In one of the greatest moments in the history of The Simpsons, Lisa is attending a jazz club with a friend, listening to a truly awful electric violinist torture her instrument. The friend protests, but Lisa is unfazed: “You have to listen to the notes she’s not playing,” she says.
She might as well have been talking about the Middle East. As pundits remind us daily, elections in Israel are scheduled for March—and Middle East peace, the health of U.S.-Israeli relations, and the future of the Jewish State all depend on who Israel’s next prime minister will be. But it’s the elections that aren’t happening right next door in the Palestinian Authority with which we should be truly concerned.
Consider the facts: At the moment, the PA is governed by its president, Mahmoud Abbas, an 80-year-old cancer survivor who smokes more than two packs of Marlboro Reds a day. If rumors are to be believed—and in the increasingly authoritarian PA, rumors are frequently the only form of solid information available—Abbas has been in and out of Jordanian hospitals due to unspecified ailments for years. Even if fortune turns her brightest smile at the elderly rais, it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to hold on to the reins for much longer.
What happens then? Article 37 of the Palestinian Basic Law, the PA’s de facto constitution, is clear: “If the office of the President of the National Authority becomes vacant,” it states, “the Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council shall temporarily assume the powers and duties of the Presidency of the National Authority for a period not to exceed sixty (60) days, during which free and direct elections to elect a new President shall take place in accordance with the Palestinian Election Law.”
That sounds like a reasonable procedure. It’s not. For one thing, the last elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council were held in 2006, mainly due to Abbas’ fear that his political foes will defeat him. Even if you set aside the question of the council’s legitimacy, there’s little reason for optimism: The council’s speaker is Aziz Duwaik, a member of Hamas. Duwaik has been arrested by Israel on several occasions, including, most recently, in the aftermath of the kidnapping and execution of three Israeli teenagers last summer. The prospect of such a man rising to the PA’s top position should terrify anyone still hoping for a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But Abbas is no slouch when it comes to overriding laws he has sworn to uphold, and there’s nothing stopping him from appointing a vice president as his heir apparent. Despite frequently toying with the idea of a No. 2, however, Abbas has yet to make such a move. In part, that’s likely because the president is not a fan of competition—when he learned, last year, that his arch-rival, the former Gaza security chief Muhammad Dahlan, was sponsoring a group wedding in the embattled strip, Abbas spent more than a million dollars to overshadow his political enemy with a bigger, snazzier wedding. But even if Abbas were to awaken to the benefits of appointing and nurturing successors, it’s unclear exactly whom he would nurture and appoint. Salam Fayyad, the mild-mannered economist whose emphasis on good governance and economic growth catapulted him to the prime minister’s office in 2007, resigned in 2013 after tensions with Abbas became untenable. Even though he was popular with Palestinian voters and credited by the World Bank with strengthening a number of key state institutions, it’s unlikely he’ll get a shot at the throne. The same is true for Dahlan. There’s Marwan Barghouti, currently serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison for his involvement in three terrorist attacks that killed five people, and Majid Faraj, the Palestinian chief of intelligence, who is well-liked by Israeli and American officials but who may not possess the qualities necessary to rise from a senior military post to the leadership of the Palestinian people.
“The problem with all of these possible candidates is that they cannot put their hat in the ring until Mahmoud Abbas steps down, dies, or is incapacitated,” said Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and our finest observer, perhaps, of the Palestinian Authority. “He does not stand for political challengers. This has led to an utterly stagnant political environment in Ramallah. And that’s before you look to Gaza, where Hamas has stifled the political environment completely. The bottom line here is that the Palestinians are suffering from political paralysis under Abbas and Hamas.”
With no one on deck at the PA, any talk of moving forward with a diplomatic process is moot. Agreements, by their very nature, depend on both sides knowing that the other is stable and likely to honor the terms of the deal regardless of political tribulations. Rather than attempt to engineer the terms of a future peace deal, those concerned about stability in the region should adopt a much more modest goal: insist that the PA come up with a viable plan for succession, one that would assure Palestinians, Israelis, and the world at large that whatever agreement ends up being signed is likely to be honored no matter who is at the PA’s helm.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.