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What Will Happen to the P.A.?

Speculation on a post-Abbas Palestinian Authority

Ari M. Brostoff
November 13, 2009
Abbas at a rally commemorating the fifth anniversary of Arafat's death on Wednesday.(Omar Rashidi/PPO via Getty Images)
Abbas at a rally commemorating the fifth anniversary of Arafat's death on Wednesday.(Omar Rashidi/PPO via Getty Images)

Mahmoud Abbas hasn’t rescinded his announcement that he won’t be running for a second term as Palestinian Authority president, but he’s agreed to postpone the P.A. elections that he had previously scheduled for January. Hamas, the party that controls Gaza—and has a worsening relationship with Abbas’ Fatah party in the West Bank—had refused to participate in those elections, so the postponement is viewed as a last-ditch effort by Abbas to avoid formalizing the divisions between the two territories.

The pressing questions about Abbas’ putative retirement, then, may be slightly less pressing, but no less confusing. First and foremost, is Abbas really planning to step down? He has, as the Economist points out, threatened resignation before. “Some of the Palestinian leader’s aides, however, insisted that this time he would go,” the magazine reported. “Others predicted that he would be persuaded to stay. Still others speculated that he could drop his post as president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), while continuing to wield power as chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the umbrella organisation that embraces an array of nationalist groups, and as head of Fatah.”

And if Abbas does step down, who will replace him? No one’s exactly jumping for the job, but the most frequently named successor is Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah leader who helped organize the first and second intifadas, and is popular within Hamas as well. The problem with Barghouti is that he’s serving five life terms in Israeli prison. If he were to win the election, Yossi Beilin, a former justice minister of Israel and a friend of Abbas, writes in the Forward,a whole new set of questions would emerge: “Will Israel release Barghouti from jail and negotiate with him? Or will Israel’s leaders express a sigh of relief and feel justified in refusing to negotiate with someone they consider a terrorist?”

And then there are the more drastic possibilities. Some Fatah officials are considering unilaterally declaring an independent Palestinian state along 1967 borders, and then demanding “the UN to come and drag the occupation forces from our land,” as an Abbas aide told the Financial Times. There’s also a proposal to internally dismantle the P.A. in protest of its lack of real power, the paper said.

In any case, the portrait of Abbas that is emerging is of a man who is resigned in the emotional if not yet in the political sense of the word. As Beilin put it, “Abu Mazen never much liked power, never liked being president, and he eagerly awaits the day he will leave his job.”

Ari M. Brostoff is Culture Editor at Jewish Currents.