Abu-Mazen’s Succession Strategy

By January 15, 2005

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 1

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY : Abu Mazen is seeking to amass power as quickly as possible. His election as president of the Palestinian Authority is the easy part of his task. Sharing power with an elected legislature will prove much more difficult and dangerous, which is the reason why Abu Mazen will probably postpone such elections indefinitely. So many different centers of political and para-military power in the PA exist, each with widely differing ideological agendas, that an Abu Mazen government will be hard pressed to gain an overall monopoly of power. Meaningful negotiations with Israel can only take place if Abu Mazen consolidates power – and uses this power to confront and control more extreme factions. On both counts, Abu Mazen’s chances remain doubtful.

The elections in the Palestinian Authority, on January 9, 2005, pose great challenges for Arafat’s successors. Immediately after the death of Yassir Arafat, Mahmud Abbas (Abu Mazen), who was elected chairman of the executive council of the PLO, proposed a strategy that tried to deal with the dilemma of centralizing power, on the one hand, while meeting demands for greater pluralism and reform, as a long-term goal, on the other. This was to be achieved by first conducting elections only for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and by deferring the elections to the Legislative Council to a later stage.

In 1996, both were held simultaneously. However, in 2005, the idea was to buy time until the security forces could be consolidated and retrained to protect the regime from the massive trials ahead. Centralizing power is also a precondition for serious negotiations with Israel. In order to appreciate the difficulties of consolidating power, one has to understand the political legacy left by Arafat, the strategic debate between statists and revolutionaries, and the challenge of the opposition, mainly the Hamas, to Fatah.

Arafat’s Legacy

Arafat’s divide-and-rule tactics, his insistence on dealing with personalities rather than institutions, his involvement in even the most minute details of ministries, security agencies and factions, and sheer brutality, meant that he left almost no institution unscarred.

The Legislative Council was one of his first casualties. Arafat showed no reservations about directly threatening council members into silence. He also silenced criticism from within the Legislative Council by offering the most prominent members of the opposition seats in the cabinet. The resignation of Haidar Abd al-Shafi, one of its highly-regarded senior members, in December 1997, in protest of “the executive’s disregard of the legislature, especially Arafat’s unwillingness to ratify the Basic Law,” was one of the most telling examples of the inability of the Legislative Council to rein in the executive.

Nor was Arafat kinder to other more veteran institutions within the PLO and Fatah. The Palestinian National Council, which was to serve as the legislative assembly of the movement and elector of the executive committee, met only twice between 1992 and 2000, despite the fact this was supposed to be an annual event.

Fatah fared even worse under Arafat. Fatah’s general conference last met in Tunis in 1989. The conference was not convened again, despite the dramatic developments that took place since then.

Perhaps Arafat’s greatest failure lies in his treatment of the PA’s security services. In balancing between geographic areas, between the old-guard loyalists he brought with him from Tunis and elsewhere and the local Palestinian activists, he set up at least a dozen security agencies to control a space no larger than 2,000 square kilometers.

A commission of the Legislative Council, set up in July 2004, laid much of the blame on Arafat for the inability of the security forces to cope with lawlessness in Gaza. Chief of General Intelligence Amin al-Hindi’s testimony before the commission was perhaps the most telling. He blamed “a lack of institutions from the outset, a lack of rules and regulations, with no clear goals and no unequivocal handling of the security forces. Nobody was put on trial for violating rules because there were no rules, and since there were no budgets, security forces began operating at the whim of their commanders, and … looking for new authority for themselves.”

Between Statists and Revolutionaries

Abu Mazen also inherited a domestic arena riveted by debates over the appropriate strategic action. The first group, supported by Arafat, sanctioned cooperation both between security forces and Fatah, and the Islamic movements. This alliance tried to emulate the Lebanese model by assuming that Palestinian violence alone could force the withdrawal of Israeli troops and lead to the establishment of the Palestinian state.

An opposing coalition comprising of the senior advisors to Arafat (Mamduh Nufal and Hani al-Hasan), leading negotiators (Sa’ib Ariqat, Nabil Shaath and Abu Mazen), and the senior security elite (strong-men like Jibril Rajub and Muhammad Dahlan, the heads of Preventive Security in the West Bank and Gaza, respectively), feared that such a strategy of escalation would justify an intensification of Israel’s use of force, which, given its military might, could threaten the mere existence of the PA. These “statists” staked their claim with the PA. The leaders of the Fatah-Tanzim and the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ brigades, by contrast, consisted of activists from the first intifada (1987-1993) who believed that they did not receive the rewards they deserved in the course of the establishment of the PA.

