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Preparing for a post-Abbas Palestinian leadership

Mohammed Dahlan’s Moscow visit indicates that some external players are preparing themselves for the post-Abbas Palestinian leadership

Published: 22nd November 2021 07:48 AM  |   Last Updated: 22nd November 2021 07:48 AM   |  A+A-

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Photo | AP)

In early November, Moscow hosted Mohammed Dahlan, a former right-hand man of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat who turned a rebel. He met Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during the visit, which raises speculations of Russian mediation in internal Fatah tensions that have paralysed the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) for the past decade. Since the Obama presidency, Vladimir Putin has been engaging with various, often rival, stakeholders in the Middle East; the active Russian diplomatic engagements included the Syria-Turkey, Iran-Saudi, Qatar-Saudi, Israel-Palestine and Fatah-Hamas tracks. With Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas slated to visit Moscow later this month, Russia could be opening another diplomatic front. Abbas studied in the Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow and earned his doctoral equivalent, and has often visited and engaged with the Soviet and later Russian leaders and is seen as a Russophile.

Dahlan, a grassroots Palestinian leader in the Gaza Strip, headed one of the several security outfits under Arafat in the wake of the Oslo accords. His downfall began when the violence and lawlessness in Gaza forced Arafat to shift the headquarters of the Palestine National Authority (PNA) to Ramallah in the West Bank following the al-Aqsa intifada. The electoral victory of Hamas in January 2006 and the military takeover of the Gaza Strip by the militant group the following year forced Dahlan to flee to the West Bank. Before long, he was embroiled in the power struggle within the Fatah in the West Bank and fell out with Abbas. Dahlan was accused of being an ‘Israeli agent’ and having a role in the death of Arafat. Charged with corruption in December 2014, he was expelled from Fatah. Some of the PNA officials even accused Dahlan of playing a role in the Israel-Emirati normalisation. In short, Dahlan has a colourful but chequered history. In recent years, the UAE has been projecting Dahlan as the future face of the Palestinians after Abbas. Dahlan’s Moscow visit appears to have come at the Emirati bidding.

Even if the Abbas-Dahlan reconciliation does not materialise anytime soon, Moscow’s intervention is interesting. The Palestinian national movement has remained fractured since the Madrid conference of 1991, which was based on the premise of a political compromise with Israel. Arafat’s abandonment of resistance and claims to the whole of historical Palestine did not go down well with sections of the PLO and the militant Hamas group. Moreover, the Oslo accord, which formalised Palestinians staking their national rights only in part of historic Palestine and in the then occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, further intensified the internal divide. Thus, while negotiating with Israel towards implementing the Oslo accord, Arafat was also fighting with Hamas and competing for legitimacy and the political support of the Palestinian masses.

Arafat’s legacy of placing the Palestinian cause on the global map also came with his failure to realise statehood. Abbas, who took over the reigns, has lesser accomplishments to show. In January 2005, he was elected president for a five-year term, but no elections have been held since then. In January next year, Hamas routed Fatah and captured power, which plunged the Palestinians into internal conflict and led to a spiralling of violence. Before long, the Palestinians found themselves under two distinct and irreconcilable political climates: Fatah-led and PNA-ruled West Bank and Hamas-administered Gaza Strip, with no engagement and cooperation between the two parts of Palestine. Resisting the Israeli occupation became secondary to their ideological differences and competition. Mediatory efforts by Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and erstwhile unified Sudan to bring about Fatah-Hamas unity came to naught.

The loss of administrative control of the Gaza Strip was followed by growing marginalisation of the Palestinian question in inter-Arab affairs. The Arab Spring protests and their fallouts removed any interest that Egypt, Libya, Syria and Iraq, core supporters of the Palestinians, had in their affairs. Their territorial and regime survival became more important than Palestinian statelessness. Then came the Trump Peace Plan and Abraham accords, which facilitated the Israeli-Arab normalisation even without the resolution of the Palestinian problem. Other than the occasional support, mainly during violent clashes between Israel and Hamas, the international community has also come around to recognising the limits of the octogenarian Abbas in shaping Palestinian destiny.

True, Fatah has several others like Jibril Rajoub, Mahmoud al-Aloul and of course Marwan Barghouti, who has been serving five life-terms in an Israeli prison since 2002. However, unlike them, Dahlan enjoys the patronage of the UAE and might be the dark horse to succeed Abbas. But irrespective of the outcomes, Dahlan’s Moscow visit indicates that some external players are preparing themselves for the post-Abbas Palestinian leadership. Will India read the tea leaves this time around?

P R Kumaraswamy

Professor at JNU. Teaches contemporary Middle East there

(kumaraswamy.pr@gmail.com)



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