Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas went to the United Nations last month and brought his people one step closer to statehood. But amid all the fanfare, Western diplomats quietly conceded that the General Assembly vote to upgrade the Palestinians' U.N. mission was not simply a step taken to advance their national project. It also reflected a desire to counter Hamas's growing influence, particularly after the Gaza-based terrorist group claimed victory in its war with Israel in November.
In the overwhelming vote (138 to 9) to confer nonmember observer status on the Palestinians, the international community may have outsmarted itself. Abbas's next steps are entirely unclear -- he has threatened to pursue membership in the International Criminal Court, which he could then use as a bludgeon against Israel, but that tactic could take years to bear fruit.
The aging Abbas, however, may not have years. The Palestinian leader is 77 years old, a heavy smoker, and an incessant traveler. He reportedly underwent treatment for prostate cancer a decade ago, and in 2010 he was admitted six times to a Jordanian hospital for unspecified health reasons. In short, he's not a picture of perfect fitness. This raises the inconvenient question: Who will follow in his footsteps?
Right now, the answer is Hamas. According to Palestinian Basic Law, Article 37, if the presidency of the Palestinian Authority becomes vacant "the Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council shall temporarily assume the powers and duties of the Presidency of the National Authority for a period not to exceed sixty (60) days, during which free and direct elections to elect a new President shall take place."
As it turns out, the current speaker is none other than Aziz Dweik. In January 2006, the last time Palestinians held legislative elections, Dweik ran and won on Hamas's Change and Reform list. When Hamas emerged with a majority after that vote, he was sworn in as speaker.
Who is this leader waiting in the wings? He has spent two decades being pursued by Israel. In 1992, Dweik was one of 415 Hamas members exiled to Lebanon by Israel for their involvement in the nascent terrorist group. Following the 2006 kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, the Israelis arrested him for being a member of Hamas. In June 2009, Dweik was released from prison, but was rearrested this January for "involvement in terrorist activities." He was released again, only months ago, in July.
Of course, Dweik isn't a shoo-in. Succession does not always proceed according to law, and the PLO could still appoint someone from its own ranks if Abbas could no longer lead that body. However, a power struggle is a recipe for another ugly clash between the PLO and Hamas -- perhaps a reprise of the bloody 2007 civil war, in which Hamas seized the Gaza Strip. And right now, Abbas's health and political fortunes are the only things standing in the way of this chaotic scenario.
Abbas's political standing could be just as disconcerting as his advancing age. Since Hamas drubbed Abbas's secular Fatah party in the 2006 election and pushed his security forces out of Gaza in 2007, Abbas has leaned heavily on the United States and Israel for military, intelligence, and financial assistance to maintain his tenuous grip on the West Bank. His government, meanwhile, has become ossified, eroding his support among many West Bankers.
In September, frustration boiled over when the Palestinian Authority's (PA) coffers began to dry up and government workers' salaries went unpaid, prompting thousands of Palestinians to pour into the streets. The demonstrations raised troubling questions about whether the PA might soon collapse. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's recent threats to withhold PA tax revenues for several months have only revived those concerns.
Abbas continues to hang on, but he still doesn't seem to stand for anything other than the perpetuation of his own rule. He has failed to deliver peace, yet will not engage in violence against Israel. This "neither here nor there" approach explains why he was basically irrelevant during the most recent round of fighting between Israel and Hamas.
The question of who might succeed Abbas is not a new one. According to a leaked U.S. State Department cable, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat warned Americans as far back as 2006 that a "political vacuum" would elevate Dweik to the role of president. Other Palestinian insiders have also quietly expressed concerns about the Palestinian Authority's succession plan.
Abbas, however, refuses to name a successor. Taking a page from deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, his old ally, he has no vice president and no heir apparent. Instead, he has led campaigns to weaken potential challengers. Mohammed Dahlan, the popular strongman of Gaza under the late Yasir Arafat, has endured particularly nasty treatment from Abbas, who has made moves to freeze his assets abroad.
This October's municipal elections in the West Bank brought a handful of renegade Fatah leaders into office. This new crop of relatively unknown secularists may yet represent the future of the Palestinians. Ghassan Shakaa, for example, garnered attention in the New York Times as a leading figure "among dozens of Fatah activists ousted from the party [in October] because they had decided to run independently." But rather than embracing political diversity, Abbas has reportedly isolated these figures -- most recently refusing them a role in the festivities after the Palestinians earned their upgrade at the United Nations.
Abbas's potential challengers cannot carve out a niche for themselves at the ballot box either. Owing to the bitter rift between Hamas and Fatah, Abbas refuses to hold new national elections. And Washington -- fearful that Hamas might win again at the polls -- has his back on this.
In other words, Abbas has solidified his position as the unquestioned leader of the Palestinians, and he will continue in that position either until a time of his own choosing or until his demise.
To put it mildly, this is not a viable strategy for maintaining a partner for peace in the West Bank. Nor is supporting a bureaucratic maneuver at the United Nations, which merely granted Abbas a temporary boost in approval. Such moves, in fact, only exacerbate the brewing Palestinian succession crisis because they bolster the current leadership without pushing for much-needed reform.
If the international community is serious about Palestinian statehood, it should start thinking about who is next in line to govern the Palestinian people and how to forge the infrastructure needed to ensure good governance. More importantly, it should demand that Abbas take steps to ensure that legitimate contenders have the opportunities to ensure their political voices are heard.