National Security & Defense

Mahmoud Abbas’s Legacy Blows Up in His Face

(Photo: Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool/Reuters)
The Palestinian leader’s efforts to secure a place in history appear likely to backfire in disastrous fashion.

Recently, Palestinian politics have presented more questions than answers.

For instance: Why has the Palestinian Authority (PA) urged Israel to send less electricity to the Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip? Why is Egypt helping Hamas? Who is Mohammed Dahlan, and why is Hamas meeting with him? And why did one of the most astute observers of Palestinian politics just declare “the end of the so-called two-state solution”?

As we shall see, this drama has more to do with Palestinian and Egyptian strategic interests than with Israel’s actions.

The story begins with Mahmoud Abbas’s legacy, or lack thereof. Abbas, the President of the PA, is now 82 years old and in poor health. He is on the way out and he knows it. Worse, he knows that his people, the Palestinians, are no closer to a state of their own than they were when he became President in 2005. Worse still, they remain poor and divided between his Fatah party, which runs the West Bank, and Hamas, the terrorist group in control of Gaza. Deeply unpopular, Abbas most likely realizes that he will be remembered as the leader who crushed Palestinian democracy in its infancy, entrenched corruption, and left the movement with no clear successor.

So what is he to do? At this point, he has lost the legitimacy to make any meaningful deal with Israel. His last hope for a positive legacy is to reunite Fatah and Hamas, giving the cause of Palestinian statehood new life.

There’s just one problem: Hamas violently kicked Fatah out of the Gaza Strip in 2007, and it has no plan to relinquish power. The last attempt at a Palestinian unity government, in 2015, failed. So this year, Abbas decided he had to pressure Hamas to let Fatah back into Gaza. Accordingly, he set about refusing to pay for Gazan electricity and urging Israel to reduce its electricity shipments to Gaza. The PA began cutting off the salaries it paid to Gazan civil servants and former Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails. It also halted shipments of medicine from the West Bank to Gaza and refused permits to sick Gazans who needed to leave for treatment.

Abbas’s plan was well timed. Both Egypt and Israel were strictly enforcing the blockade against Gaza. Hamas’s patron, Qatar, was sidelined by its ongoing feud with Saudi Arabia. Hamas was growing desperate, realizing that the longer it lacked fuel and medical supplies, the more it risked losing power in Gaza.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Egypt decided to ship 1 million liters of fuel to Gaza. On the surface, this transfer made little sense for Egypt. Under President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, Egypt has been at war with the Muslim Brotherhood, the group from which Hamas emerged. But al-Sisi has other strategic interests. He took advantage of Hamas’s weakness, using it to obtain the group’s cooperation in stopping terror attacks from the Sinai and reducing Brotherhood subversion in Egypt. “Long-term,” writes Walter Russell Mead at The American Interest, Egypt “would like to install a pro-Egyptian ruler in Gaza.”

Here, things get interesting. That potential “pro-Egyptian ruler” is a man named Mohammed Dahlan. And as the AP reports, it was Dahlan who “helped persuade Egypt to send the badly-needed fuel to Gaza, in exchange for Hamas allowing him to broaden his political presence in Gaza.” So the transfer of fuel was not an act of Egyptian generosity, but rather a deal, one that Hamas was essentially forced into in its desperation.

“Hamas has confirmed that its leaders recently met with Dahlan’s men in Cairo. According to Hamas sources, some understandings have been reached,” says Khaled Abu Toameh, a well-connected observer of Palestinian politics. “It now seems that Dahlan’s chances of returning to the Gaza Strip and playing a role in a new government are very high.”

According to Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas official, these “understandings” included the reopening of the Egyptian-controlled Rafah border crossing into Gaza, and the resumption of shipments of medicine and fuel to the Gaza Strip. But that’s not all:

Hamas also has an agreement with the Egyptians to build a security buffer zone along the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, to stop the smuggling of weapons and the infiltration of terrorists. This week, Hamas bulldozers were already seen breaking ground along the border.

The unexpected rapprochement between Dahlan and Hamas has already resulted in the return of some of Dahlan’s loyalists to the Gaza Strip. Now, everyone is waiting to see if and when Dahlan himself will be permitted to return to his home in the Gaza Strip.

Sources in the Gaza Strip believe that the countdown for Dahlan’s return has begun. The sources also believe that he may be entrusted with serving as “prime minister” of a new government, while Hamas remains in charge of overall security in the Gaza Strip. . . . 

