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Robert Danin on Abbas and the Palestinians

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.

So Abbas represents, if you will, that last of that generation of 1948 outsiders who came back with Arafat in 1993-1994, went to Gaza and ultimately to Ramallah and set up the institutions of the Palestinian Authority. This took place with some real friction with the insiders. What we’re seeing now are some of the so-called insiders starting to position themselves to take over these Palestinian institutions from the generation of the PLO in exile that surrounded Arafat such as Abbas, Abu Alaa a.k.a. Ahmed Qurei, and others who were historically associated with the Palestinian national movement.

When Abbas goes we will likely see someone emerge from within, from the West Bank and Gaza, not someone who’s going to come in from outside. There will also be a transition to a new generation: a generation of Palestinians whose defining experience was not necessarily the Nakba, the war of 1948. That means that the perspective, the interests, and the defining experiences of the next generation will be very different.

It is interesting to note, at this macroscopic level of Palestinian politics, that we are also seeing a transition regarding the role of the Palestinian national movement with the Arab world. In 1948 the Arab states went to war against Israel in order to liberate Palestine for the Palestinians. In essence, the Arab states took ownership of the Palestinian issue and said to the Palestinians: “It’s ours. You Palestinians fled. Your movement has fractured. We’re in charge.” This was Yasser Arafat’s revolution in the 1960’s — to push back against this and say, “We Palestinians are going to take back the leadership of the national struggle.” After the 1967 Six Day War, it was abundantly clear that the Arabs had failed to liberate Palestine.

Yet today, because of the fractured nature of the Palestinian movement between the West Bank and Gaza and between Fatah and Hamas, Palestinian politics is now getting caught up once more in the different rivalries and factions of the Arab world. Different Palestinian factions are going back to trying to enlist the support of different Arab and external actors to help them in their internal struggles, both within their movement and against rivals in other parts of the Palestinian national struggle. That contributes to making this such a critical moment.

OR: What does the situation in Gaza look like to you at the moment? What is your take on Yahya Sinwar?

Danin: The situation in Gaza is very difficult. The conditions are very bad. Hamas is weak and feeling the pinch because it’s being squeezed by Egypt, it’s being squeezed by Israel, and it’s being squeezed by Ramallah. We are seeing a transition in the leadership in Gaza. You had Sinwar take over the local leadership of Hamas in Gaza, which is quite significant. Then, several months later, you had the replacement of Khaled Meshaal — who heads the overall Hamas political movement and had been based in Syria and then in Qatar — by Ismail Haniya. The significance here is that Haniya is an insider, is also from Gaza.

In a sense, the most significant thing with the emergence of Sinwar in conjunction with the transition from Meshaal to Haniya is that the leadership of Hamas is now, both on the internal and external side, really based in Gaza. This means that you no longer have this significant inside-outside split. It shifts the center of gravity, the sense of priorities. The whole program changes.

For example, when Sinwar at first emerged as the new leader, people focused on his background and focused on the fact that he is very hardline. He is someone who spent 22 years in Israeli prison, who had been opposed to the Shalit deal that got him released because he thought that it was too big a concession by Hamas to obtain this release. This is a tough guy.

Yet subsequent developments have resulted in a surprising situation. One was a move by Hamas to try to establish some local autonomy in Gaza. This provoked a counterreaction by Abbas: he started to put real pressure on Gaza, to withhold payment of salaries to Palestinian authority officials in Gaza, to withhold subsidies for gas. It worsened the living conditions in Gaza. Abbas went so far as to urge Israel to squeeze Gaza even further, putting Israel in a very awkward place.

The result of that was for Sinwar to be more receptive to a proposal or an initiative that then came along from Muhammad Dahlan, from Fatah, who is aligned with the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. So you have Sinwar, this hardliner, all of a sudden starting to talk to and work with perhaps the biggest nemesis to Hamas in Gaza. The man who was at war literally with them in 2007, in a bloody confrontation: Muhammad Dahlan. So how do we judge Sinwar?

