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Palestinian Authority gets a shake-up, but Mahmoud Abbas clings to power

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JERUSALEM — The wholesale resignation of the Palestinian prime minister and his cabinet Monday set the stage for a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority, seen by the United States as a crucial player in governing postwar Gaza.

Even a clean sweep of ministers would make little difference to the authority, Palestinian analysts said, if it continues to be dominated by Mahmoud Abbas — its octogenarian president who has spent the last two decades consolidating power while his government has become increasingly powerless and unpopular.

Monday’s resignation “is a good step because it suggests they are taking this seriously,” said a diplomat in the region, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions. “But a lot more will have to happen for real change, including at the top.”

There are few obvious choices to replace Abbas, even if he were willing to step aside. And the man many believe would have the best chance at unifying the complex and rancorous world of Palestinian politics — Marwan Barghouti, a longtime Abbas rival — is currently serving multiple life sentences in an Israeli prison.

Abbas, better known as Abu Mazen, turned 88 in November and has not held elections for nearly 18 years. A majority of Palestinians view the authority as corrupt, autocratic and overly cooperative with Israel. A poll released in December found more than 90 percent of West Bank Palestinians want Abbas to step down.

Yet he has given no public indication that he is ready to resign or allow voters the option of replacing him. Abbas has signaled that his choice for a new prime minister will be an ally, economic adviser Mohammad Mustafa, suggesting that he hopes to retain control of the office rather than receding as a figurehead.

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Still, the upheaval of the Gaza war and Biden’s emphasis on a “single governance structure” that could unite Gaza and the West Bank has led Palestinians and diplomats to cast around for possible new leaders.

The options are slim, according to political observers.

They say Abbas has kept rising stars from building their own profiles in his Fatah party. Dissidents have been arrested and rivals exiled. Nizar Banat, a popular opposition figure and anti-corruption activist, was killed by the authority’s security forces in 2021. Younger entrepreneurs and professionals have largely been turned off by the authority’s dysfunction.

“They have never been good at fostering and developing new faces,” said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian human rights lawyer and onetime adviser to Abbas. “There isn’t a big roster of candidates.”

The office, Buttu said, doesn’t hold much appeal for talented up-and-comers, in part because its powers have been so curtailed. The authority was formed in 1993 by the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization as a transitional body, meant to exist for only five years before evolving into the government of a negotiated independent state. Thirty years on, there is no state or negotiations toward one, and the Palestinian Authority exercises only limited control over parts of the Israel-occupied West Bank.

“You are president of really nothing,” Buttu said. “People are not lining up for that.”

Those often mentioned as potential next-generation leaders include: Mohammed Dahlan, a former Palestinian security chief and Abbas rival who has a large following in Gaza and now lives in exile in Abu Dhabi; Salam Fayyad, a onetime Palestinian prime minister and International Monetary Fund official with deep ties to the West; and Nasser al-Kidwa, a nephew of Fatah founder Yasser Arafat who served as ambassador to the United Nations and Abbas’s foreign minister before breaking with the president.

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But the most popular figure by far is Barghouti, a leader of the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, who has assumed iconic status during his 22 years in Israeli prisons. He is touted as one of the few figures with the broad appeal to bridge the many divisions in Palestinian politics, particularly the enduring schism between Fatah and Hamas, the militant group that rules Gaza and led the Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

With his face and handcuffed wrists gracing murals throughout the West Bank, Barghouti is said to transcend factions, logging support across parties and territories — in the West Bank and Gaza, among Islamists and secular nationalists alike. In the December poll, he was favored over Abbas by 40 points.

“Marwan Barghouti could easily be elected president,” said Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, which conducted the survey. “None of these others have been able to present themselves as an alternative to Abbas except Barghouti.”

Barghouti is a former Fatah member who gained a reputation for independence even when Arafat was in power. He has expressed support for both coexistence with Israel and armed resistance. Israel convicted Barghouti of murder and supporting terrorism in 2004.

Now Hamas is reportedly pressing to have Barghouti’s name on the list of prisoners that would be released in exchange for Israeli hostages under a deal being negotiated in Doha.

Israel frequently describes Barghouti as a top terrorist. But some Israeli security leaders, noting his popularity and record of support for a two-state solution, say the country should consider releasing Barghouti and negotiate with him.

“Look into the Palestinian polls,” Ami Ayalon, former head of the Shin Bet security service, told the Guardian in January. “He is the only leader who can lead Palestinians to a state alongside Israel.”

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Barghouti’s son and spokesman, Arab Barghouti, declined to comment on any future leadership role for his father, saying he preferred not to speculate with hostage negotiations ongoing.

Barghouti has stayed in the public eye, speaking through relatives and writing letters and op-eds. In 2021, when Abbas announced plans for an election, Barghouti mounted a credible challenge to the president from his prison cell. Abbas later canceled the election.

“He is popular, no doubt about it,” said Buttu. “But can he govern? That we don’t know.”

If Barghouti or any other candidate is unable is able to step into Abbas’s shoes, the idea of a revitalized Palestinian Authority may be doomed from the start, according to analysts. Palestinians would view reform without a change at the top “as a cruel joke,” Shikaki said.

Kidwa, Arafat’s nephew who is regularly in touch with Western officials on planning for the new-look authority, said efforts are underway to persuade Abbas to become “a ceremonial president,” eventually allowing him a face-saving exit.

Abbas’s office declined a request for comment.

One Western diplomat said other parties could ensure Abbas a pleasant post-presidential berth in Qatar or other Arab states, where past leaders have eased out of public life.

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“Doha has provided comfortable retirements to a bunch of people, and has the financial ability to cushion their landings,” said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues.

So far, the diplomat said, Abbas has refused to cede any ground to his rivals.

Source: Washington Post

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