Is Abbas Rival Mohammed Dahlan Plotting a Comeback, With the UAE’s Help?

World Politics Review, 24.09.2020
Frida Ghitis, columnista en asuntos internacionales

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, and then-Fatah official Mohammed Dahlan in the West Bank town of Ramallah. (AP/Kevin Frayer)

After the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain broke with most Arab countries and established diplomatic relations with Israel, there are already signs of growing tensions in the Palestinian territories. Mahmoud Abbas, the longtime president of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, is apparently trying to foreclose a potential challenge to his leadership from an old rival. Forces loyal to Abbas have been rounding up supporters of Mohammed Dahlan, once a powerful player in Abbas’ ruling Fatah party, who is now living in exile in the UAE. He and Abbas had a dramatic falling out nearly a decade ago.

According to the Democratic Reform Current, a faction within Fatah that is loyal to Dahlan, in recent days security forces have detained dozens of its members across the West Bank, from Jericho to Ramallah. The Palestinian Authority would not comment on them, but the arrests are the most tangible development in the swirl of intrigue that followed the August announcement that the UAE and Israel would bring their ties out into the open. Their agreement, along with Bahrain’s, dealt a crushing blow to the Palestinian strategy of relying on support from Arab states to deny Israel normalization until the conflict with the Palestinians is resolved.

While the Arab League failed to condemn the trilateral Abraham Accords, as they were named by the Trump administration, Palestinians decried it all as a betrayal, primarily by the UAE. For Hamas, Fatah’s bitter rival, it was proof that Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority and has limited rule over the West Bank, is wrong in holding out for a negotiated solution with Israel. But the more intriguing reverberations have played out within Fatah, and they have centered on the possible role of Dahlan before and after the agreement was inked.

Dahlan has always been an operator in the byzantine world of intra-Arab and intra-Palestinian politics. He was outplayed by Abbas, who emerged as Fatah’s leader following the 2004 death of Yasser Arafat, but he maintains a strong base of support in Gaza, where he was born, and where many Palestinians who despise the Islamist rule of Hamas remain loyal to him.

Dahlan was head of internal security in Gaza in 2007 when Fatah and Hamas clashed violently following parliamentary elections that Hamas won. When Hamas seized control of the strip, he relocated to the West Bank. But tensions with Abbas ultimately led to his expulsion from the party. He fled to Abu Dhabi in 2011, and in 2016 was tried in absentia and sentenced to prison for corruption.

In the UAE, Dahlan has grown close to the ruling family and fostered relationships with other powerful players, including Egypt. He is said to be a close adviser to the architect of Emirati foreign policy, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, particularly on Palestinian issues.

The moment the UAE-Israel deal was made public, Palestinians blamed Dahlan. But while Palestinian leaders decried the deal, Dahlan’s faction within Fatah issued a carefully worded statement, recognizing the UAE’s support for “our struggle to achieve freedom” and hoping that “the Emirates always respects Palestinian interests and employs all its relationships in the framework of a strategy which aims to end the occupation.”

Dahlan denied he had any part in the Emirati deal with Israel, but the rumor quickly spread across the region that with its new influence, Abu Dhabi had a plan to help Dahlan take power. The rumor got a huge boost when a popular Israeli newspaper published, and later retracted, a story claiming that the U.S. ambassador in Israel, David Friedman, had said Dahlan would be appointed as the next Palestinian leader.

The new reality in the region, as I wrote last week, means that Palestinians have to go back to the drawing board to devise a new strategy. But there’s more. Abbas, known also as Abu Mazen, is 84 years-old and suffers from heart trouble. There is no clear successor. The growing pressure on Palestinians stems not only from the new diplomatic realities but from a lingering question that the Palestinian Authority has left unanswered for too long: Who will succeed Abbas?

The coronavirus pandemic has raised the profile of Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, an economist, as a possible successor. But Shtayyeh was appointed by Abbas, not elected, and the depth of his popular support is unclear. A perennially popular figure among Palestinians is Marwan Barghouti, of Fatah’s militant Tanzim faction. But he is currently serving time in an Israeli prison after being convicted of murder during the Second Intifada. Then there are Hamas leaders, such as Ismail Haniyeh, who also have large followings. The possibility of open elections has been forestalled for a number of reasons, not least of which is Fatah’s fear that Hamas would win again, as they did in the fateful 2006 elections. Abbas was elected president in 2005 to a four-year term but still remains in office.

Then there’s Dahlan, whose name is often mentioned as a successor to Abbas, and who always seem to be plotting a comeback. Dahlan remains in exile, banished from Fatah, and faces a three-year prison sentence and a $16 million fine after being convicted of embezzlement by a Palestinian court in 2016. His return to power would require more than open elections.

But the UAE’s assertive new foreign policy shows it is willing to carve a new path in the region, so it would be naive to dismiss the Dahlan rumors out of hand. The extent of Dahlan’s support among Palestinians is unknown, but the backing of Abu Dhabi could bolster his chances, considering the prospect of vast Emirati coffers coming to the aid of the wilting Palestinian economy.

The controversial Palestinian player, known for machinations and intrigue, is becoming a figure on the regional level as well. Turkey, which sides strongly with Hamas, accused Dahlan of participating in the failed 2016 coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He is on a list of Turkey’s most wanted terrorism suspects, with a $1.75 million bounty on his head. Erdogan, whose Justice and Development Party has sided with other Islamist parties in the region, is sharply at odds with the UAE, and calls Dahlan a mercenary for Abu Dhabi.

Suddenly, this exiled Palestinian—who speaks Hebrew fluently, moves easily among Gulf royalty, and once had close ties with Washington—is on everyone’s mind. Whether or not Dahlan will make a push for power, the Gulf normalization deals have set many things in motion. That is making a lot of people nervous, not least among them Mahmoud Abbas.

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