The way I read it is that this does not reflect any moderation in Sinwar and Hamas’s medium-to-long term aspirations — to take over the PLO and refuse any accommodation with Israel. Instead, it seems to me more of a recognition of the reality of the situation today, which is that Hamas and its primary constituency in Gaza are hurting very badly. Its revenue intake has been harmed tremendously by withholding of remittances by Ramallah, by money that’s been withheld from external sources. Thus, we’re seeing a shift within Hamas from a situation where you had Khaled Meshaal in Doha negotiating a new national platform to Sinwar saying, “No, our first priority is to address the needs of the people of Gaza today. That means we need to lift the burden of the siege.” That’s the Palestinian term for the containment and isolation of Gaza.

There is one other very important development, which is been a shifting approach by Egypt towards Gaza. This has created a new geopolitical environment in which Hamas and Gaza are operating. There is in Cairo, under Egyptian President Sisi, a very strong anti-Muslim Brotherhood government seeking to remove all vestiges of the Brotherhood in Egypt. It sees the Brotherhood as its arch foe throughout the region. Hamas, remember, in its orientation is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. After the Sisi government emerged in Egypt in 2013, Cairo took a new and very touch approach towards Hamas and towards Gaza. You saw for the first time Egypt strenuously working with its military and security services to prevent the smuggling and importation into Gaza of proscribed goods and weaponry. Egypt became perhaps even more adamant than Israel that Gaza should not turn into an irredentist threat to the region. Egypt clamping down on Gaza really put the squeeze on Hamas, much more than Israel has. So Hamas in Gaza finds itself really squeezed, both from Egypt from one end and Israel on the other. And it has really been chafing under this.

More recently, under Sinwar, Hamas has tried to find an opening to Egypt. And Cairo has said, “Okay, we can explore a possible modus vivendi under certain terms and with certain arrangements.” Egypt is now more willing to discuss with Hamas the opening of the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza that had been the lifeline for Gazans to get out of Gaza and into the Arab world and beyond. You have a willingness of Egypt to talk about trade and allowing economic development to take place.

Of course, Egypt has its own interests and its own desire for doing this. It’s less to do with the Gaza and more to do with the situation in Sinai where there is now this very militant cadre of ISIS and other jihadist groups that Egypt sees as even more of a threat. So in essence, the quid pro quo that Egypt is looking for is a tougher approach by Hamas towards these more militant groups, both inside Gaza and in Sinai, in exchange for, let’s say, improved conditions on the ground and a lifting of some of the most stringent elements of “the siege.”

Hamas is not necessarily of one mind about all this. You have one part of Hamas now talking to Dahlan in Cairo, backed by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. You have others within Hamas — particularly those still among the outside leadership and embodied by Khaled Meshaal’s former deputy, Mousa Mohammed (Abu Marzook) — who don’t like this at all. These “outsiders” still very much see Hamas’s natural alignment as being with the other elements in the Arab and Muslim world: Qatar, Turkey, and to some extent Lebanon. So now you have had an extreme hardliner from Hamas, Saleh al-Arouri, leave Qatar and go to Lebanon. In short, there still remain different power centers within Hamas, between those based in Gaza and others based elsewhere in the Arab world.

OR: Given all this, do you see the two-state solution as still viable?

Danin:  I think there is a difference between the idea of the two-state solution as the best possible outcome on the one hand, and the viability of pursuing, advancing, and realizing that goal right now. When it comes to the general idea of a two-state solution, you must look at the conflict between the Zionist national movement and the Palestinian Arab national movement — ongoing since at least the 1880’s. You have two national movements which claim the same territory for themselves. And every outside or international effort to address this conflict, from the Peel Commission in 1937 through the U.N. in 1947 onward, has come to the same conclusion.

Namely, that the only way these two national movements are going to realize their aspirations is through some form of partition. Today, partition means two states, Israel and Palestine. If you accept the idea, which I do, that these two national movements cannot live together and that there is not a political outcome that would reconcile these two national movements in one political entity, then the only alternative is separate political entities. It means that there is no such thing as a one-state solution. There may be a one-state outcome, but that is a recipe for enduring conflict.

