PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY

Mahmoud Abbas’ Succession: A Rising Star and Lots of Rumors

The Palestinian prime minister has been rising to prominence since his han-dling of the health crisis was applauded by all parties. But his accession to the presidency is far from guaranteed.


Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh on December 4, 2019 in Ramallah. Mohammad Torkman/File Photo/Reuters

He is the new face of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Mohammad Shtayyeh, the 62-year-old incumbent prime minister, has been managing a plan to contain Covid-19 with an iron fist since the first case in the West Bank was reported on March 5 in Bethlehem. His daily televised appearances have become emblematic of his energetic and transparent approach, which has won him the hearts of the Palestinians and a growing space within the local political scene. A popular figure and media darling, some believe that Shtayyeh is increasingly eclipsing a weak-ened and sick octogenarian president. He has become the main favorite candidate to succeed Mahmoud Abbas as president. But are these projections more than rumors in political circles?

The debate over presidential succession is nothing new: It emerged in 2018 in the wake of Abbas’ health problems, and has since remained controversial. But Shtayyeh’s appointment as prime minister in March 2019, growing commitment and rocketing popularity have fueled the rumors and revived the debate.

The prime minister’s personality is the key argument justifying the legitimacy for his possible ascension to the presidency."Shtayyeh is known for his talent as a speaker, a powerful communicator and someone who has risen within the hierar-chy of Fatah (Abbas’ party) thanks to these skills and his hard work. This distin-guishes him from his predecessors," said Asem Khalil, a public law specialist and professor at the Birzeit University.

His pro-reactive and effective management of the (coronavirus) crisis, allowed the government to gain the confidence of 96% of the population, according to a re-cent poll. "The prime minister gained new visibility over the president, even more so during the coronavirus crisis, where it became clear that he initiated coordina-tion work on the ground," said Hanan Ashrawi, a former Palestinian spokeswom-an. "His success is neither transient nor theatrical but the result of effective action and public appreciation," said Dr. Khalil Shikaki, professor of political science and director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) in Ramallah.

Nothing Confirmed or Guaranteed

But given the magnitude of the economic and political challenges ahead, it is still too early to judge whether this popular success will last. "During an epidemic, people rally behind their governments. We have to wait and see whether this po-litical advantage will be translated in the future, especially that we already see looming criticism concerning the economic management of the crisis," said Ali Jarbawi, a professor at the Birzeit University who served as minister under former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Beyond these preliminary observations, scenarios of possible changes at the pres-idency are hence still mere assumptions. There is no guarantee or confirmation: Other candidates are to be considered in a paralyzed legislative and political sys-tem that prevents the democratic process from being decisive as it should. "There is a legal issue: The Palestinian Legislative Council has been suspended since the 2007 split (between Gaza and the West Bank).Therefore, if the president’s post becomes vacant, we neither have a parliament nor a parliament speaker to hold the elections," Jarbawi said.

This amounts to saying that the appointment of the new president will be at the discretion of the main force on the ground, Fatah, a movement founded by Yasser Arafat in 1959 and a major political force within the Palestine Liberation Organi-zation (PLO). "It is the movement’s central committee that ultimately will decide. Mohammad Shtayyeh is a member (of the committee), but only one member among others," Jarbawi said. "Being prime minister, he hence holds the second topmost post after the president, and this increases his chances of succeeding the president, but does not make the process automatic or guarantee the post."

Others, like Khalil Shikaki, are far more skeptical about the prospect of an immi-nent succession. “We have to put aside these rumors, which are almost totally unfounded. The race for succession is still dormant. Mr. Shtayyeh is not the num-ber two in the hierarchy within Fatah, his original party. So he is not a serious candidate at this stage," said the PCPSR head, for whom the prime minister will have to confront other strong candidates, such as Marwan Barghouti, Jibril Ra-joub, Nasser al-Qudwa and Mahmoud al-Aloul, or even Saeb Erakat, the PLO’s secretary-general.

The Specter of Collapse

But beyond the party’s internal power games and dynamics, the deepening eco-nomic crisis and the possibility of Israel’s forthcoming annexation of part of the West Bank may jeopardize not only the popularity of the prime minister and the ruling elite, but also the very existence of the PA. "The consequences of the eco-nomic crisis are staggering, not least because external assistance is lacking: Those who usually support us are currently busy managing their crises. The PA is there-fore no longer in a position to fulfill its financial commitments," Jarbawi said.

The specter of economic collapse underscores the intrinsic limitations of the Pales-tinian leadership, which was created on promises of a peace that never hap-pened. On the eve of a possible annexation of part of the West Bank, the PA seems to have lost the bet on a two-state peaceful solution, and with it the very reasons for its existence."What will be the fate of the West Bank if the PA’s living conditions are no longer secured? The future of the PA as a whole is uncertain, not just from the point of view of Israel or the international community, but also from the point of view of the Palestinians themselves: What is the purpose of hav-ing an authority that is unable to become a state, gain independence or end the occupation?" Jarbawi said.


(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 8th of May)


He is the new face of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Mohammad Shtayyeh, the 62-year-old incumbent prime minister, has been managing a plan to contain Covid-19 with an iron fist since the first case in the West Bank was reported on March 5 in Bethlehem. His daily televised appearances have become emblematic of his energetic and transparent approach, which has won him the hearts of the...

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