Dahlan’s role will be to help break the blockade on the Gaza Strip, attract Arab and Western funds, and improve living conditions and the economy. Dahlan, in short, may be on his way to become Mayor of the Gaza Strip.

Even if he will wield little power in Gaza, Dahlan looks like a savior right now. He has regained a foothold in Palestinian politics, from which he might attempt to succeed Mahmoud Abbas as president of the PA. This will be difficult, though, since the Fatah Central Committee, which will probably select Abbas’s successor, is stacked with Abbas loyalists — and Abbas and Dahlan, to put it mildly, do not get along.

Dahlan rose to prominence through the Fatah youth movement, which he helped to establish in Gaza. He went on to lead harrowing crackdowns on Hamas in the 1990s, rounding up thousands of the group’s members and torturing those of its leaders who did not accept the authority of the new PA. But the Fatah strongman would fall from grace after his forces were easily ousted from Gaza by Hamas in 2007. In 2011, Abbas expelled Dahlan from Fatah and even accused him of embezzlement and of poisoning Yasser Arafat. Abbas has since stacked the Fatah Central Committee with his loyalists and has persecuted Dahlan’s allies. Just last week, senior Fatah official Firas Halabi was arrested by PA security forces because of his supposed ties to Dahlan. Abbas and Dahlan, it is safe to say, are archrivals.

In attempting to eliminate a potential challenger, Abbas actually made him stronger.

Hamas, of course, remembers the old days and hates Dahlan, too. In fact, the hatred seems to be mutual. But Hamas seeks better relations with Egypt, which controls the Rafah crossing along the Gazan border. Moreover, both Hamas and Dahlan have an even greater enemy in Abbas, who made a grave miscalculation by chasing Dahlan out of the Palestinian territories.

Dahlan fled to the U.A.E., where he became Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed’s security adviser. From the U.A.E., he has tirelessly plotted his return to Palestinian politics, amassing a following in Fatah’s militant wing and in refugee camps across the region. (He has done so by lavishing them with money, probably provided by the U.A.E.)

In attempting to eliminate a potential challenger, Abbas actually made him stronger.

Dahlan, who speaks English and Hebrew fluently, has also managed to build himself a presence on the international stage. His personal relationship with bin Zayed, who is also said to despise Abbas, has made him a player across the region. Crucially, his actions and reputation as an opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood have helped earn him the personal trust of Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the Egyptian president. Jordan, for its part, is attracted by Dahlan’s ability to control and impose order on Palestinian refugee camps in its territory.

In Dahlan, Israel would find a Gazan leader open to reconciliation, one with close ties to Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s hardline defense minister. But if Hamas remains in control of the real levers of power, it won’t matter much. As Toameh writes, Dahlan “will likely enjoy extensive civilian powers, but security matters will remain in the hands of Hamas and its military wing, Ezaddin al-Qassam.” Hamas can continue building tunnels into Israel and preparing for war with the Jewish state, which remains its firmest ideological commitment. Israel knows this, which is why it went along with Abbas’s campaign against the group.

Egypt and Dahlan, it must be recognized, have completely turned the tables on Abbas and the PA. Initially, Egypt sought to pressure Abbas into reconciling and sharing power with Dahlan, but upon Abbas’s refusal, Egypt looked to Hamas to install Dahlan in power. Moreover, while Abbas had hoped to pressure Hamas in a moment of weakness for the group, he ended up driving his Gazan rivals into a stronger position.

A Dahlan-Hamas alliance, backed by Egypt, the U.A.E., and perhaps Jordan, would break the PA’s monopoly on international legitimacy. And without its special recognition from the international community, what does the PA have to offer? For three years now, polls have shown that around two-thirds of Palestinians would like Abbas to resign. Corrupt and reliant on Israeli support, the PA would find itself in dark woods indeed if it lost its position in the eyes of the international community.

Worse, the division between the West Bank and Gaza, long considered temporary by the PA, would solidify. Fatah would cling to a proto-state in the West Bank, all but formally separated from a Hamas-Dahlan proto-state in Gaza. With hopes of reconciliation under the PA banner crushed, this could kill the dream of a unified Palestinian negotiating position, and thus — as Abbas surely knows — the dream of a unified Palestinian state.

How’s that for a legacy?

READ MORE:

Bailing Out the Palestinian Authority

Who’s Ready for Peace? Against Unfounded Optimism

Why Middle East Peace Starts in Saudi Arabia

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