Palestinian political system.

"The worst case scenario is... that Fatah will be unable to control the internal disputes [within it], leading to chaos that will require intervention by the occupation. [This is because the occupation] fears security deterioration that will be exploited by Hamas to spread its influence in the West Bank and activate armed and popular resistance. The scenario of chaos will remain relevant as long as Fatah is unable to restrain the competition between its major leaders for Abu Mazen's position, especially since the era of Fatah's founding generation will practically come to an end with his departure..."[18]

Several days later, journalist Ahmad Al-Hajj wrote on the website, which is identified with Hamas: "The situation today is that all powers are concentrated in the hands of Palestinian President Mahmoud 'Abbas. There are no institutions for the transfer of power, and no recognized deputy to act as president once ['Abbas] is gone. The Palestinian constitution, which stipulates that the Legislative Council speaker must fulfill this role, is ignored because the Legislative Council speaker is 'Aziz Dweik of Hamas...

"Since the provisions of the law are ignored, it is only natural that there is furious competition for the presidency. Jibril Al-Rajoub is circulating photos of himself with 'Abbas, trying to imply that he is the appropriate successor; Muhammad Dahlan is running around Arab capitals asking for support, and Majid Faraj is forming ties with security apparatuses in the region and touting his achievements in suppressing the resistance in the [West] Bank. All of them hope to gain Washington's support in the race for the presidency. But where is the Palestinian voter? Since 2006 his will has been disregarded."[19]

*S. Schneidmann is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] Al-Hayat (Dubai); Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London); Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (Palestinian Authority), May 22, 2018. Pneumonitis is an inflammation of lung tissue that is commonly caused by irritants, including some types of cancer treatments. The Palestinian news agency Quds Press reported, citing Fatah sources, that 'Abbas actually has cancer., May 27, 2018.

[2] Israel recently freed Dweik after a year of imprisonment., May 22, 2018.

[3] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1361, Palestinian Reconciliation At An Impasse, December 1, 2017.

[4] Al-Hayat (Dubai), May 4, 2018.

[5] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), April 30 and May 25, 2018. On June 6, 2018, the newspaper reported that the Central Council was expected to create a new role of vice-president.

[6] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 22, 2018. It should be noted that the convening of the PNC session was perceived by elements opposed to 'Abbas as a violation of previous understandings among the Palestinian factions with regard to reform in the council, which had not met in plenum since 1996. Many PNC members boycotted the session, among them members of the PFLP, which is part of the PLO, and members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who were invited as observers. Hamas announced that it saw 'Abbas's PNC as illegitimate and as controlled by Fatah, and as not representing the Palestinian people, and its decisions as not legally binding., April 30 and May 4, 2018.

[7] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), March 5, 2018.

[8], March 5, 2018.

[9] See for example, June 1, 2018.

[10] Al-Ayyam (Palestinian Authority), May 24, 2018.

[11] Al-Ayyam (Palestinian Authority), May 24, 2018.

[12] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (Palestinian Authority), May 23, 2018.

[13], May 20, 2018.

[14], May 21, 2018.

[15], May 28, 2018.

[16]­_abumarzook, May 26, 2018.

[17], May 31, 2018.

[18], May 24, 2018.

[19], May 27, 2018.

Share this Report: