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As Abbas seeks a safe exit, who's waiting in the wings?

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on 3 September 2020 [ALAA BADARNEH/POOL/AFP/Getty Images]
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on 3 September 2020 [ALAA BADARNEH/POOL/AFP/Getty Images]

In January last year, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas refused to issue a decree to hold legislative and presidential elections. He argued that he would not do so until he could guarantee Israel's approval for Palestinians in occupied Jerusalem to participate. Has that guarantee now been given, allowing him to issue such a decree last week?

Israel has not changed its position on Jerusalem, nor will it ever do so. What has changed is a set of political and factional conditions in the Palestinian and Arab arena, which have affected the decision, and Abbas himself. He signed the presidential decree with his right hand, while waving to the EU and the Biden administration in Washington with his left. It was his response to their demands for the renewal of political legitimacy in Ramallah as a condition for continued financial support and the resumption of the PA's relations with the Americans.

Why will legitimacies be renewed at this stage? And which legitimacies will they be?

Renewing the legitimacy of the Palestinian Legislative Council is an important step to highlight a new form of democratically elected leadership capable of uniting people, ending the division and forming a government able to make difficult political decisions on behalf of the people in Gaza and the West Bank. I think that the ongoing consultations and meetings suggest that the legislative election campaign will not be heated, as agreement between the two largest factions will resolve any conflict. The result should be a PLC acceptable to all, including international parties. All political groupings will be represented in the council, including Muhammad Dahlan's reformist movement; no one will be excluded.

READ: The PA's 'hope' masks the reality of the two-state compromise

The question of the successor to Abbas is the real battleground. Several regional powers are already involved and seek to resolve the issue before the campaign even begins. Arab and regional regimes will not leave the future of the Palestinian presidency to possibilities, surprises and alliances. The presidency is the pillar of the tent under which the PLC and Palestine National Council can take shelter; it is the one that can facilitate or block legitimacy to the others.

As an Arab and international affair rather than a purely Palestinian matter, it is likely that it was on the agenda of the meeting between Abbas and the heads of the Egyptian and Jordanian intelligence services. This would have included a safe exit strategy for Abbas, with guarantees that he and his sons won't be held accountable for their actions.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi's meeting with Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah in Amman in the next few days may be a complementary step to what was discussed with the intelligence people, not least because opinion polls give the Palestinian leader 30 per cent support at best. Hence, he is worried about the future, and fears being stabbed in the back. He's also worried about a Dahlan-Barghouti coalition, and the alliance of Islamic forces with national figures such as Hassan Khreisheh and others, which could lead to unexpected election results.

READ: Will the Palestinian elections end the division?

So who will the next Palestinian president be? It is extremely naïve to believe that he will be democratically elected. The next president will be agreed upon by several political forces after consultation with Arab countries that are influential in Palestinian affairs. The UAE has weight and Egypt has capabilities; Jordan has influence and Israel has its position; none will stand and watch an issue unfolding that has a direct effect on their own security. They were actually behind the issue of the presidential decree.

This is a difficult time for the Palestinians. The goal is not to renew legitimacies as much as to renew the leadership at all levels, in preparation for a political phase led by Egypt, Jordan and the UAE. This phase will be based upon investing in normalisation with Israel when healing the Palestinian wound.

Translated from Raialyoum, 19 January 2021, and edited for MEMO.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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ArticleIsraelMiddle EastOpinionPalestinePalestinian Elections
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