The aging Mahmoud Abbas is more likely to preside over the collapse of Palestinian institutions than the creation of an independent state.
By Grant Rumley / Foreign Policy
May 18, 2017
If Trump cares about the fate of the Palestinians, he would be wise not to ignore the looming crisis. . . . When Trump repays the visit [to Abbas] next week he’ll want to consider what his newfound partner is doing to ensure a stable future in the West Bank.
President Donald Trump visits Israel next week at a supremely awkward moment, amid reports that he shared Israeli intelligence with Russian officials in the Oval Office. Both sides are likely to do their best to bury the issue. The Israelis value intelligence sharing too much to raise the issue publicly, and Trump will no doubt prefer to speak about his efforts to restart negotiations with the Palestinians — a process he hopes can yield the “ultimate deal.”
The president appears serious about trying to bring a solution to this interminable problem. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster went so far as to say that the U.S. goal was Palestinian “self-determination,” a term previous administrations also used to describe Palestinian statehood. But rather than overseeing the creation of a Palestinian state, Trump’s term could very well witness the collapse of Palestinian institutions.
Who will lead a future Palestinian state is no small matter to resolve. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has held office for 12 years, surpassing his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, in his time as president. And, like Arafat, Abbas shows no sign of abiding by term limits or stepping down. Since his first election to a four-year term in 2005, Abbas has continually put off another presidential vote. It’s not hard to see why. According to polls, two-thirds of the public want him to go, and his Fatah Party mustered a dismal showing in last weekend’s municipal elections — despite the fact that it ran unchallenged by its rivals in Hamas.
But unlike during Arafat’s tenure, there is no clear second rung of leaders who emerge as likely successors to Abbas. Rather, there are several figures and factions that stand to play a prominent role in the event of a sudden vacation of the presidency. The possibility of a power struggle in the West Bank increases every day the 82-year-old Abbas, who reportedly smokes a pack of cigarettes a day, refuses to step aside or name an heir apparent.
Trump will arrive in the West Bank city of Bethlehem looking for a strong Palestinian partner. But Abbas’s weak position makes that nearly impossible. He is unable to speak for half his people, and even his advisors have urged Trump not restart peace talks too quickly. That may not be music to Trump’s ears, who has designed this trip with stops in Saudi Arabia and the Vatican to make a grand splash on the international stage. Still, the White House would be wise to consider the West Bank’s long-term stability in its pursuit of peace — and at the root of that stability is resolving the question of who will come after Abbas.