The UAE’s Invisible Palestinian Hand

Foreign Policy, 30.10.2020
Jonathan H. Ferziger, academico (Atlantic Council) basado en Jerusalen y ex corresponsal (Bloomberg News)
An exiled foe of Mahmoud Abbas helped engineer the Arab peace deals with Israel that are infuriating the aging Palestinian president

Mohammed Dahlan, a former Fatah security chief, in his office in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Reuters)

Mohammed Dahlan looked like a disgraced has-been in 2011. That’s when Palestinian police ransacked his Ramallah home and sent the former Fatah security chief, who had emerged as a rival to Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, scrambling across the Jordan River to take refuge in Abu Dhabi. Still in exile in the United Arab Emirates, Dahlan has finally found an opportunity for sweet revenge. In a new role as confidant of Persian Gulf leaders and regional strategic mastermind, Dahlan is helping to shape the Arab peace deals with Israel that are driving an aging Abbas berserk.

Over the past nine years, Dahlan has forged an unusually close relationship with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the iconoclastic ruler of the United Arab Emirates who gave Dahlan sanctuary when he fled from Abbas. Born in a Gaza refugee camp, Dahlan operates as an international envoy for his boundlessly wealthy patron, helping to arrange business and political deals from northern Africa to Eastern Europe. When the sun sets, Dahlan says, the two men take midnight joyrides in a fast car, singing favorite Arab tunes together as they cruise Abu Dhabi’s desert highways.

Their apparent friendship has made Dahlan an influential—if invisible—hand in crafting the Abraham Accords, the U.S.-brokered normalization agreements Israel signed last month with the UAE and Bahrain. He is considered a behind-the-scenes architect of the Emirati stance that offers effusive support for Palestinian statehood while squeezing the 84-year-old Abbas into embarrassing positions, such as when Abbas found himself forced to turn down two planeloads of COVID-19 medical supplies for predictable face-saving reasons—because the UAE delivered them through Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport. Abbas’s rejection of the aid in August and his furious denunciation of the peace deals as a “stab in the back” has alienated old allies across the region, including Saudi Arabia, the biggest and wealthiest Gulf nation.

Bin Zayed “would not do anything vis-à-vis the Palestinians without consulting with Dahlan,” Bishara A. Bahbah, a Palestinian academic and Abbas critic who co-writes opinion columns with U.S. President Donald Trump’s former Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, told me. “He is crucial.” A UAE official declined to discuss Dahlan’s relationship with the prince.

After a rollercoaster career in Palestinian politics—once courted in Washington as a potential successor to former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, later purged from the West Bank as a corrupt usurper—Dahlan has learned to play the long game to get to the top. Born in the Khan Yunis refugee camp, an overpopulated, fetid patch of the tiny Gaza Strip, Dahlan came of age as one of the young leaders of the 1987 Palestinian uprising against Israel known as the intifada, learning Hebrew during multiple terms in Israeli prisons. Eventually deported, Dahlan gained Arafat’s trust as a key aide when the Palestine Liberation Organization was based in Tunis. Upon their return in 1993 with the Oslo peace accords, Dahlan led the ruling secular Fatah party in Gaza and commanded security operations there, turning into Arafat’s ruthless enforcer against opposition from the Islamist movement Hamas.

But while climbing the Palestinian Authority’s ranks after Arafat’s death in 2004, Dahlan continuously clashed with Abbas, who saw him as an ambitious competitor who needed to be kept on a leash. Dahlan took the blame in 2007 for failing to extinguish the violent rebellion in which Hamas took over Gaza. He and Abbas have been hurling charges of corruption at each other for years, inflaming their mutual antipathy. In the end, Dahlan’s popularity on the street was no protection against a police and criminal justice system controlled by Abbas, giving Dahlan little choice but exile. In 2014, a Palestinian court convicted Dahlan in absentia of “defaming Abbas” and sentenced him to two years in prison. A year later, he was sentenced to an additional three years for embezzlement.

The 59-year-old Dahlan is the ultimate Palestinian comeback kid—often down but never out. Once branded a terrorist by Israel, he went on to become a central player in negotiating the Oslo peace agreements. One U.S. administration after another seems to fall in love with him, starting with former President Bill Clinton’s White House, followed by President George W. Bush and now Trump. In Gaza, Dahlan is able to play all sides, having grown up on the same trash-filled streets as Hamas leader Yahia Sinwar. While Dahlan was despised by the Islamists when he ruled the territory and humiliated their uncooperative leaders by rounding them up to shave their beards and eyebrows, he now works with them as part of the Palestinian political opposition to Abbas. Dahlan, who communicates sparingly on Twitter, has not been seen since 2011 within the boundaries of the West Bank and Gaza, but his wife Jalila has built support for him through periodic charitable visits to Gaza, including the staging of mass weddings for brides and grooms too poor to afford one. Though he remains a dark horse, he is among a handful of candidates who consistently show up in political polling to succeed Abbas, who is a heavy smoker with a history of cardiac trouble.

