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Will Mahmoud Abbas make way for 'friends' of Marwan Barghouti?

Israel prefers to dismiss the rumours of a possible resignation of the Palestinian president - because it has too much to lose from such a move

Issues regarding everyday Palestinian life rarely appear in the Israeli press, unless directly related to attacks on Israeli soldiers or civilians. Yet last week, Israeli newspapers and websites - mainly right-wing leaning - gave ample space to reports claiming that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is building a $13 million luxurious palace near Ramallah, remarking that these funds come out of the empty Palestinian Authority's (PA) budget and represent another example of the PA's corruption.

Dror Idar, chief columnist for Israel Hayom, Israel's largest circulation newspaper considered by many as a mouthpiece for Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, was not bothered by this show of extravagance.

According to him, the building of this palace is just more proof that Palestinians are running their independent, normal lives in the West Bank, and that the Israeli army's presence in the area only safeguards the Palestinian themselves. "Without the Israeli presence around Ramallah, which flag would have been raised over this palace, in which colour?" asks Idar, obviously hinting to the Islamic State's (IS) black flag.

Maan News Agency, a leading Palestinian website, confirmed that there is a plan to build such a palace on the outskirts of Ramallah, but denied it is intended for President Abbas’s personal use.

Nasser Laham, chief editor of Maan, explained to me that the new palace is meant to replace the Mukata'a, the present headquarters of the PA, and to serve as a guest house for foreign leaders. "The Mukata'a was built by the British Mandate - it's about time it was replaced," he said.

While the rumours of an imminent resignation by Abbas get stronger, this small story reflects the popular Israeli attitude towards the Palestinian president: a corrupt leader, deaf to the real needs of his people, whose hold on power depends almost entirely on Israeli bayonets. Abbas -  goes this Israeli popular belief, fuelled by the media and Netanyahu himself – is aware of this situation, and despite his anti-Israeli rhetoric, knows deep in his heart that thanks to Israeli control, life in the West Bank is relatively good.

The Israeli military sees Abbas somehow differently. Senior Israeli officers often admit that the famous "security coordination" between the PA and Israel, much criticised by Abbas opponents from Hamas but also from within his own Fatah movement, is crucial to Israel's security.

The PA provides Israel with intelligence information, they claim, arrests Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists, and Abbas himself is "not interested in terror," not even "under the table," as Yoram Cohen, head of Shabak (the Israeli secret service), was quoted as claiming late last year.  

Yet despite their different points of view, the military and Netanyahu agree on the bottom line: the status quo benefits both Israelis and Palestinians and Abbas symbolises this status quo in person. His stepping down from office, therefore, is surely undesirable but also seems to them highly improbable. Why should he take such a step, if he has so much to lose?

But Abbas seems to see things differently. In two weeks’ time, the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the "parliament" of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), is going to elect a new executive committee for the PLO, after Abbas and other senior figures resigned from the current one last week. As Abbas will probably be re-elected to head the committee, it is easy to see this process as just a political maneouvre. It is not.

Abbas was not only one of the architects of the Oslo agreements with Israel in September 1993; he continued to push for a negotiated final-status agreement with Israel even through the dark days of the Second Intifada, openly criticising those Palestinian leaders who supported the armed struggle.

After being elected as Palestinian president following Yasser Arafat's death in 2004, the negotiations with Israel became the only tool he used in his efforts to end the Israeli occupation. But with talks in a virtual coma for more than a year, it is very difficult to push this policy forward.

While meeting with senior Fatah officials a few weeks ago, Abbas admitted that this road has totally failed. He estimated that there is zero chance to get into meaningful negotiation with the current Israeli government. According to officials who participated in the meeting, Abbas promised "important developments" in the leadership of the Palestinian people in the next few months. The rumours concerning his upcoming resignation began to flow.

Abbas knows that his policy regarding Israel has failed, says Laham, whose Maan Agency was to first to spread the news on Abbas' resignation from the PLO executive committee.

Laham expects Abbas to be re-elected by the PNC to head the new executive committee of the PLO, but he foresees a change its composition. He estimates that the old guard of Fatah may be replaced by younger leaders. "The generation of Marwan Barghouti (the 56-year-old Fatah leader now in Israeli jail) is going to lead the PLO," says Laham, "It is going to be the time of the friends of Marwan."

Abbas himself, according to Laham, is still not decided if he is going to resign from his office as the president of the PA. After the meeting of the PNC, says Laham, Abbas is scheduled to go to Iran and then to United Nations General Assembly in New York, and if by the end of September there is no break-through in the negotiations, he may take "unilateral steps". Laham is not ready to commit himself, but a resignation is definitely on the table. It is not a game.

If Abbas became to embody the status quo, then his resignation will certainly shake this rather convenient reality from the Israeli point of view. The Israeli military views such an eventuality with great concern, if not panic. It might mean the end of the close cooperation between the PA security apparatus and the Israeli army, thus forcing Israeli soldiers to double or even re-double their incursions into Palestinian cities and villages. It will may also mean losing valuable intelligence now provided by the Palestinian security forces.

Another Israeli fear is that the internal situation in the West Bank will deteriorate swiftly, forcing Israel to retake civilian responsibility over the Palestinian cities, a task it had gladly abandoned after the Oslo agreement and the formation of the PA. A return to the pre-Oslo reality, when Israel ran the water and sewage systems in the West Bank and paid the salaries of municipal employees, is a virtual nightmare for Israel.

Laham thinks this is less probable. One of the main achievements of Abbas, according to him, is restoring some law and order in the Palestinian cities, after the chaos of the Second Intifada. Laham has a point when he remarks that Ramallah is the quietest Arab "capital" in the region, and Abbas heirs, whoever they may be, will not easily give up this stability.

Laham admits that there is no existing mechanism to the replacement of Abbas. "This is not America, this is not even Saudi Arabia," he notes. So it is almost impossible to gamble who will take over Abbas' place, whether in the leadership of the PLO or in the presidency of the PA.

Yet Laham does think that the next leaders of the Palestinian people, "the friends of Marwan" as he calls them, would position themselves further away from the two-state solution so dear to Abbas and get closer to the one-state solution. And this may create a bigger headache for Israel than even renouncing the security cooperation.      

- Meron Rapoport is an Israeli journalist and writer, winner of the Napoli International Prize for Journalism for a inquiry about the stealing of olive trees from their Palestinian owners. He is ex-head of the News Department in Haaertz, and now an independent journalist.

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

Photo: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (C) prays before the meeting with the executive board members of Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in Ramallah, West Bank on 22 June 2015 (AFP)