Analysis

As Health Worsens, Israeli Intelligence Sees the Beginning of the End of Abbas’ Rule

Claims that the Palestinian president was suffering from pneumonia have been rejected, but Israel believes the 82-year-old’s time in charge is drawing to an end

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reads a newspaper inside the hospital in Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank May 21, 2018. Palestinian President Office (PPO)/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE
\ HANDOUT/ REUTERS

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ hospitalization this past week has led to conflicting reports about his health. Senior Palestinian Authority officials have downplayed the seriousness of his condition. But according to rumors in Ramallah over the weekend, the true information is being kept under wraps.

What is known for sure is that Abbas has been in and out of hospital for a week now – first for ear surgery and later for tests. During this period, Abbas has communicated with those around him and spoken to a few people by phone.

On Sunday, close associates told journalists and interlocutors on the Israeli side that his situation was much improved. On Saturday, it was said that he had pneumonia and was even on a respirator. Abbas’ associates say his illness is due to the tremendous pressure on him in recent weeks and his many trips abroad during this time.

Abbas, 82, has suffered from various ailments in recent years and remains a heavy smoker. Although he still frequently travels abroad, the word in Ramallah is that when he’s in the West Bank, his daily schedule has been curtailed and he frequently shows signs of impatience and behavior described as capricious and angry.

Abbas’ advanced age and health may have also contributed to some of his recent actions. In April, he hinted that the Jews were partially responsible for what happened to them in the Holocaust (after which he issued a semi-apology). Before that, he insisted on cutting assistance to the Gaza Strip as part of the ongoing conflict with Hamas.

Israeli security officials see this as the beginning of the end of Abbas’ rule, although it is not clear how long the whole process will take.

In the frenzied atmosphere that has taken hold on the Israeli right – given the Netanyahu government’s recent string of political and security successes – there will probably be calls to take advantage of the situation and make unilateral changes to the relationship with the PA in the West Bank. But leading security officials say that, on the contrary, security coordination with Abbas and his people is a strategic asset that must be carefully maintained with Abbas’ successor (or successors).

Absent a permanent solution or any diplomatic talks on the horizon, security connections with the PA help prevent deterioration on the ground. Witness the dozens of cases in which PA security operatives have, in keeping with Abbas’ policy, returned Israeli citizens who mistakenly entered Palestinian towns or cities. The PA also continues, for its own reasons, to arrest Hamas activists, some of whom are involved in planning terror attacks against Israel.

Even when Abbas decides to retire, or his heath forces him to do so, the identity of his heir is not apparent.

Abbas holds three different offices: chairman of the PA, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization and head of Fatah. The legal situation of the Palestinian institutions is complicated; the enmity between Fatah and Hamas – and the fact that Abbas has not clearly declared an heir – will seemingly complicate succession plans.

There is, of course, the possibility that the matter will be decided democratically – though the last elections in the territories were for the Palestinian parliament back in 2006.

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.

Names mentioned include Jibril Rajoub, the former head of the PA’s Preventive Security who in recent years has headed the Palestinian Football Association. Rajoub has returned to intensive political activity in recent times and could play a major role after Abbas leaves. Another contender is Mahmoud al-Aloul, the former governor of Nablus who is now Abbas’ deputy in Fatah. Majid Faraj, the West Bank intelligence chief, is considered a strong man who is close to Abbas, but without much chance to succeed him.

A quiet weekend in Gaza

Meanwhile, the Gaza Strip saw the quietest weekend since demonstrations began along the border with Israel on March 30. This might be due to the impact of the clashes that took place last Monday, when 62 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire. The health system in Gaza was hugely overstretched due to the thousands of people also wounded in the protests.

A Palestinian protester wearing a Guy Fawkes mask and holding a slingshot during clashes with Israeli soldiers along the border with the Gaza Strip, May 18, 2018.
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

The relative calm might also be connected to the main change that followed the deaths: Egypt’s announcement that it was opening the Rafah Crossing. Two possibilities for the move came from Cairo. According to one, the crossing would be open throughout the month of Ramadan. According to the other, the crossing will open 10 days a month, instead of only a few days. Either way, this is Hamas’ first major achievement as a result of the protests, along with renewed debate about Gaza’s distress in the international media.

Considering this relative success, the Friday demonstrations are likely to persist. Hamas has already announced plans for a major protest on June 5 – the 51st anniversary of the Six-Day War.

Israel Defense Forces Spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis has continued the propaganda war between the IDF and Hamas. In an article published Sunday in the Wall Street Journal, he accused Hamas of lying to the international community. According to Manelis, Hamas paid $14 to each Gazan who attended the demonstrations, $100 to each family and $500 to any person injured during the clashes.