These are the twilight days of the rule of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. The slow process of collapse in anticipation of the end of his rule continues, and is now accepted as an undeniable fact by most of those involved.
- Palestinian security forces clash with supporters of Abbas rival in West Bank refugee camps
- Abbas, Hamas leaders hold first talks in two years to discuss Palestinian unity
- In rare move, Israel secretly approved Palestinian construction in West Bank
Abbas is facing open challenges from within his own Fatah movement, as well as from Hamas and recently even rather undisguised subversion on the part of Arab nations. His increasing isolation has raised the internal tensions in Ramallah, and it is possible this will have implications both for stability within the Palestinian territories, and for its charged relations with Israel.
It seems Abbas’ more difficult challenge is the threat from within, on the part of senior Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan. Abbas does not hide his contempt for Dahlan, who was in charge when the Gaza Strip fell to Hamas in a violent military revolt in June 2007.
There is undeniable paranoia toward Dahlan in the Palestinian president’s office, but lately some of that feeling seems to be justified. This week the conflict between the Abbas and Dahlan spilled over into violent protests in Palestinian refugee camps in Jenin, Balata in Nablus and al-Am’ari in Ramallah.
What sparked the clash was two conferences organized by Dahlan under academic auspices in Egypt with the participation of hundreds of activists. One of the conferences, held in Cairo in cooperation with a research institute affiliated with the Al-Ahram newspaper, was supposedly on the problem of establishing the Palestinian state. But the leadership of the Palestinian Authority saw it as a provocative show of strength on Dahlan’s part — with Egyptian backing. The PA tried to make it difficult for Palestinians from the territories to travel to Cairo, but many came from the West Bank in indirect routes, while others travelled via Gaza, with the approval of Hamas and Egypt.
When one of them, Jihad Tamliya, a resident of al-Am’ari, returned to the West Bank after the conference, he discovered that his membership in Fatah institutions had been revoked. The response to this, and the removal of other Fatah officials from their posts, was the violent protests in which hundreds participated. In Jenin and Balata these clashes deteriorated into exchanges of fire between gunmen and Palestinian security forces.
Dahlan has touched on one of Abbas’ very sensitive nerves — his legitimacy as the representative of the Palestinian people. It has been over a decade since elections were last held in the Palestinian territories for the presidency or parliament. Abbas has spoken recently about holding elections for the Palestinian National Council, the parliament, but this is a promise his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, also did not keep. It would also require the participation of Palestinians in Arab countries. Abbas’ declarations look unfeasible, mostly in light of the PA’s failure to hold even local elections in the West Bank, which were scheduled for earlier in October, but have been postponed indefinitely.
Those around Abbas fear, apparently for good reason, that Dahlan is seeking to be the secret candidate of the new Arab quartet, composed of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. As Ehud Yaari reported on Channel 2 at the beginning of October, this quartet is pushing for Nasser Al-Kidwa, Arafat’s nephew and the former PLO ambassador to the United Nations, to be Abbas’ successor. But Dahlan is trying to find a place for himself in the three- or four-man leadership in the future, on his way to climbing even higher up the ladder.
Egypt is no longer hiding its support for Dahlan; Egyptian representatives discuss it openly in conversations with Israelis. In Abbas’ circles there is concern that the Saudi announcement this week that it was freezing its funding of the PA is also related to this. At the same time, Dahlan is marketing himself as the only senior Fatah leader who can speak directly with Hamas, despite his dismal record with the organization in the past. (At Arafat’s command, he ordered his men to cut the beards of Hamas inmates in the prison in Gaza in the mid-1990s). This week the Hamas government in Gaza allowed Dahlan’s wife, Jalila, to enter Gaza and hold charity events in which she distributed large sums of money.
Israeli security forces must pay especially close attention to developments in the West Bank. For months, the army has had a team preparing for what happens in the territories the day after Abbas is no longer in power. Israel will not take any active steps, certainly not military ones, to intervene in the transfer of Palestinian rule. But Israel must prepare for various scenarios, including a violent Palestinian conflict over the replacement of Abbas, who is clearly living on borrowed time. The countdown to the end of his rule has begun.
Lieberman pours oil on the fire
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman added fuel to the fire in an interview he gave this week, his first since entering the Defense Ministry in May, to the East Jerusalem Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds. According to a translation of the article and from the reactions it sparked, it seems Lieberman achieved the two goals he set for himself: Widespread media coverage in Israel, after a long dry period during the Jewish holidays; and establishing himself as the main security and diplomatic voice of the Netanyahu government (whose leader is now busy trying to close down public broadcasting and preparing for a possible diplomatic campaign against Israel by the Obama administration after the presidential election in the United States).
For the most part, Lieberman reiterated the policies he laid out in a background briefing to reporters around the time of his appointment. He repeated his description of Abbas as “not a partner,” a view that has only been sharpened in the wake of the PA leader’s failure to hold local elections. There are his usual threats against Hamas to the effect that if war does break out in Gaza, it will be the “last war” — that is, the end of the Hamas regime. But along with this threat Lieberman added an optimistic signal. If Hamas stops digging tunnels and firing rockets, Lieberman is willing to consider establishing a port in Gaza, and even an airport — plans he definitely had reservations about in the past.
Even though it is hard to see Hamas taking up such an offer — and its spokesmen have already responded that they will never give up their weapons — Lieberman’s statements were also a message to the PA. He wants to work with the centers of power in the Palestinian territories, and not with empty national symbols, which is how he views Abbas.
His two declarations are a demonstrative slap in the face for Abbas, whose security forces are continuing to rescue Israeli soldiers and civilians every week when they enter the Palestinian territories by mistake. The tight security coordination mechanism between the PA and Israel has also helped reduce the violence in the West Bank over the past few months.
Lieberman entered office under the shadow of his empty threat to eliminate senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. “We will kill him within 48 hours,” he declared shortly before taking up the defense minister post. Now he speaks about a diplomatic alternative, with practical interim arrangements, as the natural extension of his “sticks and carrots” plan for the West Bank, which he presented during the summer. He has a double message for the Palestinians: I’m your address, I’m the landlord; and I am speaking to you over Abbas’ head. We can assume that this interview, too, was another thing they had to worry about in Ramallah this week.