Israel’s newly elected coalition government views the Palestinians as weak and divided, claiming there is no one that represents both Gaza and the West Bank to negotiate with. This plays to Netanyahu’s advantage as a stalled peace makes the emergence of a fully-fledged Palestinian state unlikely, soothing the right-wing members of his coalition and allowing a seemingly favorable status quo. Although the Obama administration hoped to work with a Labor-led administration to change the status of the peace talks, Netanyahu continues to have the popular mandate to lead negotiations on Israel’s behalf.
With what is arguably the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, Netanyahu is justifiably regarded as more than likely to have an exceedingly hardline approach to any potential negotiations. However he has, for the first time ever, been making positive noises about the Arab Plan for a comprehensive peace process between Israel and the Arab World. Israel seems, quietly and cautiously, to be backing a change in Palestinian leadership so that a peace process can again be contemplated.
Meanwhile, although the Government of Palestine cites Israel’s continued illegal settlement building on the West Bank as the reason they themselves have also stalled the peace talks, they have yet to figure out a new strategy for securing Palestinian statehood.
In some respects, Netanyahu’s comments are accurate. Mahmoud Abbas has been leading negotiations for the Palestinians for over twenty years. An eighty-year-old veteran of peace talks, he faces more factionalism and infighting than ever before. The ill-fated unity government between Hamas and Fatah before the 2014 Gaza war quickly dissipated after both sides accused each of other of collusion with Israel. Hostility and disunity continues to plague relations between the West Bank and Gaza.
Similarly, faction building within Ramallah itself delegitimizes Abbas’s leadership and plays to Netanyahu’s complaints about the Palestinians. So whilst Netanyahu’s administration is secure with a fresh mandate, any hope of revitalizing the peace process must come from a new Palestinian approach, starting with a new leadership.
The Palestinian presidential elections have been long overdue with no clear timetable for a new leadership cycle. However, the search for a successor to Abbas is well underway. A contender that may play an important role in bringing about peace talks is Mohammed Dahlan (below), a 53-year old former Fatah official.
A native of Gaza, he started off his career as Chief of Preventative Security in the territory. As a hardliner, he detained and used brute force against supporters of the newly founded militant Hamas organization in the 1990s. Much of his personal support from the West grew out of his ruthless approach and the establishment of a 20,000 strong security force in Gaza. His political aspirations grew when he was appointed by Abbas to head the Palestinian National Security Council, overseeing all the security forces in the Palestinian territories. Hamas objected to this appointment and eventually in July 2007 took over the Gaza strip entirely, forcing Dahlan to resign.
On his return to the West Bank, he attempted to become the deputy Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority and some Fatah officials believed that he was positioning himself to succeed Abbas. His eagerness for the top job led to his dismissal and exile from the party in 2011. Kicked out officially due to corruption allegations and defamation, he currently enjoys a comfortable life in the UAE, whilst maintaining links with several old Fatah members in Palestine and Egypt.
The potential for Hamas electoral success in the West Bank is what has primarily led Abbas to withhold a green light for any new Presidential elections. Another factor is the rise in Dahlan’s popularity within Gaza. This is in part because of his perceived links to the ‘Khalifa Foundation’, an Emirati charity working in Gaza, which recently sponsored a massive wedding party for 400 couples and provides funding for new housing and compensation for combatant’s families. Interestingly, Hamas officials have allowed Dahlan-associated events to continue unhindered and indeed Gazi Hamad, a Hamas spokesman, and Ahmed Yousef, the head of a Hamas think-tank, have recently taken part in iftar meals hosted by the Emirati charity. Furthermore, Dahlan has close connections to Hamas in Egypt and is active in that country with several foundations. Moreover, Dahlan has facilitated frequent openings of the Rafah crossing to Gaza. He is also credited with assisting the passageway of 40,000 tons of Egyptian cement into Gaza last week and a further 17,000 in recent days, suggesting his willingness to rebuild and gain favor within the war-torn strip.
Although Dahlan has firm connections within Gaza, the dynamic differs in the West Bank. A source close to the NCF Gaza office has said that Abbas is now fighting Salam Fayyad, the former Prime Minister of the Palestinian National Authority, a figure allied with Dahlan in the West Bank. An indication of this simmering rivalry was the recent freezing of bank accounts linked to Fayyad’s foundation by the Attorney General. There are also suggestions that Dahlan is in close communication with the imprisoned Marwan Barghouti, a popular Palestinian figure that exerts great influence in the Fatah movement from within prison.
Likewise, Dahlan has proven his international credibility. He has close ties to Israel and favorable opinion in numerous Western foreign ministries. Moreover, he has experience as a mediator between Hamas and various countries such as with Turkey and even Israel. Indeed, just last week he facilitated indirect talks between Hamas and Israel. His skillfulness in mediating on behalf of Palestinian interests can prove useful if he were to lead negotiations.
All in all, Fayad’s disloyalty to Abbas and the continuing Fatah-Hamas split indicate that the presidential elections cannot be infinitely postponed. These tensions and his experience may create the perfect opportunity for Dahlan to return to Palestinian politics and, as many Gazans believe, end the eight years of the Israeli-Egyptian siege.
Although Dahlan has been tightening his grip within Gaza and the West Bank, his ascension to power is still not guaranteed. The chances of him taking leadership depend on many factors outside of his control, such as the death of Abbas and if Jordan or Israel decides to resolve the Gaza problem, which would significantly enhance his chances. In the current climate this seems a distant possibility.
Despite formerly being seen as the first enemy of Gaza, Dahlan is making a remarkable political comeback and, if elected, may kick-start the peace process once again.
This article by Jakob Muratov, was originally published as a Next Century Foundation blog