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EXCLUSIVE: The secret Arab plan to oust Palestinian leader Abbas

Senior sources tell MEE that UAE, Egypt and Jordan are conspiring to replace Mahmoud Abbas with Fatah archrival Mohammed Dahlan
Mahmoud Abbas meets King Abdullah of Jordan at the royal palace in Amman in 2013 (AFP)

The United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Jordan are planning for a post-Mahmoud Abbas era that would leave his Fatah archrival Mohammed Dahlan in control of the Palestinian presidency, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and the Palestinian Authority, Middle East Eye has learned.

Senior Palestinian and Jordanian sources told MEE separately of the plan. Although there were differences in emphasis - the Jordanian source added caveats about Dahlan’s known weaknesses - they independently corroborated the existence of a joint plan of action.

Abbas has been a dominant figure in Palestinian politics since the 1990s and Palestinian president since 2005.

Dahlan is a former leader of the Palestinian political party Fatah who has been exiled from Gaza and the West Bank and has close ties to the UAE monarchy.

The UAE has already held talks with Israel about the strategy to install Dahlan, and the three parties will inform Saudi Arabia once they reach an agreement on its final shape.

The key objectives of the plan are to:

• unite and bolster Fatah for the forthcoming elections with Hamas
• weaken Hamas by dividing it into competing factions
• conclude a peace agreement with Israel with the backing of Arab states
• seize control of sovereign Palestinian institutions, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), the PLO chairmanship and leadership of Fatah
• choreograph the return of Dahlan as the power behind the throne of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA)

One of the prime movers of the plan is Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, who made clear to Jordan that differences over Palestinian President Abbas affected bilateral relations.

At one point, the Emiratis demanded the arrest of Abbas as well as a ban on him entering Jordan or using Jordan to travel abroad.

“The Emiratis, particularly Mohammed Bin Zayed, absolutely reject Abbas on the personal level, to the extent that they told the Jordanians explicitly that the reason the UAE is negative about Jordan is due to the fact that Jordan did not take a stand against Abbas,” a senior Palestinian source told MEE.

The three Arab countries have enumerated the steps needed to implement this plan and have allotted roles for each actor to play.

Before presidential and legislative elections can be held this year in which Abbas could be removed, a replacement appointed and an agreement reached with Israel, a series of steps would have to be taken.

The first is to achieve reconciliation within the Fatah movement.

“Dahlan believes that Hamas is weaker than Fatah in Gaza and that Fatah is weaker than Hamas in the West Bank and that Fatah could win if it were to be united, whereas Hamas is likely to win if Fatah remains disunited,” the senior Palestinian source said.

“Dahlan believes that two options are available for accomplishing this: either Abu Mazen [Abbas] resigns, and this is unlikely, or that Jordan would lead the reconciliation between Dahlan and Abbas under the banner of bolstering Fatah.”

The second step would be to agree with Hamas on holding presidential and legislative elections. The third would be to “reshape” the PA in the pre-election period.

“The parties [the UAE, Jordan and Egypt] believe that Mahmoud Abbas has expired politically and that they should endeavour to stop any surprises by Abbas during the period when Fatah will remain under his leadership until the elections are held,” the same source said.

“It is within this framework that they stress ‘on the necessity of pushing Abu Mazen to appoint a deputy’.”

Dahlan is a former Fatah leader who is currently exiled from Gaza and the West Bank (AFP)

Not keen to present himself as a candidate for the presidency “at this stage,” Dahlan is said by these sources to be seeking the post of parliamentary speaker, a position from which he believes he can control the presidency.

Dahlan wants former Palestinian foreign minister Nasser al-Qudwa for the post of president, although the Israelis prefer Ahmed Qurei (Abu Alaa). Dahlan claims to be able to influence both.

“Dahlan believes that the leading positions can be divided into three: Fatah leader, Palestinian Authority president and PLO chairman. He does not object to Jordan nominating whoever they deem appropriate for these positions,” the source said.

“After submitting his options and personal preferences, Dahlan says that the matter is subject to dialogue and discussion with the Jordanians and the Emirates and that it would be possible to deal with names proposed by Jordan.”

