Nation in Waiting

An Interview with Robert Danin

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has proven to be one of the world’s most intractable. The eyes of global observers are focused, usually, on Israel’s side of the question. The Palestinians, of course, have their own political life and institutions. These remain too often ignored in international discussion. Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, knows Palestinian politics from the ground up as few other Western analysts do. Here, he explains the incredibly fragile status of the main contestants within the Palestinian body politic and the fog that surrounds the next big inevitability there: the exit of Mahmoud Abbas.

Mahmoud Abbas.

Octavian Report: What happens in Palestinian politics after Mahmoud Abbas exits the political scene?

Robert Danin: It's an excellent question. Mahmoud Abbas wears three political hats simultaneously. He is the head of Fatah, which is the largest political body within Palestinian politics. He is also head of the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is the umbrella organization that encompasses most of the Palestinian political factions both inside the West Bank and Gaza and throughout the Palestinian diaspora. At the same time he is the Rais, or President, of the Palestinian Authority, the interim government established under the Oslo Accords in 1993 to administer Gaza and parts of the West Bank. He wears these three hats simultaneously, but they are not identical hats. They play different roles that are overlapping.

Yasser Arafat, who preceded Abbas, also wore those three hats and was the head of those three different overlapping entities. The difference was that under Arafat, the lines of succession were very clear. Abbas was the designated successor. So when Arafat died in 2004, there was a quick, smooth, and peaceful transition.

Today, Palestinian politics are in an entirely different place. Though Abbas wears all three hats, there really are no clear, agreed-upon lines of succession for any of these three institutions. Each of them has unique political problems that will make the succession very messy when it comes. So the paths taken to clarify all of this political uncertainty will affect the eventual choice of successor.

As a result, before we even talk about who might succeed Mahmoud Abbas as the leader of the Palestinian national movement, we have to talk about the how the next leader or set of leaders will likely emerge. When it comes to the Palestinian Authority, for example, were there to be a sudden transition tomorrow, the Palestinian Basic Law says the interim head of the PA would be the speaker of its parliament, the Palestinian Legislative Council. Now, it just so happens that the speaker of the council is a member of Hamas. There we then run into a problem. The PLC has not met for some seven years. More significantly, the violent split between Hamas and Fatah has now obtained for the last 10 years. Given that the Palestinian Authority has been largely incapacitated politically as a result of that rift, it is highly unlikely that the succession will work as it is designed on paper. It's hard to imagine that Fatah or the PLO will just hand over the Palestinian Authority to Hamas in that scenario. It's equally inconceivable that Hamas will not demand that it do so. Just in that one line, in that one silo, you have the seeds of a succession crisis.

This is why the efforts between Fatah and Hamas to reconcile or create some form of consensus are so important. The Palestinian people very much want political reconciliation. And the respective leaders purport to want it as well. But when it comes to relinquishing power and control to make it happen, things have been stuck for years. So while unity declarations are noteworthy, it will only be when one or more key Palestinian parties are ready to subordinate their narrow interests to larger Palestinian national interests that fundamental change can come.

When you turn to the PLO, you have a different set of challenges. The PLO was recognized first by the Arab states as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” in the late 1960's. Over 100 countries have recognized the PLO. And it is with the PLO that Israel signed the Oslo Accords in 1993. The PLO is the body empowered to negotiate Palestinian foreign relations and ultimately peace with Israel.

Procedurally, the PLO’s Executive Committee (comprised of fewer than two dozen members) is empowered to elect the next chairman, which is what happened when Yasser Arafat died in office in 2004. The Executive Committee is elected by the Palestinian National Council, the PLO’s legislative body comprised of over 700 members. The PNC hasn't met since the 1990's. This institutional sclerosis has helped fuel serious issues of legitimacy. Further contributing to this is the fact that institutional representation within the PLO is limited. For example, Hamas is not a member of the PLO because it refuses to accept the PLO’s recognition of Israel’s right to exist, U.N. Security Resolutions 242 and 338, and the rejection of violence and terrorism. That was not a problem when Hamas was small and not very popular. But it became entirely different after Hamas both won Palestinian-wide elections and violently took over Gaza. So you could imagine that any succession scenario today within the PLO would have critics on the outside. It would likely be rejected, considered illegitimate, or somehow deemed irrelevant to Hamas and its control in Gaza in the absence of fundamental changes on the ground.

On the question of Fatah itself, there has been an effort by Abbas to address some of the internal institutional drift. He convened the Fatah Central Council last November in Ramallah. Yet that effort was less about designating a clear successor or procedures than about trying to prevent certain people from ascending within Fatah, namely Muhammad Dahlan and his associates. So all this is by way of saying that after Abbas leaves power, there will be a real political crisis for the Palestinians given the deep divisions, structural as well as political, alongside the unclear lines of succession. This is further exacerbated by the fact that these institutions, because they've been moribund for so long, are lacking in vitality, vibrancy -- indeed, I would say legitimacy. Elections have not taken place. Legislatures have not met. Politics as such is not happening. That makes for a very problematic succession.

 OR: Who are some names that we might see come to the fore in the event of Abbas's departure?

Danin:  It's more helpful to think in terms of different constituencies that will produce individuals rather than try to identify the individuals themselves. What we're seeing really is that Abbas represents the last of a generation and of a cadre of a people who rose up through the Palestinian national movement and who came there from the defining moment for the Palestinians in 1948. Mahmoud Abbas originally came from Safed. He left. He wound up in Syria and Qatar and became an outsider, as Palestinians refer to it, and became associated with the PLO and the movement "outside." At the time Israel and the PLO recognized each other as part of what we call the Oslo Agreement, the PLO was the umbrella organization. The center of gravity of the PLO was outside. They had been in Amman. Then they went to Beirut after “Black September.” They ultimately wound up in Tunis after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. That Tunis group was the group that Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres negotiated with and concluded an agreement with. The Oslo Agreement allowed them to come back, if you will, to the inside. But what it produced was a Palestinian transition and the primacy of the PLO -- or put another way, of the outsiders over the insiders.