Relations between statists and revolutionaries were strained. Amongst Fatah and especially Hamas activists, there were growing voices calling for the dissolution of the PA altogether. As far as they were concerned, a state-in-the-making, concerned with economic welfare, allocation of resources and political rewards, could not effectively define clear strategic objectives and even less so carry them out effectively. Worse still, the PA relieved Israel of the burden of administering the affairs of over three million Palestinians without being able to prevent Israeli military control in the territories.

Taking into consideration this statist/revolutionary cleavage, Abu Mazen realized that if he does not achieve the backing of both statists and revolutionaries in Fatah, he would have to share power with the Hamas and Islamic Jihad or else face demands for the dissolution of the PA altogether. Sharing power with Hamas and Islamic Jihad would also mean the end of any prospect of peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which Abu Mazen seeks.

Winning Round One

After Arafat’s death, the revolutionaries within the PA-Fatah nexus had to decide whether they were going to split, or to help Abu Mazen consolidate power. In the face of the challenge of a popular Hamas to Fatah, the revolutionaries chose the latter option. Of critical importance was the support of Zakariya al-Zubaydi, the Jenin-based head of al-Aqsa Martyrs’ brigades in the West Bank, who expressed the determination of his militia to give support to the leader chosen by the lawful frameworks of the movement for the position of head of the Palestinian Authority without, however, mentioning Abu Mazen by name.

Winning round one was, however, hardly easy, and some of the debts in the form of promises made to the Fatah-Tanzim and rank-and-file, incurred in the course of winning it, might impinge on chances for securing victory in the legislative council elections against Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Assurances of reforming Fatah institutions became a key issue in Abu Mazen’s quest to win Fatah endorsement as its sole candidate in the presidential race. However, his first attempts to secure their endorsement backfired because he convened the Central Committee, controlled by the old guard “Tunis-PLO,” without turning to other institutional frameworks within the Fatah fold, in deciding his candidacy. As result, the Higher Movement Council, composed of the local Fatah (formerly headed by Marwan Barghuthi), severely criticized the working Fatah’s Central Committee for disregarding the rank-and-file and its relevant frameworks, and only agreed to endorse Abu Mazen’s candidacy and pressure Marwan Barghuthi to withdraw his candidacy after Abu Mazen and the Central Committee gave assurances for the future convening of the Fatah conference at a date no later than August 2005 and for the reactivation of the grassroots frameworks linked to the Higher Movement Committee , controlled by the revolutionaries, to decide the conference’s membership.

Subsequent Rounds

But Abu Mazen’s strategy, of centralizing power before diffusing it, met with greater resistance from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the other radical factions, which insisted that the presidential and legislative elections take place simultaneously.

In order to reduce resistance to holding the presidential elections independently, Abu Mazen told faction leaders, including Hamas, in Gaza, that he intended to hold legislative elections in April. Yet, this position did not become official policy, and on December 3, 2004, Hamas announced that it would call to boycott the presidential elections. Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine soon followed Hamas’ lead.

The reasoning of Abu Mazen to separate the two elections compelled Hamas to reject his strategy. Hamas wanted at the very least to share power with Abu Mazen and Fatah and believed this could be achieved through succeeding in the elections to the Legislative Council. Holding presidential elections exclusively would enhance Abu Mazen’s power, and Hamas had no assurances that the elections for the Legislative Council would ever take place. The opposition’s boycott constituted a failure of Abu Mazen in his quest to consolidate power. Only a very high participation rate and a decisive electoral victory could even partially offset Hamas’ decision to remain an essentially anti-systemic actor.

Even in such an event, Abu Mazen will face at least three major challenges. First, there will probably be considerable pressure from Fatah ranks to postpone elections for the Legislative Council until at least after the convening of the Fatah conference, especially if the electoral bill proposing an electoral system in which half of the seats would be decided by proportional representation becomes law. Such postponements will increase the likelihood that the Islamic opposition will demand the dissolution of the PA.

Sticking to his promise to hold the conference, in turn, will empower the local Fatah at the expense of attempts to centralize power by creating effective security forces. Tensions will take a personal turn, pivoting two key individuals in succession battles in the future: Marwan Barghuthi, whom the conference will likely empower as the leader of the local Fatah and of the “revolutionaries,” and Muhammad Dahlan whom Abu Mazen will be relying upon to give him the security tools he so lacks at present.

Unilateral withdrawal from Gaza presents the third challenge. It will remove the Israeli presence that contributed to the little political unity left in Gaza, increasing the prospects that tensions between would-be successors, between the local activists and the old guard, and the PLO and Hamas, will harm attempts at consolidating a Palestinian political center whose absence can only reduce the prospect of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians as well.

What Abu Mazen needs to be able to make the difficult compromises with Israel is a good centralized security force and a great deal of courage.

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Prof. Hillel Frisch
Prof. Hillel Frisch

Prof. Hillel Frisch is a professor of political studies and Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. Email: [email protected]