MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis Series Report 1282 November 28, 2016
The ‘Abbas-Dahlan Power Struggle Over The Palestinian Presidential
By: B. Shanee*
A recent focus in the Palestinian press has been the power struggle between
Palestinian Authority (PA) President and Fatah chairman Mahmoud ‘Abbas and
former Fatah Central Committee member Muhammad Dahlan, who was expelled from
the movement in 2011 and is currently attempting to influence the
Palestinian agenda and to empower his supporters in the face of ‘Abbas’s
steps to exclude him from the Palestinian political scene.
Thus, Dahlan has been demonstrating his strength in a number of ways: in the
West Bank and the Gaza Strip through conferences and protests organized by
his supporters there, and also through efforts to strengthen ties between
Egypt and the Gaza Strip; and in the Palestinian diaspora with conferences
organized by his supporters in Lebanese refugee camps and in Europe. At the
same time, ‘Abbas is trying with all his might to completely exclude Dahlan
and his supporters from Fatah, and to end the ongoing internal conflict in
the movement with an institutional resolution to be approved at the Seventh
Fatah Conference, which is set for November 29, 2016.
The escalation in the power struggle between ‘Abbas and Dahlan is linked to
the debate on the future of the Palestinian leadership, particularly the
question of who ‘Abbas’s successor will be. This latter issue goes beyond
the Palestinian discourse, in light of efforts by the Arab Quartet (Egypt,
Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE), and especially by Egypt, to influence the
composition of the Palestinian leadership by including Dahlan in it and by
grooming him to succeed ‘Abbas as Fatah chairman and Palestinian president.
On October 6, 2016, the debate over ‘Abbas’s successor became more urgent
after the 82-year-old ‘Abbas was rushed to the hospital for a cardiac
It is notable that in interviews, Dahlan has repeatedly stated that he is
not seeking the Palestinian presidency and that he supports the candidacy of
Fatah official Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences in an
Israeli prison for attacks he orchestrated during the second Intifada.
However, Dahlan’s political activity, as set out below, indicates that he
does aspire to attain a very influential position in the Palestinian
leadership, even if not necessarily that of president.
A notable manifestation of Dahlan’s attempts to establish himself as part of
the Palestinian leadership as the ‘Abbas era comes to an end was the
publication of an article critical of ‘Abbas by former PA official Muhammad
Rashid, a Dahlan associate who served as economic advisor to Yasser Arafat.
The article, titled “‘Abbas is a Political Corpse Awaiting Burial,” stated
that ‘Abbas is wasting time as he weighs the reliability of those who aspire
to be the next president. ‘Abbas, he wrote, is attempting to stage-manage
his exit on his own, without input from Fatah, or from the Palestinian
people who will demand the right to elect their next leader in free
elections. Subsequently, Mahmoud Abu Al-Hija, editor-in-chief of the PA
daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, published a rebuttal to Rashid, accusing him of
corruption, collaborating with Israel, and betrayal of the Palestinian
This report will review the manifestations of the rivalry between the ‘Abbas
and Dahlan camps in recent weeks, and will provide excerpts of the pieces by
Rashid and Al-Hija as examples of the discourse of the two rival camps.
With Arab Quartet Support, Dahlan Prepares The Ground For His Return To
Senior Palestinian Leadership
As stated, in recent weeks, Dahlan has made vigorous efforts to stand out in
the Palestinian arena as a political figure counterbalancing ‘Abbas, as
manifested by widespread media activity, including giving interviews to four
different media outlets in two weeks. He has also made statements on the
political process and on the situation of Fatah and of Palestinian society.
The Arab Quartet countries, and especially Egypt, have clearly shown their
support for Dahlan’s activity and for his efforts to increase his impact on
what is happening within Fatah. One reflection of this was the holding of
two conferences, in October and November 2016, on the future of Fatah and
the Palestinian issue at the Ain Al-Sokhna resort in Egypt. These
conferences served as a platform for Dahlan supporters in the complete
absence of Fatah members close to ‘Abbas. The first, held October 16-17, was
attended by 100-plus Palestinian and Egyptian politicians and businessmen,
the vast majority of whom were close to Dahlan. The conference concluded
with a call for Palestinian unity and with an expression of support for
Egyptian and Arab policy for it. The second conference, held November 6-8,
which purported to focus on economic issues but in fact was mainly political
in nature, was also attended by many Dahlan supporters. The conferees called
for opening the Rafah crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip for the
passage of people and goods and for strengthening ties between the West Bank
and Gaza Strip, and even issued an open letter to ‘Abbas of recommendations
for ending the Palestinian schism.
At the time the conferences were held, the Rafah Crossing was indeed opened
intermittently, in an unusual measure, for the passage of students, permit
holders and humanitarian cases. During this period, the Egyptian media
published many articles criticizing ‘Abbas for his response to the measures
of the Arab Quartet vis-à-vis the Palestinian issue.
Although Dahlan was not present at either of the conferences, and refrained
from stating publicly that he was directly involved in them, several weeks
before they were held, reports indicated that he planned to hold a
conference in Cairo, and Dahlan himself called to hold a conference for
Palestinian dialogue. In interviews held at the same time as the conferences
he indicated that he was leveraging his connections with Egypt and other
Arab countries in order to promote the Palestinian national enterprise and
to support the residents of the Gaza Strip.
Additionally, a conference marking the anniversary of Yasser Arafat’s death
and calling for Fatah unity was held in Brussels on November 22, and was
attended by many pro-Dahlan Fatah members in Europe. News websites close to
Dahlan reported that the conference was under the auspices of “the Fatah
movement” but had nevertheless been condemned by the movement’s official
representations in Europe, and that the hundreds of Fatah activists who
attended the conference had stressed the need for unity and condemned
‘Abbas’s measures against Dahlan and his supporters. Dahlan also told BBC
Arabic in an interview that he intended to act to hold yet another national
conference to settle the Palestinian disputes, and that Egypt would play a
major role in it.
Images from the October 16-17, 2016 “Egypt and the Palestinian Issue”
conference in Ain Al-Sokhna (Karamapress.net, October 17, 2016)
The Palestinian conferences in Egypt and the concurrent easing of
restrictions at the Rafah crossing highlight Dahlan and his supporters as
key figures who wield influence with Egypt and who noticeably contribute to
improving the economic situation in the Gaza Strip. Thus, these moves are a
direct continuation of Egypt’s policy as part of the Arab Quartet initiative
to bring about a Palestinian reconciliation that includes Dahlan’s return to
Fatah and PA leadership.
It is therefore unsurprising that Fatah justified its opposition to the
Egyptian conferences in the same way it justified its opposition to the Arab
Quartet’s initiative to promote Fatah reconciliation. Fatah Spokesman Osama
Al-Qawasmi said that the organizers of the conferences should have
coordinated any debate on internal Fatah issues with the movement’s official
and legitimate leadership, adding that Fatah did not interfere in the
affairs of others, and expects others to avoid interfering in its affairs.
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