April 7, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: The Palestinian Authority: Local Politics Trump Effective Leadership
• The current bitter divisions between Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and his opponents in both Hamas and Fatah, particularly former PA security chief Mohammed Dahlan, are severely limiting not only the PA’s ability to negotiate with Israel but to even begin meaningful talks
• Internal divisions, shaped more than usual right now by shifting regional power dynamics, further complicate the PA’s moribund state of affairs, making it politically impossible for Abbas to proceed from a viable negotiating position
• The battle between Abbas and Dahlan will play a large role in who succeeds Abbas as head of Fatah and likely the PA, with enormous implications for Palestinian unity efforts and future talks with Israel.
Lost in the geopolitical discussions over the faltering Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is the driving role of local politics in Palestinian decisions. Most significant among the issues is the public feud between two leading Palestinian figures, with enormous implications for the future of near-term peace talks and long-term Palestinian goals. The dispute is between PA President Mahmoud Abbas and former PA security chief Mohammed Dahlan. Abbas, known to Palestinians as Abu Mazen, is the 79 year-old head of Fatah (the Arabic language reverse acronym for Haraka al-Tahrir al-Watan al-Filistini, or Palestinian National Liberation Movement) the most significant political party of the PA and the West Bank. Dahlan, 52 years old and also known as Abu Fadi, was a senior member of Fatah until he was kicked out of the party and exiled to the United Arab Emirates. How this uncommonly public and negative war of words between the two men plays out in the coming months will help determine Abbas’ replacement as head of Fatah and possibly the PA, which in turn will shape future relations with Hamas and with Israel. All politics is indeed local, but internal Palestinian political affairs have regional and global con-sequences.
Palestinian politics are complicated even more than usual by Middle Eastern states seeking some role or leverage in what has become a static issue in a suddenly dynamic neighborhood—everything appears in motion except for the peace talks. While living in Abu Dhabi, Dahlan is in unofficial league with anti-Muslim Brotherhood states such as UAE, Saudi Arabia, and now Egypt. Though Abbas has managed to avoid alienating nearly everyone, including Syria and Iran, his side-stepping definitive positions on crucial issues has muted popular support. With many shifting geopolitical actors affecting increasingly poisonous local politics, the PA’s current ability—in any objective assessment—to make positive changes is highly questionable.
Shifting Regional Dynamics
Palestinian infighting is nothing new, but the regional changes coinciding with and amplifying this bitter fight between Abbas and Dahlan supporters add a level of regional importance to the internal struggle not seen in years. Recent pertinent events and trends include:
Increasing sentiment that a comprehensive peace plan between Israel and the Palestinians is simply implausible, even with economic, demographic, and ecological factors on the ground making the need for progress on a peace plan ever more pressing.
The decade since Yasser Arafat’s death has seen revolutionary change in leader-ship across the region (with positive and negative results) while the PA remains, much as it was under Arafat, unable to unify.
Egypt, the long-time regional Arab power, has gone through a revolution and a counter-revolution, devastating Hamas’ standing and nudging it back to the Iranian orbit, while leaving the Palestinians without one of their biggest intermediaries and the region missing one of its biggest negotiating players. With a battered economy and extreme internal divisions, Egypt won’t likely be playing a Camp David-like role in brokering chronic regional problems.
Saudi Arabia, another long-time supporter of the Palestinian cause, has come out sharply against the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is an offshoot—again leaving Hamas in a difficult situation. Saudi Arabia is also more focused on the threat it believes Iran poses to the region than on playing a leading role in complicated Palestinian issues.
Turkey, a long-time and current supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and Palestinian issues, has just completed elections that solidified Prime Minister Erdogan’s power. Erdogan has signaled positive moves towards Israel after several years of tension that included the suspension of cooperation after the 2010 Israeli raid on the Gaza-bound Turkish flotilla. It is unclear how a newly emboldened Erdogan will balance his support for the Palestinians, including Hamas, and a desire to improve ties with Israel.
At one level, the fight can be seen as somewhat of a shifting of power between generations, with Abbas joining Fatah the year Dahlan was born and Dahlan coming of age 20 years later in an entirely different time and reality. Dahlan is hardly an outsider. He had a controversial tenure as head of security and battles with Ha-mas that were part of the circumstances that led to its complete control of Gaza in 2007. But he has long argued that Abbas was ineffective in dealing with internal corruption, as well as with Israel. Adding to the generational drama is the public accusation made by Abbas hinting that Dahlan poisoned Arafat. There have been accusations and counter-accusations between the two rivals for years but nothing on the scale of Abbas alleging Dahlan’s complicity in the murder the iconic Palestinian figure.
Further complicating and limiting any Palestinian room to negotiate with Israel, both men now charge the other with excessive collaboration or collusion with foes, an ironic situation given that both men gained power in part as a result of their perceived effectiveness in working with the West. The result of this charged rhetoric is a PA unable to negotiate for the future; able only to fulminate against the present and past.
While Fatah fights itself, rival faction Hamas has neither been able to gain from the situation nor hold the power it once had. Egypt’s stifling the Muslim Brotherhood has hurt Hamas significantly, with legal and illegal cross-border commerce into Gaza from Egypt now greatly reduced. Making a bad situation worse, Saudi Arabia’s designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization has crippled any financial or political support Hamas once relied upon from donors in the Kingdom. The possibility of Dahlan reentering politics adds another unwanted challenge to the PA confederation.
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