So if you believe in partition, or in two states, then the question becomes: what are those separate entities? There’s been an evolution in the political thinking on both sides. From the Israeli side you had acceptance of the November 1947 United Nations General Assembly partition resolution calling for two states within the historic land of Israel or within the Palestine Mandate as designated by the League of Nations. The Palestinian national movement and the neighboring Arab states rejected it, but they have subsequently come significantly closer to accepting it. You now are in a situation where you still have a majority of Israelis and Palestinians who believe that the two-state solution is the best outcome. The polls suggest 53 percent of Israelis and 52 percent of Palestinians support a two-state solution — a slim majority on both sides.

The problem today is that at the same time you have 70-some-odd percentage of Palestinians and almost equal percentage of Israelis who think that such a two-state outcome will not be realized in the next five years. So there’s the idea of Israel and Palestine living side-by-side in peace and security, which President Bush identified as the goal for American foreign policy and as the best outcome for this conflict in 2002. And there’s the question: how do you get there?

We have two sets of realities that make the realization of this two-state goal very difficult. You have the respective political realities on both the Israeli side and on the Palestinian side, in which you have deep internal divisions. Both the Israelis and Palestinians share a lack of urgency and willingness to make the truly painful compromises that may be necessary in order to realize a conflict-ending solution. And given the respective internal divisions, we are in a situation today where it’s very difficult to imagine an overlap between the most flexible, forward-leaning, compromising Israeli position and the most flexible, compromising Palestinian position. That’s a huge political problem.

There’s also a reality problem, an on-the-ground problem. The 1993 Oslo Agreement launched a process of negotiating a final status agreement between the two sides. The core issues to be resolved include borders, territory, Jerusalem, refugees, and security arrangements. The landscape has changed dramatically in the period since those negotiations began. We’ve had the emergence of Palestinian self-rule in Gaza and parts of the West Bank on the one hand; on the other, we’ve had the subsequent fracturing and weakening of Palestinian politics and the division of Gaza from the West Bank. Meanwhle, we’ve seen dramatically changing demographic realities, such as the growth of settlements and increased settlers beyond the green line. It raises the question: is there a point at which the two national movements become so intermixed that a line of partition cannot be envisaged or, if envisaged, politically implemented?

At the end of the Obama administration, Secretary of State John Kerry argued that the expansion of Israeli settlement activity beyond the green line both inside the West Bank and East Jerusalem was nearing a tipping point such that within the next two years, it would be impossible to realize a two-state solution. And some analysts believe we are already there. I don’t agree with that. Yes, there are dynamics that put pressure on the viability of realizing and implementing a two-state solution. But we have not reached a point of no return.

One goal of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations has been to find a way in which you would draw a border between the West Bank and Israel. Given the changes on the ground, any solution will require some degree of territorial swap to try to bring the largest Israeli settlement blocs into Israel by gerrymandering the border.

Those who argue that a two-state solution is nearly impossible argue that the higher the number of settlers living in the West Bank, the harder any such partition will be to envisage. Otherwise, if there were an agreement, more settlers would either have to remain in a Palestinian state or somehow be repatriated to Israel either voluntarily, through economic incentives and other legislative incentives, or involuntarily — as we saw with the Gaza disengagement. There is a point at which there will simply be too many Israelis that would need to be moved. But I don’t think we’re there.

I think the most immediate challenge is the divide between the West Bank and Gaza that creates a situation in which you have internal Palestinian politics drifting ever farther apart, with no contact, and fewer and fewer shared interests amongst Palestinians. It becomes harder to imagine what a unified Palestinian political platform would be, much less a Palestinian state that is divided by a salient of Israeli territory.

