After Abbas, An Abyss

The Palestinian Succession Crisis

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas waits for the start of a meeting with Italy's Prime Minister Romano Prodi in Abbas' office in the West Bank city of Ramallah July 10, 2007. Loay Abu Haykel / Reuters

On a quiet Friday afternoon last December, a rumor that began as a whisper quickly became a shout. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the story went, was rushed to the hospital with an undisclosed ailment. Abbas’ supposed health scare set off a worldwide frenzy of speculation on social media until he finally appeared in a Ramallah grocery store later in the day, shaking hands and pinching babies. This rushed public appearance among the people—a rare occurrence for Abbas—was broadcast live on Palestinian television. The message was made clear: Abbas is fine, and still in command. The question that needs to be asked, however, is what happens when this is no longer true.

Abbas recently turned 80 and is known to be an industrious smoker. His successor by law is the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Hamas official Aziz Duwaik. Duweik is currently imprisoned in Israel, but even if he were free, there would be no chance of a parliamentary speaker from Hamas taking the reins of power in the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian parliament has not met in over seven years, and Abbas himself is now a decade into a four-year presidential term that began in 2005. Laws regulating transitions of political power are thus irrelevant: Abbas rules by presidential decree in the West Bank; Hamas rules by the gun in the Gaza Strip. Presidential and legislative elections have been suggested for some time, yet neither Hamas nor Fatah likely want them to take place in the near future.

Mahmoud Abbas Succession in Palestine 2
Palestinian members of the Fatah movement roll down a poster of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a rally to mark the 46th anniversary of the group's foundation in the West Bank city of Jenin January 1, 2011. Abed Omar Qusini / Reuters

Legalities aside, the clear assumption is that the next president after Abbas will hail from Fatah, which continues to dominate Palestinian political life. No clear successor has come to the forefront, however, let alone one that has been officially designated by the party.

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