Mahmoud Abbas has been courting controversial company over the past two weeks. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani and Hamas leaders Khaled Mashal and Ismail Haniyeh have all recently held meetings with the Fatah and Palestinian Authority (PA) leader. The meetings are unusual because Abbas has traditionally aligned himself against the region’s radical Islamist groups, allying with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Saudi Arabia against the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates. In meeting with Erdogan and the Qatari Emir, two of the region’s prominent patrons of the fractious Muslim Brotherhood group, Abbas has found himself crossing the aisle of one of the Arab world’s key political divides.
This is not, however, a realignment of Fatah’s traditional secularism. Rather, Abbas is seeking allies in his internal party battle against Mahmoud Dahlan. Dahlan has been Abbas’ most prominent rival within Fatah for over a decade and has a strong powerbase in Gaza, where he oversaw security until Hamas seized power in a brief civil war in 2007. In recent weeks, Dahlan has been positioning himself as a successor to Abbas, seeking the support of key powerbrokers Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. As his Fatah rivals jostle for position, the octogenarian Abbas has never been weaker politically. Last week’s clashes in the West Bank were an outburst of protest against Abbas for his expulsion from Fatah of Jihad Tamliya, a key Dahlan supporter.
This latest round of Palestinian political manoeuvring is unlikely to end until the question of the presidential succession is answered, something which will not happen until Abbas either dies or is forced to resign. It is unlikely Dahlan will win the Palestinian presidency after Abbas, but his exile from the higher echelons of the Palestinian leadership will almost certainly end. Dahlan himself said on Sunday that he would not challenge Abbas as president, but he would back the candidacy of Marwan Barghouti, who is a popular figure in Fatah and amongst the Palestinian public. Barghouti is, however, currently serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail for his involvement in four terrorist attacks during the second intifada. Other potential successors to Abbas include Saeb Erekat, a moderate who led Palestinian negotiations at Oslo and Jibril Rajoub, the hardline chairman of the Palestinian Football Association who has been accused of inciting terrorism.
What does all this mean for Israel and the peace process? In the short and medium term, division and discord amongst the Palestinian leadership means there is no chance of a renewal of serious negotiations. In the 11th year of a four-year term, Abbas is unpopular and is seen to lack the political legitimacy needed to sign any agreement, whilst the PA remains in a state of political paralysis. A prolonged succession crisis could threaten the stability of the Authority itself. Hamas could position itself as the leader of the Palestinian national struggle, although the group recently restated its desire to join the PLO and unify the Palestinian cause. Irrespective of the wishes of the Israeli leadership, it will take the emergence of a new Palestinian president before the peace process can get back on track.