That gets to this unbelievable catch-22 that Abbas finds himself in. Here is a leader who is committed to non-violence and a negotiated settlement with Israel as the means to attain Palestinian national aspirations. He needs the realization of that goal in order to produce political results. For Abbas to gain legitimacy amongst his own people he needs to produce. But he can’t produce because he doesn’t have the legitimacy. Put another way, he needs and seeks a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital to bolstered himself in Palestinian politics, and then be in a position to enhance his legitimacy and therefore unify Palestinian politics around him and around this idea. But he’s not going to get that state without having the legitimacy to make the kind of compromise that would be required to reach the deal with Israel. That’s why I call it a catch-22. It’s a paradox: on the one hand, he needs to negotiate and make historic compromises, but he doesn’t have the legitimacy to do so. And he needs the deal in order to get the legitimacy. This is why I believe he has pursued, instead, an international approach — to try to put external pressure on Israel to make concessions rather than make more himself.

The conditions on the ground today are difficult. I mentioned the challenge of the settlement activity. I mentioned the challenge of a divided Palestinian policy. You also have also the challenges of security. Amongst the Palestinians, you do not have a monopoly on the use of force, which is one of the key attributes of statehood. Mahmoud Abbas does not control all of the organs of Palestinian military arms. Gaza is under the control of Hamas, a terrorist organization deemed as such by most of the international community. And Hamas, especially now, is all the more unwilling to cede and relinquish the military control that it has.

Abbas is exerting political and financial pressure on Gaza, which is putting a real hardship on its people and the national struggle. That pressure is very unpopular in Gaza and even in the West Bank. His priority is not to improve the conditions in Gaza. It’s to advance his political agenda against Hamas and its allies. In that kind of environment you do not have any prospect of a unification of the Palestinian security organs, let alone the political ones. In that environment, how can we talk about the realization of a two-state solution?

Now, to me, all this points to a greater need for an internationally agreed-upon shared goal: some form of partition or the two-state solution such as the one that has been accepted by Israel, the moderate Palestinian leadership, and the international community as the least problematic and least undesirable solution. There are lot of problems with a two-state solution. It leaves everyone dissatisfied. It leaves both national movements facing very painful compromises. But no one has produced a better idea about how you reconcile those two national movements. If you enshrine the idea of the two-state solution as the goal, then it seems to me that the purpose of subsequent statecraft is to position each of the key parties on a trajectory towards achieving that. Efforts need to be harnessed around a new roadmap towards getting to that point.

What I’m trying to say is that pushing these two parties to a negotiation now will not succeed for important, rational, and legitimate political-structural reasons. Even if Abbas and Netanyahu today could agree as individuals on a platform or a political settlement, neither could sell it to their people, much less implement it between them. Given that reality, how do we get to a place where they can negotiate? To me, the starting point is not to go to the negotiating table. You go to the negotiating table when you have a prospect for success and a situation amongst the two sides and between them well-prepared for political compromise. Otherwise, as we have seen, the currency of negotiations becomes debased each time we open up a new round of negotiatons. It has resulted in a majority of Israelis and Palestinians viewing negotiations as a joke: “Ah, here they go again, more talks, blah, blah, blah. Nothing’s going to happen.” That’s harmful. For negotiations to succeed, Israelis and Palestinians have to believe negotiations can succeed. Therefore, you need prepare the groundwork for it. I’ve used the term groundwork broadly to mean both on the ground and figuratively, to mean politically, institutionally and otherwise.

So both sides have huge challenges. The bigger challenge right now, I believe, is on the Palestinian side. Israeli institutions exist and are entrenched. You can’t say the same thing for the Palestinians. We need to see them unifying and bringing together the various and ever-fragmenting Palestinian bodies towards some shared vision of a Palestinian national agenda, towards a monopoly of power, towards a resuscitation of institutions and towards processes that rehabilitate and invigorate Palestinian political life. When you have a situation like today, where Palestinian political life is moribund, there is no space for a national debate about a national platform and a way forward. If you have identified a two-state solution as the goal, then you start with a work plan where each side has to start taking steps to get his house in order with the goal of having unified actors that are emboldened, are legitimized, and in a position of authority. Then they can go to the negotiating table from a position of strength, at least internally, and thereby make the painful compromises that are necessary for a serious and an enduring settlement to be reached.