Abbas' Political Rival Dahlan Says He Won't Seek Palestinian Presidency, Backs Jailed Barghouti

Speaking in Cairo, Fatah official Mohammed Dahlan blasts President Mahmoud Abbas for attempts to oust dissenting voices from the party.

Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Mohammed Dahlan. The rift between them continues to threaten Palestinian consolidation.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Mohammed Dahlan. The rift between them continues to threaten Palestinian consolidation.Credit: AP
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

Senior Fatah official Mohammed Dahlan said on Sunday he does not intend to vie to succeed Mahmoud Abbas as president of the Palestinian Authority and will instead back the candidacy of Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences for murder in an Israeli jail.

Dahlan is considered to be one of Abbas’ main rivals and, in an interview with the Palestinian news agency Ma’an, accused Abbas of demonstrating a lack of leadership. Nevertheless, he rejected the suggestion that he sees himself as a potential successor to Abbas.

He also spoke at length about the seventh Fatah General Conference, which is slated to be held next month, saying he would not accept any decision by the conference to expel him and his supporters from the Fatah party, which Abbas heads.

“Abu Mazen [Abbas] is working to drive out all the voices that aren’t obedient to him,” said Dahlan, who was interviewed from his residence in Cairo.

“He ought to learn from past experience, including that of Abu Ammar, and understand that an Erdoganist policy isn’t suited to a movement like Fatah,” added Dahlan, referring respectively to Yasser Arafat and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“If Abu Mazen doesn’t work to convene the Fatah conference in order to serve his own interests, we’ll consider how to respond,” he said. “But at this stage, we won’t put the cart before the horse and won’t take immediate action; at the minute, we’re waiting and following developments.”

Dahlan urged Barghouti – whom polls show enjoying strong public support to succeed Abbas – not to accept the post of Abbas’ deputy if it is offered to him. That idea has arisen in informal talks among Abbas’ advisers, with the goal of reducing Dahlan’s influence.

“Barghouti is too cautious to join a deal like this, and he’ll aspire to receive legitimacy from all parts of the Fatah movement,” Dahlan said.

The conflict between Dahlan and Abbas is so bitter that it has sparked violent demonstrations in refugee camps in Nablus, Jenin and Ramallah. Last week, Dahlan’s supporters and the PA security services even opened fire on each other.

But a senior Fatah official close to Barghouti said the jailed Palestinian “won’t play into anyone’s hands – not Abu Mazen’s, not Dahlan’s and not Israel’s. All along, he’s obtained his legitimacy from the Palestinian people, and from Fatah activists who represent the mood on the street, not in closed offices. And that’s what will happen in the future as well.

“It’s true that Israel is trying to crown Palestinian leaders, but we’re making it clear that Marwan will run in every election, internal or general,” the official added. “Perhaps his election will ultimately symbolize the Palestinian condition – a people under occupation with a president behind bars.”

Another Fatah activist told Haaretz, “It’s true Dahlan is challenging Abu Mazen, but alone he can’t lead any moves that will influence the decision making. His support for Marwan Barghouti is meant to secure legitimacy for himself within the party.”

In the Ma’an interview, Dahlan also warned that the Gaza Strip “is on the verge of an explosion” due to its humanitarian situation.

“Politics can go to hell,” he said. “Gaza needs to breathe; it needs artificial respiration in an intensive care unit. Gaza needs food, water and medicine. Men in Gaza weep every day because they have no way to bring food home.”

Dahlan’s return to the headlines in recent weeks is due mainly to the fact that Arab states are pressuring Abbas to reconcile with him. So far, Abbas has refused to do so, leading to tensions with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi.

Sissi has responded by welcoming Dahlan with open arms. The fact that Dahlan was interviewed in Cairo is further proof of this.

More significantly, despite Sissi’s long-running feud with Hamas, he has agreed to grant several concessions to Hamas-run Gaza at Dahlan’s request, including opening the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt much more frequently over the last two weeks. Some sources say Sissi is even considering releasing Hamas prisoners, including four Hamas members who disappeared after crossing the border into Egypt four months ago.

This Arab pressure, coupled with internal Palestinian developments, has raised speculation about Abbas resigning or being forced out as president. But this seems unlikely, as Abbas and his security forces control all the power centers. Fatah is also worried that chaos could ensue once Abbas is gone, for which Fatah would be blamed.

The most immediate question is whether Abbas will manage to convene the Fatah Conference late next month and, if so, whether he will be able to persuade it to oust Dahlan and his supporters.

There is also speculation that the conference could further a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation and/or new elections for the PA presidency.

Meanwhile, Abbas’ spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, blasted what he termed a media campaign being waged against the Fatah leadership by Israel, especially by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Abu Rudeineh said Israel was trying to undermine Palestinian legitimacy and conceal its own isolation.

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