President Obama’s visit to the Middle East next month is widely billed as an earnest attempt to double down on diplomacy and revive the moribund peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians. Unfortunately, the odds are stacked against the president. Doves on both sides quietly cede that it would take a miracle to get the two sides back to the business of serious diplomacy.
But Obama has an opportunity to aim a little lower and accomplish something that could help safeguard the peace process for years to come. He could pressure Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to name an heir apparent who could effectively guarantee the Israelis would have an interlocutor for the foreseeable future.
Alarmingly, there is nobody in that role now. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, is 78 years old. He is a heavy smoker and a cancer survivor. In 2010, he reportedly was admitted six times to a Jordanian hospital for unspecified health reasons. It’s unclear how much longer he’ll be fit for office.
Should the unthinkable happen, according to Palestinian Basic Law, Article 37, “the Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council shall temporarily assume the powers and duties of the Presidency of the National Authority for a period not to exceed sixty (60) days, during which free and direct elections to elect a new President shall take place.”
But here’s the rub: The current speaker is Aziz Dweik, who ran on the Hamas-affiliated Change and Reform ticket. His history does not recommend him. In 1992, Dweik was expelled from Israel for his involvement with Hamas. He was among those the Israelis rounded up and arrested in 2006 after an Israeli soldier was captured in Gaza. He was arrested again in 2012 for alleged “involvement in terrorist activities.”
Should Dweik succeed Abbas, it would be the end of any possible peace process.
Of course, the Fatah faction and the Palestine Liberation Organization (the dominant players in the Palestinian Authority) could try to circumvent Palestinian law (it wouldn’t be the first time) and appoint someone more palatable. However, this would likely prompt another conflict between Fatah and Hamas — not unlike the 2007 conflict, when Hamas wrested control of Gaza from Abbas’ forces.
But it is unclear whom the Palestinian leadership would appoint. Abbas has refused to allow political challengers to emerge in the West Bank. Meanwhile, as Jillian C. York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation noted in a recent Al Jazeera essay, it’s increasingly difficult to even criticize the Palestinian leader online. The result, according to a former Palestinian Authority official, is that “the political system has become stagnant.”
Rather than urging Abbas to help revive the Palestinian political climate, however, Washington has elected to stand aside while the aging Palestinian leader has effectively become a leader for life. Abbas is nearly four years past his legal term (it expired in 2009), and he continues to punt on legislative elections, for fear of getting drubbed again by Hamas.
Washington is also concerned about the rise of Hamas. That’s why the U.S. has plied Abbas’ government with financial assistance, military training, intelligence cooperation and other tools to ensure that Hamas does not take over the West Bank as it did Gaza. But Washington has done so at the expense of the Palestinian political system, which has grown ossified and brittle.
In truth, given the sorry state of politics within the Palestinian Authority, demanding that Abbas identify a successor is among one of the lesser demands Obama could make of the Palestinian leader.
The significance of naming a successor is something that Abbas understands very well. In 2003, Abbas became the first prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, upon the insistence of President George W. Bush. The position had never existed. And the timing was fortuitous. Longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died the following year. Abbas had resigned a few months prior, but he was positioned to assume leadership and guide the Palestinians away from the low-level war, or intifada, that had been raging since October 2000.
Of course, Abbas has a prime minister. Salam Fayyad has done an admirable job and is worthy of succeeding Abbas. But Abbas has not identified him as the next in line for reasons that only he knows.
Will Abbas respond well to pressure from Obama? He should. Right now, his lasting legacy is his recent maneuver at the United Nations, which upgraded the status of the PLO mission to nonmember observer state. But he failed to gain the status of statehood. With a gentle prod from Obama, he could enhance that legacy greatly by opening up the political space and ensuring the long-term viability of the Palestinian national movement.
Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of “Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine.” He tweets at @JSchanzer.