Abbas' Likely Heir to Haaretz: Don’t Expect Us to Raise a White Flag

With Abbas in his eighties and Barghouti in jail, many see Jibril Rajoub as next PA president. In conversation with Haaretz, he discusses plans for Palestinian unity and popular struggle against occupation.

File photo: Jibril Rajoub in his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Majdi Mohammed, AP

Since Marwan Barghouti, who came in first in Fatah’s internal leadership elections last week, is sitting in an Israeli jail, it’s no surprise that speculation is focusing mainly on the man in second place. Jibril Rajoub enjoys broad support within the Fatah party, which rules the Palestinian Authority. And many people, both Palestinians and Israelis, believe the election results mark Rajoub as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ eventual heir and as someone who will soon receive a senior position – perhaps even as Abbas’ deputy.

Rajoub finds all this speculation annoying. This week, in his first interview since the elections, he told Haaretz he doesn’t want a senior political post and wouldn’t agree to be Abbas’ deputy.

“I was elected by a large majority of the Palestinian membership to houseclean within the party, and I’ll deal mainly with organizational and administrative issues,” he said. He’ll also continue to head the Palestinian Football Association.

“Anyone who expects to see me clashing with the party leadership and Abu Mazen, or fighting over jobs, is making a big mistake,” Rajoub added, referring to Abbas by his familiar, traditional Arabic name.

Nevertheless, with Abbas in his eighties and Barghouti in jail, doesn’t that put Rajoub very close to the helm? He says no. The success of Fatah’s seventh general conference last week shows that Abbas “is functioning in excellent fashion and is in control of things,” said Rajoub, adding that he expects Abbas to continue running Fatah and the PA for at least another five years.

“All the talk of an heir may reflect the desires of some Palestinians, and perhaps of people in the Israeli government,” he said. “They said the conference would be a mess and there would be fights, but everything went smoothly.

“And don’t tell me the president is old – Shimon Peres was president of Israel until age 90 and it didn’t bother him,” Rajoub added. “Truthfully, President Abbas has more energy and capacity for work than any of us.”

As for Barghouti, Rajoub said, “He’s undoubtedly a Fatah icon, and we need to intensify the diplomatic and popular struggle to free him.”

Rajoub dismissed critics who said the Fatah conference produced no new strategy for dealing with the impasse in the peace process or the PA’s complicated relations with other Arab countries, but instead focused on the leadership elections and on settling scores with Abbas’ political rivals, especially Mohammed Dahlan.

“That’s not true,” he said. “There were a few people who tried to smear the Fatah movement. Everyone was talking about Dahlan because it makes headlines. Dahlan was expelled from Fatah legally and he no longer belongs to the movement. He has the right to set up a new political movement and run in future elections, and naturally he has supporters.”

The internal elections were also important, he added, as a third of Fatah’s highest party organ, the central committee, ended up being replaced.

Rajoub said the conference devoted a lot of time to debating both diplomatic and domestic issues, including the internal rift between the Fatah-run West Bank and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. “We agreed that it’s necessary to advance the reconciliation and settle this issue, which will soon be 10 years old and has been costly for everyone, Hamas, Fatah and the entire Palestinian people. The main beneficiary of this split is Israel.”

Rajoub believes that conditions for healing the schism have ripened and it will end within the coming year. “There’s heavy pressure on this issue from the Palestinian street, and both sides are attentive to it,” he said. “Ultimately, both Fatah and Hamas understand that if they don’t pay attention to the people’s feelings, they’ll both lose.”

Regarding the policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Rajoub said, “We know this is a right-wing, extremist, fascist government, but the world doesn’t run according to Netanyahu and his government. The conference decided explicitly to work on three fronts: the international front, the Israeli front and the internal Palestinian front.”

First, the conference decided to continue its efforts against Israel overseas, including in UN institutions, and also to work to expand boycotts of the settlements, he said.

“Within Israel, we’ll continue talking with the democratic forces and with our brothers, Palestinian citizens of Israel, who are a not inconsiderable political force,” he continued. “And in the Palestinian arena, we’ll formulate a clear policy of popular struggle. That’s a struggle most of the Palestinian street supports, and it also has support in the international arena. Don’t expect us to raise a white flag and tell the Israelis, ‘Do whatever you like.’”

What does Rajoub mean by a “popular struggle”? A nonviolent struggle in which all the Palestinian parties will cooperate, entailing demonstrations and other activities against the occupation, he replied.

“There are ideas, and we’ll discuss them very soon and formulate a position on how to operate on the ground,” he said. “But it’s important that this be a pan-Palestinian decision that will enjoy support from all the factions.”

Earlier this week, Haaretz reported that a high-level Palestinian delegation will go to Washington next week to meet with senior State Department officials. The Palestinians are well aware of what Donald Trump said before he won the presidential elections, but now, the situation is different, Rajoub argued.

“Trump is the president-elect, and he’ll see things differently, primarily from the standpoint of American national security. He’ll very quickly understand that the continuation of the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict and the settlement policy won’t serve American interests, and he’ll have to take action.”