Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas speaks during a meeting of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank city of Ramallah on September 25, 2017. Photo: Abbas Momani / AFP

The Palestinian Authority (PA) government resigned on Tuesday. The immediate pretext was its inability to sell an unpopular social security law. Ramallah had levied new taxes to finance pension benefits and faced widespread demonstrations.

However, the deeper problem is that the government suffers from a lack of legitimacy. It enjoys the confidence of neither Fatah nor Hamas and has been plagued by corruption. The resignation was accepted a few hours later by President Mahmoud Abbas. The lame duck cabinet will remain in place until a new government is formed.

The resignation brings the two major political crises plaguing Palestine at this time into stark relief. Namely, the failure of Fatah and Hamas to achieve reconciliation and uncertainty over presidential succession.

The government consisted of technocrats serving largely at the behest of Abbas. This group of businessmen, lawyers and academics were appointed in 2014 to facilitate the transition to a national unity government. It was named the Palestinian National Consensus Government because it was established through a negotiated process between Fatah and Hamas.

Almost five years later, there is little to show for these efforts. Due to their inability to agree on terms, no elections have been held since 2006 – the year Hamas swept to power. The failure of reconciliation attempts has led Fatah members to undermine the government. The nationalist party announced it had formed a special committee to negotiate with various other groups within the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) over the formation of a new government.

Hamas, the Islamist party that administers the Gaza Strip, was not invited to participate. Hamas has been unhappy with the technocratic government as well. An attempt was made on Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah’s life during one of his few visits to Gaza. Even so, Hamas was incensed by the resignation of the cabinet and criticized Abbas for allegedly undermining reconciliation efforts.

Fatah seeks domination

Azzam al-Ahmed, a Fatah official considered highly likely to participate in the new government, blamed Hamas for undermining the Consensus Government and torpedoing reconciliation. In order to defend the PA from the intervention of Hamas, he stated that ”there’s a need for a new government with a political coloring. That’s why we invited PLO factions to join the new government. We’re not chasing after anyone. If anyone wishes to join the government, they are welcome.”

However, the involvement of other parties within the PLO umbrella organization is merely a cover for what will surely be a Fatah-dominated government. The other PLO groups are well aware of this. The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, for example, refused to participate. Its official statement said, “We believe that the formation of a factional government is not one of the priorities of the Palestinian cause.” The “destructive split [between the West Bank and Gaza Strip] has brought disasters upon the Palestinian cause,” it added.

The campaign to appoint a Fatah-dominated cabinet is primarily motivated by the battle for presidential succession

The campaign to appoint a Fatah-dominated cabinet is primarily motivated by the battle for presidential succession. While the PA has tried to suppress reports of the deterioration of the 83-year-old premier’s health, persistent reports of hospitalizations and serious memory loss have surfaced. Abbas is deeply unpopular due to his inability to achieve reconciliation with Hamas or advance talks with Israel. In addition, the PA has become increasingly isolated diplomatically as its relations with both the Trump administration and the Sunni Arab states have soured.

The president has expressed a desire to retire. However, if he does so before succession has been established, chaos may ensue. This complicates the process of establishing a new government since appointment to the cabinet, particularly the role of prime minister, is seen as a stepping stone to the presidency.

Contenders for the presidency

There have been reports that the president hopes either security chief Majed Faraj or Fatah Vice President Mahmoud al-Aloul will lead Fatah and attain the presidency. Both are believed to support the current pursuit of diplomatic rather than violent forms of resistance to Israel.

Whoever Abbas decides to promote will face challenges from his sworn rivals. Perhaps the most well known among them is Marwan Barghouti. The former paramilitary leader currently languishes in an Israeli jail. Barghouti enjoys immense public popularity as he has been unsullied by recent political machinations.

Another rival of the president, Mohammad Dahlan, has been exiled to the United Arab Emirates. The former leader of Fatah in Gaza was charged in absentia for his alleged role in a coup attempt several years ago. Dahlan is close to Hamas and considered a strong supporter of reconciliation. The exiled leader has also established strong relations with several influential Sunni Arab states over the last few years and could significantly improve the diplomatic standing of the PA in the Middle East.

Other candidates include Jibril Rajoub, the former head of the PA’s Security Services, and Tawfik Tirawi, the former head of the Palestinian General Intelligence Service in the West Bank. Finally, US-based Palestinian pharma billionaire Adnan Mjalli has explored the possibility of running for president. However, the reform-oriented candidate has already suffered an assassination attempt, allegedly at the direction of President Abbas. This may have dampened his ardor to pursue a political career.

None of this bodes well for the stability of the future government. The ailing and unpopular Abbas will be unable to protect it from the byzantine intrigues of claimants to the throne. The Palestinian Authority has already been weakened by corruption, continued Israeli occupation, the failure to reconcile with Hamas, and increased international marginalization. Will it be able to withstand a bloody battle of succession?

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