How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to name a successor, hold elections, or reform the PA’s corrupt institutions is pushing his rivals to unite against him. The staunchest of enemies—from members of Hamas to former members of the PA, including the Western-educated reformer Salam Fayyad and the exiled Fatah strongman Mohammad Dahlan—have found common ground in their quest to dethrone the aging Palestinian leader.
Abbas’ politics of exclusion has driven his rivals together. He has refused to name a deputy and continues to forestall any attempts at political reform in the West Bank. His Fatah party is meant to hold a conference once every five years to elect new leadership, yet it has been six years since the last conference, and Abbas continues to postpone the next one. Meanwhile, he persists in attacking dissidents in the West Bank, arresting journalists and citizens for critical articles and Facebook posts.
The newfound alliance between Hamas and Fayyad was evident in early December, when Fayyad made a surprise visit to the Gaza Strip, where he urged political reform. As prime minister of the Fatah-dominated PA from 2007 to 2013, Fayyad instituted policies of moderation, reform, and pragmatism that earned him few friends in Gaza, where Hamas members accused him of enacting vindictive policies. When the two parties signed a unity agreement in 2011, one of Hamas’ demands was that Fayyad resign. When he finally did resign in 2013, Hamas officials cheered. Some of the bad blood remains: his recent speech evoked a visceral reaction from some Hamas officials, who protested his visit.
Abbas’ politics of exclusion has driven his rivals together.
As Abbas has grown more and more closed off, however, Fayyad’s relationship with Hamas has improved. Fayyad fell out with Abbas in 2013 over Abbas’ controversial campaign to seek recognition for Palestine at the United Nations. According to reports, Fayyad’s disagreement with the campaign, which he saw as a diplomatic distraction that would only threaten donor aid to the PA, was so vehement that he broke his hand during a meeting after slamming a table in protest. When Abbas finally forced Fayyad out of the PA in 2013, many Palestine watchers thought Fayyad’s political career was over. But he soon launched a grass-roots-focused NGO in the West Bank, began funding local start-up projects, and started changing his tone on Hamas. In October 2014, he called for the creation of an umbrella political organization that would include “all PLO factions and those not affiliated with it,” a clear fig leaf to Hamas. He went further in March, when he explicitly urged that the Islamist movements be included in such a body. As Fayyad wrote, these parties would be “assured of genuine partnership in the Palestinians’ pursuit of their national aspirations.
Still, it's one thing to write articles about incorporating Hamas and quite another to speak at a Hamas event in Gaza. Since Hamas took control of the coastal enclave after a five-day internecine conflict in 2007, officials from the Fatah-dominated PA have been loath to visit the territory. During Hamas’ grueling 50-day war with Israel that summer, protesters pelted the PA health minister with rocks upon his arrival in the territory, and in April, Hamas kept a delegation of PA ministers under house arrest in their hotels, only to send them back to the West Bank within hours of their arrival.
For the moment, Fayyad’s relationship with Hamas may be more pragmatic than ideological, but his visit to Gaza represents some level of coordination with Hamas and may also point to coordination with another Abbas rival: Mohammad Dahlan. The former head of the PA’s security forces in Gaza and a member of Fatah’s Central Committee, Dahlan appears to have mended fences with Hamas as well.
As head of the PA’s security forces in Gaza in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Dahlan was the man responsible for cracking down on Hamas. Yet his men lost control of Gaza in the 2007 war with Hamas, and Abbas subsequently used that defeat to force him out of the West Bank. Today, the 54-year-old makes his home in Abu Dhabi, where he works as a diplomat-for-hire and continues to pursue influence by pumping money into the West Bank and Gaza. Last year, he coordinated with Hamas, his old rivals, to host an anti-Abbas rally in Gaza (protesters held signs with Abbas’ head in a noose). Later that year, one senior Hamas official was quoted as saying, “Dahlan’s past is better than Abbas’ present.”
Already, Abbas has targeted the Fayyad-Dahlan nexus. In August 2014, he launched an investigation into Fayyad’s NGO for alleged financial links to the Gulf countries, particularly to Dahlan’s hosts in the United Arab Emirates. In June, Abbas froze the NGO’s bank accounts. Meanwhile, Abbas has been waging a judicial battle to nullify Dahlan’s membership in the defunct Palestinian parliament. In April, a judge ruled that Abbas’ seizure of Fayyad’s assets and his attempts to expel Dahlan from parliament were unlawful.
It is no wonder that Abbas has responded to the possible collusion among his rivals with such heavy-handedness. Such a partnership, however informal, would pose a substantial threat to the Palestinian president. A combination of Hamas’ popularity on the street, Fayyad’s appeal to foreign donors, and Dahlan’s sway within Fatah could ultimately topple the only leader Palestinians have known for the past decade.
Though potentially powerful if they combined forces, Fayyad, Dahlan, and Hamas have such wildly different views of governance that an alliance is unlikely to last long into the post-Abbas era. But when the short-term goal is to replace Abbas, those distinctions don’t really matter.