Dahlan wants both parliamentary and presidential elections conducted in the name of “the state of Palestine” rather than under the banner of the Palestinian Legislative Council, which is dominated by Hamas, or the PA. In Dahlan’s view, this arrangement would strengthen the PLO against the PA, and bypass the issue of the Palestinian Charter.

The fourth step in this plan is to “subjugate Hamas”.

This, in Dahlan’s view, could be achieved in several ways: by dividing Hamas into a national faction inside Gaza and an international one linked to the International Organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood; by containing Hamas inside the PA; and by developing “soft pressure” on Hamas, such as an Emirati plan to install a desalination plant in Sinai which would serve Gaza while giving the Egyptians and its allies the option of cutting the supply.

“Dahlan believes it would be possible to work with the Hamas leadership inside Gaza. He claims he was the one who persuaded the Egyptians to meet with the Hamas movement delegation within this context,” the source said.

“The Egyptians told Hamas about their three conditions for reconciliation, namely that Hamas ceases all hostile conduct inside Gaza; that Hamas works for pacifying the situation inside Sinai; and that Hamas hands over to Egypt those who are wanted by it and happen to be inside Gaza. Dahlan insists that he was the one who added the last condition in particular so as to ‘pressure Hamas’."

Other ways of containing Gaza are attempts to link Islamic Jihad, a rival movement to Hamas within the enclave, to the UAE, by building upon the assessment that Iran has abandoned them.

A delegation from Islamic Jihad arrived in Cairo on Tuesday and conducted talks with officials from Egypt’s General Intelligence Directorate.

The UAE has “assigned roles” to Tony Blair, the former Middle East envoy to the Quartet, and the current UN envoy, Nicolai Mladinov. The UAE is also seeking a meeting with Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of the Tunisian Ennahda party.

The plan was corroborated by a senior Jordanian source who briefed MEE after the visit by Dahlan to Amman on 31 March, his first to the kingdom in five years.

At the height of the conflict between Abbas and Dahlan in 2012, Jordan seized the assets of Dahlan’s brother on the instructions of the PA.

The cover for Dahlan's recent visit was to attend a wedding ceremony, but its objective was to request Jordanian intervention to reconcile him with Abbas.

Jordan, according to this source, is wary of Dahlan.

His points of strength are his strong ties with the UAE, Israel and the US. Dahlan also has strong links to major Palestinian politicians such as Yasser Abd Rabbuh, Salam Fayyad and Nasser al Qudwa, and he has the capacity to enhance his influence in the West Bank and Gaza through money.

Dahlan's weakness

But the list of his points of weakness, in senior Jordanian circles, is longer.

He is considered to be unpopular among Palestinians and is accused of corruption and links to the Israeli security services.

His “zero sum” relationship with Abbas, who sees Dahlan as the main threat to his presidency, is also considered problematic, as is the fact that he works outside of the territory controlled by the PA.

The Jordanians believe the decision by Abbas to replace Yasser Abd Rabbuh as secretary to the PLO executive with Saeb Erekat shows Abbas is aware of the potential for a palace coup, and could work against Jordanian interests in Jerusalem.

It was, however, noted that Dahlan had influence in the Palestinian refugee camps inside Jordan and could constitute “an important card to impose control inside the camps”.

Weighing up the various pros and cons of Dahlan’s offer, Jordan opted to stall, according to the source.

The policy was to continue to enhance contacts with Dahlan and to show interest in embracing Fatah’s reconciliation, but to tell him to wait until after the US presidential elections and to ask for US help in pushing Abbas towards a reconciliation.

Jordan would tell Dahlan that the ground needed to be prepared before such a move, but at the same time “test Dahlan’s sincerity and truthfulness” by asking him to support Jordan’s role in Jerusalem in practical ways.

Jordan saw clear advantages in working with Dahlan. A reconciliation within Fatah, for example, would help Jordan exercise influence in the West Bank. But it also saw potential traps.

These include the importance of King Abdullah staying above the factional Palestinian fray; the risk of Jordan becoming a party in the ongoing conflict within Fatah; and the risk of jeopardising good relations Abbas continues to enjoy with Jordan.

“The King of Jordan should not spearhead an initiative that is likely to fail. Considering Dahlan’s involvement, the king might be seen as someone who is taking sides and supporting one party against another. This is how Abbas sees the role played by [Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al] Sisi and the UAE,” the Jordanian source said.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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