I met Dahlan on the night before the July 28, 2011 police raid on his home in Ramallah, and was introduced to his wily magic. While he almost never gives interviews to Western journalists, I was invited as a Bloomberg News reporter to meet him, along with a Palestinian fellow reporter. We waited for almost an hour before the retired warlord greeted us in his living room wearing a satiny smoking jacket and slippers. Smiling tiredly under his jet-black hair, Dahlan said he would have to cancel the planned formal interview because the time wasn’t right, but he’d be happy to chat off the record. Then he sat down beside me on the sofa, casually admired my iPhone, and leafed through the apps until he found the recorder, which he closed. Dahlan was unsparing in his disparagement of Abbas and said he hoped to unseat him one day in elections. Apologizing for the confusion, he bid us goodbye and promised a future opportunity to talk.
The next morning, I woke up to a radio report that Dahlan had disappeared as scores of Palestinian commandos were sweeping through his house. They arrested 10 of his personal bodyguards and hauled away a large cache of weapons and ammunition from the basement. As a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Dahlan carried immunity from arrest, but by the next day he was reported to have left the West Bank and crossed into neighboring Jordan.

It took another four years before we picked up the conversation, this time for a Bloomberg  interview at his sprawling new home in Abu Dhabi. Looking trim in a black Boss designer T-shirt and blue jeans, Dahlan offered heaping platters of dates and chocolate bonbons as we spoke in his marble-floored living room. The airy villa within sight of Abu Dhabi’s soaring skyscrapers had become known as an international salon, where both Palestinian and Israeli politicians mingled. By that time, Dahlan had become increasingly engaged in business interests, describing himself as a “door opener” for clients because of the broad range of international contacts he developed while circling the globe with Arafat. Besides Bin Zayed, Dahlan was also on close terms with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who consulted with him on how to confront radical Islamic movements, and the leaders of Serbia and Montenegro. After wealthy Emiratis rescued Air Serbia in 2013 and invested in a $3 billion real estate development on the Belgrade waterfront, Dahlan and his family were given Serbian citizenship.

This time, Dahlan spoke on the record but in riddles, employing the sort of rhetorical vagueness for which his mentor Arafat was famous. Rather than declare that he would compete for the Palestinian Authority presidency, Dahlan said only that he would seek reelection to parliament and that he would bring what he called a “value-added” component to the leadership team after Abbas leaves the stage. Above all, he expressed gratitude for the life he was able to rebuild in Abu Dhabi and fondness for the moonlight drives with the crown prince.

Of course, when you’re dealing with Dahlan, who declined to be interviewed this time, it’s hard to take things at face value. He’s flypaper for conspiracy theorists, who have accused him of having poisoned Arafat. He’s also been accused of helping Israel’s Mossad kill a Hamas operative in Dubai, and there are published rumors (which Dahlan has denied) that he was actually on board one of the flights bringing UAE aid to the Palestinians that was rejected by Abbas. While he appears to be influential in advising the UAE on how to handle the Palestinian leadership, his own political star currently seems dim. His faction within Fatah, the Democratic Reform Current, issued a statement rejecting the Abraham Accords, according to spokesman Dimitri Diliani. Any normalization with Israel must take place in the framework of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which was first introduced by Saudi Arabia and requires that Israel surrender all occupied territory before the conflict can be resolved, he said. That may have something to do with the fact that many of Dahlan’s associates across the West Bank were arrested by Abbas’s forces last month following the UAE deal, and his faction’s need to position itself within a Palestinian consensus hostile to Israel. His and Bin Zayed’s portraits were burned and stepped on in street protests against the UAE’s normalization deal with Israel.

For the moment, Dahlan lives in the shadows, feathering his nest in Abu Dhabi with business connections, dipping a toe or two into the Abbas succession drama, and lending advice to his Emirati friends on dealing with the Palestinians. Much depends on whether Trump wins another term or Democratic candidate Joe Biden comes to the White House with a more multilateral approach. The question for Dahlan—and for the region—is whether he can get past revenge games with his old rivals and play a creative role in bringing the woebegone Palestinians into a rapidly transforming Middle East.

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